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June 19, 2009

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PAGE 10A HERITAGE FLORIDA JEWISH NEWS, JUNE 19, 2009 f Meet Rebecca: She's young, Jewish and an all-American Girl 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 morn- ing, 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 par- ents, grandparents and four siblings. On May 31, Greene attend- ed 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 By Rachel Freedenberg j. the Jewish weekly of northern California SAN FRANCISCO--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. Taxes and laws are ever-changing. Is your financial advisor up-to-date? Is your money earning up to its potential? 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Inc., and a subsidiary of National Financial Partners, Corp., the parent company of NFP ~s, Inc. *NFP Securities, Inc. and Asset Management Partners do not provide legal or tax advice ............... 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 Amer- ican 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 se- ries 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 com- pany also sells accessory sets that correspond with the dolls and their historical pe- riods, such as outfits, period furniture and quilts. The brand is immensely popular among young girls-- more than 127 million Ameri- can Girl books and 16 million dolls have been sold since 1986. There's an American Girl Web site (AmericanGirl. corn), 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 Ameri- can Girl, wedged between 1904's Samantha and Depres- sion-era Kit. The character has been in the works for nine years--much longer than usual, says American Girl's public relations direc- tor, Julie Parks. 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 mov- ies about Samantha, Felicity and Molly, and a 2008 feature film about Kit. So Rebecca was sidelined--until re- cently. 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 char- acter 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 addi- tion to [a Jewish doll] being a top request, we wanted to introduce girls to the Ameri- can immigration experience. "We wanted to show the significant impact of the contributions that Jewish im- migrants 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 au- thors, 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 con- tacted 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 Rus- sian 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 set- tled in new lives in America." For Jews of Eastern Euro- pean 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 Spring- field, Mass. So Greene's family attend- ed a Sephardic synagogue and followed Sephardic customs. "The Sephardic foods, those were the foods we ate. Every- one 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 con- nect to the other side of her heritage. She talked exten- sively with her father about his family's history, and did an enormous amount of re- search 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 newspa- per reporter, and worked as a journalist for nine years. In 1980 she self-published her first book, "Hanukkah Tooth," about a boy who swal- lows 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 Publish- ing--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 ad- ditional pages in the "Look- ing Back" epilogue, which gives the historical context for the events in the book), each requires meticulous research. Greene notes that when she was finished writ- ing 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 popu- larity of amusement parks." In addition to her own re- search, 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 informa- tion," 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, Ru- bin, 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 Greene on nage 11A