I am nine years old. I am visiting with my friend Becca. She wants to show me a new toy, something “very special.” I am gleeful; Becca always has the best toys—and the most of them. As it seems she almost has the best toys like those featured on toy review sites like https://www.top9rated.com. She has a herd of My Little Ponies, an army of She-Ra Princess of Power action figures, and a harem of Barbies, all of whom reside mainly on the floor rather than in their palatial stables, castles and dream houses.
Standing among these fallen toys, I am surprised at the care Becca takes in opening the box that holds her most recent acquisition. I am more impressed than I have ever been. It, or rather, she is Samantha Parkington, a member of the American Girls Collection, a popular line of dolls which represent different historical periods. I love her at first sight. She is substantial without being chubby. She has dark brown eyes, long brown hair and thick bangs. Her smile gives the impression that she is happy but not complacent. In a world of fair-haired dolls, I have finally found one that looks like me. I go home to show my parents the American Girls Catalogue, which Becca has given me.
My mother and father exchange a look. They comment: “Eighty-two dollars is an awful lot for a doll.” I don’t have the words or the concepts to explain to them that this is not another soul-less Barbie. Samantha is my alter ego.
I save the money to buy Samantha, carefully hoarding it in my pink plastic safe. One long-awaited afternoon, she arrives wearing what the catalogue describes as a “taffeta dress with a fashionable pleated front and a dropped waist circled in burgundy satin.”
I make Samantha’s life match my own. When I have to get glasses, I order her a pair. Although I can’t afford all of her advertised possessions, I provide for her nonetheless. In lieu of the steamer trunk ($175), I make her a walk-in closet with a cardboard box, pipe cleaners and oak-colored contact paper. I imagine that she understands everything I am feeling, that she is living out the same thing in a parallel doll world.
Despite my love for Samantha, there is one thing that alienates me. According to the catalogue, Samantha has “high hopes for the best Christmas ever.” My parents joke that the goyishe doll converted before coming to live with their daughter; I still feel uneasy. In my games, I can make my doll transcend time, but somehow it’s more difficult to escape the religious identity that The Pleasant Company stamped onto her. In a place where I am often the only Jewish kid in the class, where a nativity scene is set up every winter on public grounds in the center of town, and where Yom Kippur isn’t officially recognized by the public schools until 1991, I cling fearfully to my Jewish identity. I cannot bear to see my other self-succumb to assimilation. I refuse to buy the Christmas gifts or anything else featured on the “Christmas Story” page. My Samantha wears a home-made tin-foil Star of David and has a notebook in which the aleph-bet is written. I designate the “Tea Dress” as her “Shul Dress.” I even manage to make a shoebox sukkah. Taking Samantha and making her my own represented my first steps toward becoming comfortable as a Jew in a Christian world.
Nowadays when I flip through the American Girl Catalogue, I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. The Pleasant Company bills its American Girls Collection as a way to give girls “an understanding of American history and foster pride in the traditions of growing up female in America.” In addition to their purchases, parents can also bring their daughters to American Girl Place, in Chicago, to browse the American Girls bookstore, shop at boutiques stocked with clothing for the dolls and their owners, visit the photo studio to create a personalized souvenir issue of American Girl Magazine, eat the same foods the American Girl characters might have eaten at the American Girl Café, and attend a showing of the musical, The American Girls Revue. Parents can shell out extra money to go to American Girl museums and tours: Felicity at Williamsburg (Virginia), Kirsten at Gammelgarden (Scandia, Minnesota), Samantha at Greenfield Village (Dearborn, Michigan) and so on. The cost of the Williamsburg day tour is $70 dollars for an adult, $55 dollars for a child. Type the words “American Girl Doll” into an Internet search engine. You’ll find web pages by girls as young as seven.
This entire culture is based on six dolls: Felicity Merrimam, a colonial girl of 1774; Josefina Montoya, a Hispanic girl living in New Mexico in 1824; Kirsten Larson, a Swedish pioneer girl of 1854; Addy Walker, a black girl determined to be free in 1864; Samantha Parkington, a Victorian girl of 1904; and Molly Mclntire, a girl being raised on the home front in 1944. For each of the dolls, there are six stories, outfits and accessory sets that focus on family, school, birthday, summer, winter and Christmas.
Yes, that’s right, Christmas. The line of books and dolls whose purpose is to allow young girls “to compare and contrast” their “typical childhood experiences” with those of the historical characters features only Christian protagonists. Not only does the collection not include any Jewish dolls, the stories have nary a Jewish character.
Yet, there are plenty of opportunities to introduce a Jewish persona. The introductory story for Samantha takes place in 1904, at the height of Jewish migration from Eastern Europe to America. Samantha makes the acquaintance of Nellie, a servant girl who comes to live with the neighboring family. Nellie tells Samantha that “in the factory I had to work every day but Sunday, until dark. And the air was so hot and dusty I started coughing a lot.” Nellie’s experience is parallel to what Eastern European immigrant Rose Cohen describes in her autobiography Out of the Shadow: A Girlhood on the Lower East Side. With a couple of sentences, the author could have created a book that would have acknowledged something other than Christian American history.
In Happy Birthday Molly, Molly meets a refugee from World War Two, an English girl who lost her dog in a bombing rather than a Jewish girl who lost her family. Jewish history is not simply ignored—it is avoided. Each book concludes with a historical “Peek into the Past,” a nonfiction picture essay. In Molly’s books, the only mention of the Holocaust reads: “Millions died in concentration camps.” That’s it. Not millions of Jews, Gypsies and homosexuals. Just faceless, raceless, religionless millions.
The only Jewish presence in any Pleasant Company products is a “Hanukkah Outfit” and “Hanukkah Gifts”—part of The American Girl Today Collection, a line of contemporary dolls and clothes.
This year as an intern for LILITH Magazine, I called Julie Parks, director of Public Relations at The Pleasant Company, for her comments on these issues. Two new dolls are coming out in 2000 and 2003, Parks told me, but she could not discuss the identities of the new dolls. The Pleasant Company, she said, “wants the collection to represent many eras and many different cultures.” As for a Jewish doll, Parks said, “I’m not saying the company couldn’t do a Jewish doll, but I’m not saying it will.”
When I brought up the absence of Jewish characters. Parks explained that the books are “not that specific. We chose certain periods, but we couldn’t do it all.” At this point, I felt obligated to point out that significant events in Jewish history happened in each period chosen by The Pleasant Company. Parks agreed that “many things were going on in those periods.” And why is it that all each character they chose happens to celebrate Christmas? Because, “Each historical character has a holiday story that represents the culture. It wouldn’t make sense to have Josefina [the Hispanic doll] celebrate Hanukkah because it’s not part of her culture. One character can’t be emblematic of all cultures.” A clean sidestep that keeps Jewish history out the books and away from the dolls.
Parks seemed to become defensive when I brought up the Holocaust void. “We never made any claims we were teaching all of history,” she said. After speaking with Senior Editor Jody Evert, Parks called me back with a more diplomatic answer: “The Molly books are an American series based in 1943-45. They dealt with what was happening on the American home front. The Holocaust was not yet part of American consciousness. The Holocaust wasn’t something we deliberately tried to ignore.” (Parks also told me that a new series of books due out in September 1999 examines the time period of each character. In Welcome to Molly’s World—1944, there are four spreads on the Holocaust. I was very impressed with the subjects that were chosen and the way the author handled them.)
When The Pleasant Company develops dolls, the goal is to show a selected culture when it was “intact, strong and vibrant” and “affecting change in America.” Does that mean The Pleasant Company believes the height of black American culture is represented by a just-freed slave? What about the Harlem Renaissance? Will we ever see a Native American doll, or does the destruction of many Native American cultures contradict the company’s desire to “foster pride in the traditions of growing up … in America?” Do they believe that Christian culture alone “affected change in America”?
Perhaps it is unrealistic to expect The Pleasant Company to create a Jewish doll. However, in July 1998, Mattel acquired The Pleasant Company. Pleasant Rowland, founder and president of The Pleasant Company, became vice chairman of Mattel. Now that The Pleasant Company has the resources of Mattel, I would hope to see a Jewish doll or at least one doll that isn’t Christian. Here are a few suggestions: for admirable, realistic Jewish dolls:
Zipporah of 1495: She and her family are Spanish Crypto-Jews who converted to Christianity to escape persecution in Spain, yet secretly practice Judaism. Fleeing the Inquisition, Zipporah’s family sets sail for New Spain (Mexico), where Zipporah learns that although she has to disguise her Judaism, she can still be proud of it. Zipporah comes wearing her special Shabbat dress. Accessories include a mezuzah hidden in a statue of the Virgin Mary.
Rebecca of 1838: Rebecca lives in a time when American Jewish women are forming benevolent societies and getting involved in social causes. Rebecca attends the first Jewish Sunday School which Rebecca Gratz founded. Seeing how women are getting involved with American and Jewish causes makes Rebecca realize her own importance. Rebecca has ribbons to put in her curly brown hair and frilly petticoats to wear under her dresses. Her school set includes Jewish manuals sent to the school from England.
Rochel of 1909: Rochel and her family immigrate to America from Russia hoping for freedom from pogroms and for financial opportunity. Instead, they find the grueling labor of the sweatshops of New York and the tenements of the Lower East Side. Like many Jewish girls of her time, courageous Rochel joins a labor union and helps organize meetings and strikes. Auburn-haired Rochel comes with a sewing machine, a half-made shirtwaist, and a picketing sign that reads: “Abolish Slavery in the Garment Trades.”
Nu, I’d buy one of these dolls. Wouldn’t you?
Naomi Goodman is a sophomore at Brandeis University. She was an intern at LILITH this summer.