Girl sitting with Rebecca Rubin doll
Girl sitting with Rebecca Rubin doll
Learning, Quizzes 3 minute read

Why Rebecca Rubin matters

By American Girl Dec. 5, 2019

With a love of the spotlight, a compassionate heart, and a little chutzpah, Rebecca Rubin™ captures the attention of readers and invites them on a journey through 1914 New York City. Though Rebecca’s story takes place over a century ago, her life as a first-generation American, a Jewish girl, and an activist eager for change still resonates with and inspires girls today.

Rebecca's story matters. Here's why:

Immigrants Shape America for the Better

Nearly 20 million immigrants arrived in the United States between 1880 and 1920, the biggest wave of immigration that the U.S. had ever seen. Many of these immigrants, like Rebecca’s family, were Jewish people fleeing economic restrictions and violent persecution in Eastern Europe. The years surrounding 1914 mark the moment when the story of American Jews became the story of America itself—when the Jewish experience became inseparably intertwined with the cultural direction of the entire nation.

"One of the things that Rebecca’s stories look at is the powerful impact of immigrants on America. The larger truths of her story still apply today. People who leave their country of origin are ambitious and motivated, and they bring that ambition and creativity to their new country, which will be the richer for it."

Jennifer Hirsch, American Girl executive editor

Early 20th century Jewish immigrants transformed American culture forever. Jewish directors, actors, and producers transformed a nearly non-existent film business into the colossal industry we know today. Jewish labor activists and workers organized strikes and formed unions that established the standards many of us take for granted: 40-hour work weeks, paid sick leave, and protections against unsafe working conditions. Jewish immigrants even transformed the English language by introducing Yiddish words, like klutz, chutzpah, schlepp, and, of course, bagel.

A century after Rebecca’s story takes place, immigration continues to change the shape of American culture for the better. Her story can help girls—whether from immigrant families or not—understand how culture continuously changes and what it means to be an American.

Rebecca Learns How to Adapt and Find Belonging

Like many girls today, Rebecca is pulled between worlds. Her family’s traditions from the old country don’t always make sense to her, such as her Bubbie’s insistence on embroidering napkins and doilies for her trousseau, or her parents’ expectation that she become a teacher. Conversely, her school life requires her to suppress her Jewish identity to conform to mainstream American culture. Her teacher Miss Maloney, for example, punishes Rebecca for explaining a math problem to her cousin Ana in Yiddish. She also assigns Rebecca to create a Christmas decoration, even though her family celebrates Hanukkah.

Rebecca’s struggle with identity and belonging is emblematic of the larger cultural struggle of immigrants at the time—to find success in their new home while still maintaining the culture and traditions that they defined themselves by.

“Miss Maloney thinks everyone should dress and speak the same,” Rebecca said. “And especially no talking in Yiddish!”
“Immigrants have to learn new ways to live here in America,” Grandpa admitted. “But we can’t forget who we are, even if it means being a little different.”

Candlelight for Rebecca, page 32

Rebecca learns from her own family members about finding belonging while still adapting to life in America. Her father, for example, must work on the Sabbath to keep food on the table, even though Jewish tradition designates Saturday as a day of rest. But at his store, he finds other ways to follow the tenets of his religion, such as by providing free shoes for a boy in need, an act he refers to as a mitzvah, or gift. In the same way, Rebecca can inspire any girls struggling to find belonging at home, school, or in their communities.

Rebecca Stands Up for Change

Girls today are standing up for change in big, loud ways, from striking for climate change legislation to walking out of class to demand safer schools. Readers can learn from Rebecca, who used her skills and passions to make a difference in her own world.

When Rebecca’s extended family immigrates from Russia, her uncle and cousin go to work in a sweatshop. At first, Rebecca doesn’t believe her cousin Ana’s accounts of the inhumane conditions they face: cruel bosses, extreme temperatures, long hours, and dangerous conditions. But when Rebecca visits the sweatshop herself, she becomes outraged to find that it’s even worse than Ana described. Rebecca rethinks her assumptions and jumps into action, first by writing a letter to the newspaper, then attending a labor strike where she delivers an impassioned soapbox speech.

“If a strike will get people’s attention and help change things for the better, then I think we should go,” Rebecca said hesitantly. “Papa always says we all have to try to make the world a better place. He and Grandpa tell us tikkun olam—‘repair the world.’ We have to do our part, Ana, even if it might be dangerous.”

Lights, Camera, Rebecca!: Rebecca Book 2, page 87

Rebecca’s struggle with identity and belonging is emblematic of the larger cultural struggle of immigrants at the time—to find success in their new home while still maintaining the culture and traditions that they defined themselves by.

Dive in to Rebecca's story with The Sound of Applause: Rebecca Book 1 and Lights, Camera, Rebecca!: Rebecca Book 2 by Jacqueline Dembar Greene

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