The new Jewish American Girl dolls are Jewish enough
Nicki and Isabel Hoffman wear platform mary janes, own a dog and a cat with silly pop culture names (follow @allenbaderginsberg on Instagram and support your local Jewish pup), have e-girl streaks, killed their Tamagotchis, own a ton of American Girl merchandise, eat Pizza Hut and loudly tout about Hanukkah presents. In short, Nicki and Isabel Hoffman are a lot like me.
The Hoffman twins are American Girl’s newest historical dolls with a story set in 1999. Besides making my poor 22-year-old soul feel geriatric, as I was born months after what is now being considered “history,” the sisters are American Girl’s first dolls from a Jewish-Christian interfaith family.
Since their release, Nicki and Isabel have been ripped for being “not Jewish enough.” They celebrate Christian and Jewish holidays and for the most part, only really discuss secular culture. However, their narrative is so important for young girls’ Jewish identities, especially since Jewish stories like theirs are rarely told.
My Judaism is at my core — it is the only culture that I have. However, there is something that feels so close to me about girls who live at the intersection of Judaism and secular life, girls who practiced their Judaism the same way I did growing up with Hebrew school followed by a McNugget lunch. There is no doubt, I would have wanted to be Nicki Hoffman and would have felt a kinship with her.
The Hoffman sisters represent a new frontier for Jewish young women, which is becoming more important as the demographics of American Jews continue to shift. As of 2020, over a quarter of US Jews consider themselves to be Jewish only culturally or ethnically. That same year, a study found that 42% of married American Jews are in interfaith marriages. Creating nuanced depictions of American Jewry is an important step in validating Jewish people from all walks of life as “Jewish enough,” which is part of the reason the Hoffman sisters are such an important step in normalizing different expressions of Jewish life from childhood on.
Unlike the first Jewish historical American Girl doll Rebecca Rubin – whose 2009-released collection included a variety of traditional Ashkenazi items such as a menorah, dreidel, Shabbat candles, challah, rugelach, bagels and a samovar, including outfits to match each — the Hoffman sisters’ items are all secular. Before the release of their journals, the only telling sign that the Hoffman twins are Jewish is their last names (which is never really a tell in knowing if someone is Jewish).
When the dolls were released, their journals mentioned that they celebrated Hanukkah. Judaism and Hanukkah have become more secular with the Hoffman sisters’ presentation, reminiscent of the way Christmas is done for the other historical dolls — a mention, but not the central part of the characters. These differences from the Rebecca Rubin doll — whose books had Judaism, Yiddish and assimilation at their crux — make it less likely that the Hoffman dolls will be labeled as the “Jewish American Girl dolls,” but that shouldn’t be the case.
Being interfaith or secular doesn’t make a young girl any less Jewish. Seeing their kind of Judaism represented will give young girls the opportunity to see themselves represented and their Judaism embraced in a way that it rarely is.
It’s still too early to tell whether the new dolls will incorporate Judaism more in their story arcs, as their books, where the majority of information about the characters is learned, will not be released until the summer. There’s a chance that Nicki and Isabel will spend their summers at a JCC summer camp like Jewish twins Julia DeVillers and Jennifer Roy, who co-authored the sisters’ stories, but even if not, it’s important to see Nicki and Isabel Hoffman as a step in Jewish representation for children.
DeVillers and Roy grew up in an interfaith household and discussed with Jewish Telegraphic Agency the importance of depicting interfaith Jewish girls.
“It’s incredibly special to us that the twins bring this Jewish and interfaith representation that so many kids will relate to,” DeVillers said.
Roy added: “People are not necessarily one thing or another these days. And while we are Jewish, we did grow up with both holidays and both cultures in our family. And that’s how we wanted our characters to be and to feel.”
Nicki and Isabel Hoffman are inspired by real-life Jewish girls and will give a voice to the hundreds of thousands of young Jewish girls who light a Menorah next to their Christmas tree, and who have been forced to choose one or the other in their toys and media. With the twins, their accessories come from Hanukkah and Christmas gifts, as gushed in the girls’ journals — there no longer has to be any choosing.
In Nicki’s journal, her interfaith identity is celebrated when she writes, “Did I mention my family celebrates Hanukkah AND Christmas? Well, we do.” There isn’t a long treatise about either, but in the simple fact it’s mentioned nonchalantly paints the picture of interfaith life.
“Hi, New Journal! You’re my present for the last night of Hanukkah!! I was going to save you for after Christmas and New Year’s, but we also got NEW GEL PENS!” Isabel’s journal begins. This statement in itself perfectly encapsulates the experience of many young girls across the country, the same goofy way I would have written a journal, mentioning Jewish holidays and secular holidays with equal weight, but caring most of all about the excitement of some new gel pens.
Rebecca Rubin has my heart. She is a gorgeous doll who I’ve loved since her release because she looked like me and her story is one like my family’s. However, the Hoffman sisters depict a Judaism that is more modern and relatable to non-orthodox girls, even if they are not interfaith.
As a Jewish girl living fully immersed in a secular world, I would have loved to see Jewish girls eating Pizza Hut. As an adult, I love that there are Jewish American Girl dolls that tell a different Jewish story that doesn’t necessarily need to be religious to make it Jewish.
In my best Halloween costume to date, I sported a Rebecca Rubin ensemble this October with a challah on my arm. Unlike the Mollys and Samanthas, known by name, I was simply asked if I was the “Jewish doll.”
Rebecca’s branding was one as “the Jewish American Girl doll” more than a young first-generation Jewish-American girl who dreams of being an actress. This is a callback to when American Girl had just one doll of every racial ethnic minority. A 2016 Slate article says it best in reference to Addy Walker, who was AG’s only Black doll for 18 years: “In 1993, the doll company set out to introduce its first black character. All she had to do was represent the entire history of black America.”
An entire generation of African American girls came of age before they saw a doll that looked like them who wasn’t born a slave. And while Addy’s story of liberation is one of the most inspiring and well-researched of the American Girl franchise, the Addy doll has long been criticized for conjuring up a painful history for little girls hoping to simply play and dress up dolls that look like them and speak of their culture. Even though American Girl’s mission was to teach young women history through their historical dolls, it’s hard to rationalize a singular Black doll whose storyline is wrapped around the United States’ dark history of slavery when young white girls have a plethora of options with both dark — The gilded age Nellie doll is a child laborer in a factory — and lighter — 1970s doll Julie struggles with her parents’ divorce and being a girl on her local basketball team — storylines in dolls that look like them.
I wish for justice for Rebecca Rubin’s story and for girls to grow up knowing her name and story rather than just by her religion and think the creation of more Jewish dolls like the Hoffman twins will allow that to happen. More Jewish storylines allow for more recognizable Jews. And while it is a valid point that American Girl could have designed Jewish dolls that were not presumably Ashkenazi due to the large Sephardic and Mizrahi populations in the US, the brand continues to create more diverse and nuanced dolls and we can only hope to see more diverse Jewish dolls in the future.
Rebecca Rubin’s story is one that mirror’s my grandparents’: first-generation Ashkenazi Jews learning about keeping Judaism a central part of their lives while assimilating to American culture. Nicki and Isabel Hoffman’s story is what comes after that for many families: how do assimilated Jews look in America? Hopefully, that will allow thousands of young Jewish girls to see themselves reflected in their dolls and validated in their Jewish heritage.