Rebecca Rubin, just 18 inches tall, is the latest Jewish girl to hit the scene. She is nine years old and lives on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Rebecca is also the newest American Girl Doll -- its first Jewish historical character, joining Josefina, Addy and Kaya on our multicultural doll shelves. Rebecca's price tag of $95 does not include her accessories like a Shabbat challah, potato latkes for Chanukah and a menorah.
I show my daughter Rebecca's picture on the front page of the New York Times' style section. She is puzzled. "But she doesn't really look Jewish, Mommy? What makes her Jewish?"
Hmm. An interesting question, I think to myself. Apparently one that the company was also faced with:
"A Jewish doll presents her own set of potential pitfalls," the Times reports. "While other dolls represented ethnic backgrounds with distinctive visual characteristics, what constitutes a Jewish girl's appearance is much more open for debate."
Dark, wavy hair? A distinctive nose? Aren't those the classic Jewish features?
How do Jews retain their unique identity?
Of course not. Jews come in all shapes and sizes and colors. So if we don't possess distinguishable physical characteristics, we must ask ourselves this question: As the Jewish people wander from country to country, confronting various cultures and assimilation, how do we retain our unique identity?
It becomes so easy to get lost.
For today's parents especially, this question must be pondered. We live in a society exploding with a breakdown of moral values. Just the click of a button and our children are exposed to a world devoid of sanctity and respect. Can we transmit our Jewish heritage to the next generation successfully? We are confronted with my daughter's innocent question, "What makes her Jewish, Mommy?"
Growing Up Jewish
I grew up in a community where, for most children, being Jewish meant surviving Hebrew school, eating matzah ball soup, and attending synagogue on the High Holidays. There was not much more to "growing up Jewish."
My siblings and I were known as "the rabbi's children." Every holiday, every Shabbos, was an opportunity for us little ones to reach out to our friends and neighbors. In a place where Judaism was almost invisible, we were visibly connected to our heritage and proud of it. Ours was the home where Judaism came alive.
One Friday afternoon, there was a knock at the door. My mother was just about to light the Shabbos candles. I opened the door and found my younger brother's friend, Michael, standing beside his housekeeper, Maria. He was holding onto Maria's hand.
Michael's mother isn't home to make Shabbos for him.
"Michael was wondering," Maria began, "if you could teach me the blessing for the Shabbos candles? He loves those candles, and his mother is never home to make Shabbos for him. Besides, she doesn't know how. So we were thinking that I could do it."
Michael looked up hopefully and I felt so sorry for this little boy. I was just a child myself but I remember feeling sadness. He wanted to bring Shabbos home. He wanted to watch the candles dance, to sit with his family and bask in the glow of Shabbos. Yet Shabbos remained out of reach. So we did what we could to help, and each week Michael sat at our table -- because his mother was just too busy doing other stuff.
Not Child's Play
Generation after generation, Jewish parents have passed along our tradition. Yet today, tragically, there are hundreds of thousands -- perhaps millions -- of Michaels. Young Jews who barely know they are Jewish, or unequipped to put it into practice.
So what to do?
But that's only part of it. After all, Rebecca Rubin -- the Jewish American Girl Doll -- comes with these accessories, too.
To truly succeed, our heritage must be more than lovely accessories or habits taken for granted. We must become serious Jews.
When you genuinely live a life of faith, you absorb it with your entire being. You breathe it with every ounce of your existence. You set aside a regular time for Torah study. Prayer becomes your lifeline. Your soul becomes infused with inspiration.
And then you transmit this great legacy to the next generation.
This is the secret of the Jew. And that's no child's play.