jcover06.05.09
jcover06.05.09

Meet Rebecca: Shes young, Jewish and an all-American Girl

Amid stacks of notes, calendars and even a shofar, a set of Russian nesting dolls sits on Jacqueline Dembar Greene’s desk — for good luck.

The dolls have been there since 2000, when Greene first submitted her proposal for a series of books about a spirited girl living in New York City in 1914.

“I think they worked their magic,” Greene says from her home in Wayland, Mass., where she was packing her suitcase. At 5 the next morning, on May 29, she would be off on a whirlwind trip to New York to promote her new book — or, rather, books. Six of them, to be exact.

Greene is the author of the series of books about Rebecca Rubin, the newest addition to the American Girl lineup. Rebecca is 9 years old and an aspiring movie star. She helps her father in his store and her mother in the kitchen. She’s a whiz at crochet, and dreams of a day when she’s old enough for her sisters to take her seriously.

And, in a first for American Girl, Rebecca is Jewish — the American-born daughter of Russian immigrants, living on the Lower East Side in an apartment with her parents, grandparents and four siblings.

On May 31, Greene attended the launch of the Rebecca line at the American Girl store near New York City’s Rockefeller Center, an event attended by several hundred girls eager to get their hands on the new 18-inch-tall doll and her books. Similar events were held in American Girl stores across the country.

“I’m just so excited,” Greene says. “I’ve worked so hard on this and I’ve been waiting so long for it. I’m just delighted and thrilled.”

American Girl was launched in 1986 by Pleasant Company, founded by former educator Pleasant Rowland. It began with three dolls — Swedish pioneer Kirsten, Edwardian-era Samantha and World War II–era Molly — and their accompanying sets of books.

Over the years, more American Girls have been added to reflect different ethnicities and periods in American history. They include Kaya, a Nez Perce girl; colonial-era Felicity; Josefina, a Hispanic girl in 1800s New Mexico; Addy, an escaped slave; and Julie, a flower child living in 1970s San Francisco.

Each character has a series of six books that trace her life over the course of a year — going to school, having a birthday, making a new friend. The final book addresses some of the more serious “growing up” changes that are happening in each girl’s life.

The Wisconsin-based company also sells accessory sets that correspond with the dolls and their historical periods, such as outfits, period furniture and quilts.

The brand is immensely popular among young girls — more than 127 million American Girl books and 16 million dolls have been sold since 1986. There’s an American Girl Web site (AmericanGirl.com), a magazine, a series of movies and seven retail stores (the only West Coast location is in Los Angeles). In 1998, Pleasant Company was purchased by toy giant Mattel.

Rebecca is the 10th American Girl, wedged between 1904’s Samantha and Depression-era Kit. The character has been in the works for nine years — much longer than usual, says American Girl’s public relations director, Julie Parks.

Jacqueline Dembar Greene

The planning phase for Rebecca began in 2000, and American Girl intended to launch the doll in 2004. That ended up being the year that the company entered the movie industry, with TV movies about Samantha, Felicity and Molly, and a 2008 feature film about Kit. So Rebecca was sidelined — until recently.

Previously, the closest American Girl had come to a Jewish character was Lindsey Bergman, a doll with dark curly hair, released in 2001 as part of the “Girl of the Year” series. Lindsey had one book of her own, which had a subplot about her brother’s bar mitzvah, but she was only available for a year and wasn’t part of the core American Girl lineup.

Jewish girls (and their parents) wanted more.

“A Jewish American character was one of the top requests we were receiving from customers,” Parks says. “What’s really important to us is to choose a pivotal period in history that we want to share with girls. So in addition to [a Jewish doll] being a top request, we wanted to introduce girls to the American immigration experience.

“We wanted to show the significant impact of the contributions that Jewish immigrants made to the shaping of our country.”

Rebecca in her “movie dress”

The first step was to find a writer. The editorial team looked at several authors, Parks says, but Greene stood out for her background in writing for children and using Jewish themes. One of the editors was familiar with Greene’s children’s novel “Out of Many Waters,” about two girls hiding their Judaism during the Spanish Inquisition.

Greene was contacted by an American Girl editor in 2000 and asked to create a proposal for a series about a Jewish girl living in America sometime between 1880 and 1915.

“I immediately hit the library,” Greene says. She quickly learned that Russian Jews were the largest immigrant group to come to America in the early 1900s, and decided to set Rebecca’s story in 1914, “when many immigrants were already settled in new lives in America.”

For Jews of Eastern European descent — the majority of American Jews — Rebecca’s story is a familiar one. But not for Greene.

Growing up in the 1950s in Bloomfield, Conn., a suburb of Hartford, Greene was raised in the Sephardic tradition of her mother’s family, which was quite large and lived nearby. Her father’s family was Ashkenazi and of Russian ancestry, but his parents died young and his only sibling lived in Springfield, Mass.

So Greene’s family attended a Sephardic synagogue and followed Sephardic customs. “The Sephardic foods, those were the foods we ate. Everyone was speaking Ladino. I didn’t hear much at all about the Russian background when I was growing up,” she says.

Writing the Rebecca books allowed the author to connect to the other side of her heritage. She talked extensively with her father about his family’s history, and did an enormous amount of research on the Russian Jews who came to America at the turn of last century.

Greene is no stranger to research. She’s been writing historical fiction for decades, and has published several dozen books, most of which have some historical element.

She began her writing career in 1970 as a newspaper reporter, and worked as a journalist for nine years. In 1980 she self-published her first book, “Hanukkah Tooth,” about a boy who swallows his first loose tooth at a family Chanukah party.

She has since written a number of historical books — her latest, “The Secret Shofar of Barcelona,” will soon be released by Kar-Ben Publishing — as well as nonfiction, including a book about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire.

Though the American Girl books are short (each one is about 70 pages, with a few additional pages in the “Looking Back” epilogue, which gives the historical context for the events in the book), each requires meticulous research. Greene notes that when she was finished writing the Rebecca series, her bibliography included more than 100 books.

“I read many books about the immigrants who landed at Ellis Island, and about life on the Lower East Side of New York City during the early 1900s, before I began to think of characters and story ideas,” she says. “As I began writing different books in the series, I turned to books about cultural changes, such as the development of silent movies and the rising popularity of amusement parks.”

In addition to her own research, Greene worked with Mark Speltz, a researcher at American Girl who provided her with “reams of material on many topics.”

She also took a tour of Rebecca’s world, spending several days in New York City with a team from American Girl.

“The illustrator, editor, historian, an art director and I walked the neighborhoods where Rebecca might have lived, and toured numerous museums and historical sites to gather first-hand information,” she says.

“I returned with a wealth of photographs and notes so I could create scenes about tenements, fire escapes, schools, parks and even front stoops.”

As she worked on each book, the American Girl editorial department sent manuscripts to consultants, including historians and professors of Jewish history, to check the accuracy of every element of the stories.

Even the choice of the main character’s name went through extensive scrutiny.

Rebecca’s last name, Rubin, was one of the most commonly registered names for Russian Jews coming through Ellis Island, Greene says. Her first name was chosen off a list of the 10 most popular girls’ names for Yiddish-speaking immigrants in New York City in the 1910 census. Greene liked the name because it sounded “spunky” and had a nickname (Beckie) that would allow the character to be called by her full name when she was in trouble or at school.

Even with the careful research, there has already been some controversy over elements in the Rebecca books.

Two weeks ago, Paula Hyman, a professor of modern Jewish history at Yale, claimed in a New York Times article to have found historical inaccuracies in the Rebecca series — notably the descriptions of pogroms and the conscription of Jewish boys into the Russian army.

Greene stands by her account.

“I’ve been writing historical fiction for almost 30 years. I didn’t think there could be anyone who was more concerned about every historical detail than I am, but I will tell you that American Girl is,” she says. “There isn’t a word or a name or a street or a food or an item of clothing — down to underwear — that hasn’t been double-checked, triple-checked, quadruple-checked in a number of places and with experts.”

She adds, “We thoroughly disagree with the opinion of that professor. We could cite our own sources to show why we wrote what we wrote, and we are totally confident that those facts are supported.”

While Greene was busy researching the era for her books, the doll designers at American Girl were studying the appearance of Russian immigrants in the early 20th century. There were tough decisions to be made.

“Once the author and the editorial team had settled on a Russian Jewish immigrant, the design team knew that they had a wide range of options to consider in creating this doll,” Parks says. “The hair choices, eye color — there wasn’t anything that would be considered historically inaccurate.”

But there was the question of what people would expect from a Jewish doll. Rebecca’s first working hair color was a dark reddish-brown. “We thought, yes, that’s accurate, but maybe not as typical as people might expect,” Parks says.

Because of Rebecca’s delayed release, her look was refreshed and tweaked several times over the years. In the end, the designers settled on a mid-tone brown with russet highlights, and hazel eyes.

The basic doll costs $95 and comes clothed in a burgundy dress with a black collar and gold buttons, and black-and-white side-button boots. An extended accessory set adds a paisley shawl, black velvet hat and an enameled brooch, the origin of which is explained in the series’ first book, “Meet Rebecca.”

Other accessory sets, sold separately, include a school outfit, a bed and a “Sabbath set” with miniature Shabbat candlesticks, a challah and a shiny samovar. Other accessories, including a Chanukah set, will be coming out in the fall.

Although Greene didn’t work on the design of the doll, she was shown prototypes while the team was developing the hair and eye color.

The company sent her one of the completed dolls — which she gave to her mother, Greene says with a laugh.

Having raised two sons, Greene was largely unaware of the American Girl phenomenon until a young girl living next door showed Greene her beloved Samantha doll.

After being chosen to write the Rebecca books, Greene began to study the brand seriously, reading several of the other girls’ series to get a sense of how one character was traced through six books.

Like the other American Girls, each of Rebecca’s books has the heroine dealing with a major dilemma, interlaced with colorful details of life in her era.

In “Candlelight for Rebecca,” for example, she is confronted with her teacher’s insistence that Christmas is a national holiday, and is conflicted over the class assignment of making a holiday centerpiece. In “Changes for Rebecca,” she learns about the harsh conditions in the city’s factories and joins in a protest calling for workers’ rights.

For readers expecting the crowded tenements and meager wages that pervade most books about Jewish immigrants on the Lower East Side, Rebecca’s life may seem a bit unusual.

Though the books mention the family’s origins in the Orchard Street tenements, when the series opens the Rubins have long been settled in an apartment in a sunny row house. Rebecca’s father owns a shoe store, and her uncle is on his way to becoming a successful actor.

On the other end of the spectrum is Rebecca’s cousin Ana, introduced in the second book when she arrives with her family from Russia. Ana’s family moves into a crowded, smelly tenement, with her father and brother working in a sweatshop.

The decision to contrast Rebecca’s relatively comfortable lifestyle with Ana’s was a conscious one, Greene says, noting that she wanted to show what a new immigrant looked like as well as what could be achieved after several years of hard work.

“[Rebecca’s] parents started out in a shoe factory doing sweatshop labor, and then they were able to get ahead a little bit and establish themselves and move out of the tenements, which is the first thing every family did as soon as they could possibly do it,” she says.

Throughout the process of writing the series, Greene was cognizant of the fact that she wasn’t just writing the books for Jewish girls — she was writing for a non-Jewish audience, too. That required certain adjustments.

In the books, Rebecca’s family celebrates Shabbat, Chanukah and Passover, and her brother Victor has his bar mitzvah.

“I had a lot of discussions with the editor about how much we wanted to include various customs and traditions. How much detail, how religious would the family be, how much of the religion would we show,” Greene says.

“All readers need to be able to feel comfortable with these stories. They need to see themselves in there — they need to feel that they could be Rebecca, they could walk in her shoes … So the storylines have to be very universal. They have to reach every reader.”

But in the end, Greene says, it’s Rebecca’s Judaism that forms the heart of her story.

“As Rebecca watches those around her, she forms her view of the world from the three most important Jewish ideals,” she says. “First is rachmones, or compassion. Next is tikkun olam, or repairing the world. And finally, tzedakah, giving to others.

“While each book is simply a story about one adventure in Rebecca’s life, these ideals are always part of her actions.”

Marin artist creates the look of Rebecca’s Lower East Side

Robert Hunt

Robert Hunt has done artwork for Anheuser-Busch, Caesar’s Palace and Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle.” But he’s about to become a hero to a generation of little girls.

Hunt, 56, did the illustrations and cover art for all six books in the new Rebecca series. A Bay Area native, he studied art history at U.C. Davis and illustration at San Francisco’s Academy of Art University. Today he lives in San Anselmo with his wife, Lynn, and teaches illustration at California College of the Arts in San Francisco.

Hunt has an extensive portfolio of book covers and illustrations, corporate artwork, and other oil paintings. He’s particularly proud of having created the boy-on-the-moon logo for Dreamworks — his son, William, now a student at Cal Poly Pomona, was the model for the boy.

After being commissioned by American Girl to do a test painting, Hunt was chosen over a few other artists to do the art for the Rebecca books.

The illustration process took around three years. To take in the sights of the era, Hunt accompanied author Jacqueline Dembar Greene and the American Girl team to New York, where they studied the Lower East Side and visited places such as the Tenement Museum, the Museum of Jewish Heritage and Coney Island.

Hunt later made two solo trips to New York to study the architecture and other visual elements of the Lower East Side.

Some details had to be provided by American Girl historians. “For example, the configuration of fire escapes changed after the time of our story, so even old-looking fire escapes in New York aren’t the way they would have been in 1914,” Hunt says. “I would have to know what they were supposed to look like to draw them accurately.”

Each American Girl book contains a number of full- and half-page illustrations, along with dozens of smaller ones depicting historical objects or concepts that may be unfamiliar to modern readers. In Rebecca’s case, those include a steeplechase race, a Western Union telegram and using an ice pick to chip ice from a block.

The small illustrations, or vignettes, were done by artist Susan McAliley, while Hunt did the larger illustrations. He did about 45 in all, using traditional oil paints over graphite drawings.

“I’m especially fond of a scene where Rebecca rescues her cousin on a Coney Island Ferris wheel, because it was a very challenging piece to do,” Hunt says. “I had to draw Coney Island as it was in 1914, from an aerial perspective.”

More on Rebecca Rubin in this week’s column:

There’s a new girl on the block and — yippee! — her name is Rebecca