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Rachel had thick brown hair and wore kerchiefs, headscarves and loose-fitting dresses (think “Fiddler on the Roof” for the 20th century). She carried a plaid suitcase and came with a host of other trimmings, and we drew each and every outfit on small rectangular pieces of paper that we planned to mail to the American Girl company in hopes of convincing them to mass-produce our doll. We also wrote down Rachel’s life story, including how she and her family immigrated to America through Ellis Island, bringing their hopes and dreams to a new country. Inspired by stories our families told us around the dinner table, as well as by lessons we learned in Sunday school, we brought Rachel to life. Finally we had a doll we could relate to.
Little did we know, another Jewish doll did exist at the time. Well, kind of. Her name was Poor Pitiful Pearl, and she was one of the first dolls my parents ever gave me (I called her “Pitty” because I was too young to pronounce her full name). Poor Pitiful Pearl had thick, strawlike hair, a button nose, floppy eyelids and a hesitant smile, and she came with two outfits: a tattered dress with a red babushka and a party dress with pearls. New Yorker cartoonist William Steig created Poor Pitiful Pearl in the 1950s. While Steig was Jewish, he kept the doll’s Jewishness understated, reflecting the era’s emphasis on assimilation. Still, her “poor” outfit reflected Jews immigrating to America from Eastern Europe, while her fancy dress represented the American dream of upward mobility.
For obvious reasons, Jamie and I did not see ourselves in Poor Pitiful Pearl, nor did we even consider her as an alternative to our American Girl dolls (though I must add that, to this day, Pitty still sits in my childhood bedroom, looking just as pathetic as ever). But her story of the rise to respectable middle-class girlhood from poverty was much like Rachel’s, our fictional American Girl doll.
Finally, in 2009, American Girl caught up with us and debuted Rebecca Rubin, a Russian-Jewish girl living on Manhattan’s Lower East Side in 1914. Jamie and I are long past our doll days, but we remain good friends. She is now a marketing director in the music business, and we both live in New York City. When I called to tell her the news about Rebecca, Jamie blurted into the phone, “They totally stole our idea!”
Abigail Jones is the digital features editor of the Forward. She can be contacted at email@example.com and on Twitter @AbigailDJ