American Girl and The Passionate Torah: Two Sides of the Same Coin

Having recently interviewed Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg about her newly released The Passionate Torah: Sex and Judaism, I’ve got Jewish feminism on the brain. So when I came across an article about Rebecca Rubin, the 9-year-old daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants growing up on New York’s Lower East Side, I couldn’t help feeling intrigued. Rebecca is the newest addition to the American Girl arsenal.

After wising up to the feminist mommy boycott of Mattel’s bubble-headed, body-negative Barbie, the company created acquired American Girl, a series of dolls that aim to teach children about girls’ and women’s history in the United States through storybooks, as well as period clothing and accessories. Though the company has come under fire from groups for failing to make dolls that are culturally representative of the entire US population, as well as criticized for the toy’s outrageous price tag ($95 per doll!), many parents are supportive of the American Girl franchise; in fact, the company made $463 million last year from the sale of the dolls and their accessories. Parents like the educational aspect of the dolls, and the May 31st release of Rebecca brings the early 20th century Jewish experience into many modern American homes.

“The author realistically captures the Jewish immigrant experience as well as the conflict and complexity of living as a Jewish minority in a predominately Christian culture,” Orthodox feminist author Blu Greenberg told New American Media. “I simply cannot wait to read this to my grandchildren.”

Anti-Defamation League Director Abraham Foxman reported to the New York Times that the six-book series penned by author Jacqueline Dembar Greene is “not offensive. It’s sensitive.” This early praise is no doubt causing the company to breathe a sigh of relief as the initial media blitz over Rebecca winds down. However, there is the pesky issue about the doll sharing the name of a homegrown, FBI Wanted, so-called “eco-terrorist” that is dominating the headlines. I guess nine years of test marketing and historical research wasn’t far-reaching enough to uncover that tidbit.

Name gaff aside, Rebecca and The Passionate Torah have something in common: both seek to give voice to the ever-evolving Jewish American female experience. The doll constructs what it means to be a Jewish girl negotiating one’s religion and complex cultural identity while the book deconstructs and rebuilds a Jewish American feminism in the present. The intersection of pop culture and academic theory is a beautiful thing, y’all.

by Mandy Van Deven
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4 Comments Have Been Posted

In the interests of

In the interests of accuracy, it should be noted that Mattel most definitely did NOT create American Girl. The company started in 1986 as a mail-order outlet by a woman named Pleasant Rowland, who created the line when she couldn't find dolls she liked for her nieces. Her company became a subsidiary of Mattel in 1998. Mattel undoubtedly bought American Girl in part because of anti-Barbie sentiment, but let's give credit where it's due for AG's creation.

I'll second that!

<i>The intersection of pop culture and academic theory is a beautiful thing, y'all.</i>

Amen, sister. Great post!

I was about 21 when I found

I was about 21 when I found about these dolls. I wanted to buy one based on my skin tone and 'textured' hair. You know, just something to have in case I decide to procreate with the future husband and have a girl and have a dolly to pass on to her.
I showed my mother the catalog. She said 'why would you want to have an idol of you in the house?'
And I threw the catalog out.

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