(JTA) — As children in upstate New York, twin sisters Julia DeVillers and Jennifer Roy went to Hebrew school three days a week, spent their summers at a JCC summer camp and got to know local Holocaust survivors through their father, who survived the Nazis as a child in Poland. They also celebrated Christmas with their mother’s family.
Aware of their dual religious and cultural backgrounds from a young age, DeVillers and Roy personally sent their public elementary school principal a letter asking to place a menorah next to the school Christmas tree. The girls gathered a couple of the other Jewish students together to present the letter to the principal, to resounding success: A real menorah was added to the school’s holiday display.
It was something straight out of an American Girl story. And as of this week, in a sense, it is one.
On Wednesday, American Girl released its first twin dolls, Isabel and Nicki Hoffman, who are also the first characters from an interfaith family. Their stories take place in the late 1990s and were written by DeVillers and Roy, inspired by the sisters’ own childhood experiences. The twin dolls’ parents are, respectively, Jewish and Christian, and their mother, Robin, is named after the authors’ own mother.
“It’s incredibly special to us that the twins bring this Jewish and interfaith representation that so many kids will relate to,” DeVillers told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.
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.”
The dolls are a milestone in how the lived experience of many American Jews is reflected in popular culture. Recent surveys of Jewish Americans consistently note high rates of interfaith marriage, and show that a significant portion of those couples raise their children either fully or partly Jewish.
Isabel and Nicki are the second and third historical Jewish American Girl dolls, joining Rebecca Rubin. Rebecca’s story reflected an earlier generation’s perception of normative American Jewish identity: Her family immigrated from Russia and lives in New York’s Lower East Side in 1914, while navigating issues of assimilation and religion.
Stories of joint Hanukkah-Christmas celebrations are not exactly new. A TV episode Isabel and Nicki’s character’s might have watched as teenagers, “The Best Chrismukkah Ever” from the drama “The O.C.,” aired nearly two decades ago. But the dolls and their stories are “super innovative and relevant for 21st-century Jewish interfaith families,” said Keren McGinity, the interfaith specialist for the Conservative movement of Judaism and a professor of American studies at Brandeis University.
“Anytime there’s cultural representation that depicts real life, it’s a good thing,” McGinity said, though she added that some depictions of interfaith families are more robust than others.
“On the one hand, it’s terrific that they’re reflecting contemporary American Jewish life by depicting an interfaith family through these characters and reinforcing the fact that it only takes one Jewish parent to raise Jewish children,” she added. “And it remains to be seen how they are Jewish beyond celebrating the December holidays, and how they’re interfaith beyond celebrating the December holidays, plural.”
The new twin dolls are the latest in American Girl’s iconic series of dolls, which hail from different eras of American history and come with novels about their lives. American Girl has historically aimed to present a diverse set of dolls. Other recent offerings include Evette Peeters, a biracial girl who cares for the environment, and Kavi Sharma, an Indian-American girl who loves Broadway musicals.
The new historical characters, Isabel and Nicki, retail for $115 each. Their stories are written by DeVillers and Roy, respectively, and begin on Dec. 11, 1999, when they receive their journals as a gift for the last night of Hanukkah.
They have their own distinct personalities, which the authors say somewhat resemble what they were like as kids: Isabel has a preppy style and loves dancing, and is advertised wearing a pink cable-knit sleeveless sweater over a pinstripe shirt, with a plaid skirt, platform shoes and a beret. Nicki likes skateboarding and writing song lyrics, and appears on the American Girl website wearing a backwards baseball cap, choker necklace, blue T-shirt dress and sneakers, with a flannel shirt tied around her waist.
Isabel’s book begins with a nod to a late-1990s fad: “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!”
In Nicki’s book, her interfaith identity is mentioned two weeks later: “Did I mention my family celebrates Hanukkah AND Christmas? Well, we do.”
The two journals, “Meet Isabel” and “Meet Nicki” are filled with text and sold with the dolls. The stories take place during the same time frame, as the girls celebrate the winter holidays, face their fears, make new friends and worry about Y2K. A longer novel, “Meet Isabel and Nicki” is set for release in August as the first in the Isabel and Nicki historical series. It will take place during the same month as the shorter journals, but will delve further into the time period. Readers will get to spend the last night of Hanukkah with the Hoffmans, lighting the menorah and playing dreidel.
McGinity said she would have to wait until the new book comes out to see what the girls’ representation looks like, given that the journals are so short.
“I feel like we don’t have enough intel other than ‘OK, the authors are Jewish, the characters are Jewish, they grew up in an interfaith household,’” she added.
The crowded flagship American Girl store in New York City has already begun promoting Isabel and Nicki by showcasing the twins’ different outfits and bedroom and accessory collections, with dozens of the dolls positioned throughout the store.
“While we’re not able to provide specific sales information, I can say we’ve been happy to see the positive response for the new characters,” a representative for the company said.
Roy and her sister have previously written a series of children’s novels about twins, and Roy also authored “Yellow Star,” a 2006 children’s book about her aunt’s remarkable survival as one of the only children to be liberated from the Lodz Ghetto. Roy said she and her sister are grateful for the chance to tell their family’s story in a new way.
“So we don’t know what cultures, faiths, religions are coming beyond this,” said Roy, referring to future American Girl products. “But what we did know was that if we were writing in the holiday season, we really wanted to include parts of ourselves and that’s what American Girl editors all said: ‘We’d love to have you remember from your childhood.’ And this was our childhood.”
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Phyllis Pollock died at home Sunday September 3, 2023 in Winnipeg, after a courageous lifetime battle with cancer.
Phyllis was a mother of four: Gary (Laura), daughter Randi, Steven (deceased in 2010) (Karen), and Robert. Phyllis also had two grandchildren: Lauren and Quinn.
Born in Fort Frances, Ontario on February 7, 1939, Phyllis was an only child to Ruby and Alex Lerman. After graduating high school, Phyllis moved to Winnipeg where she married and later divorced Danny Pollock, the father of her children. She moved to Beverly Hills in 1971, where she raised her children.
Phyllis had a busy social life and lucrative real estate career that spanned over 50 years, including new home sales with CoastCo. Phyllis was the original sales agent for three buildings in Santa Monica, oceanfront: Sea Colony I, Sea Colony II, and Sea Colony. She was known as the Sea Colony Queen. She worked side by side with her daughter Randi for about 25 years – handling over 600 transactions, including sales and leases within the three phases of Sea Colony alone.
Phyllis had more energy than most people half her age. She loved entertaining, working in the real estate field, meeting new and interesting people everyday no matter where she went, and thrived on making new lifelong friends. Phyllis eventually moved to the Sea Colony in Santa Monica where she lived for many years before moving to Palm Desert, then Winnipeg.
After battling breast cancer four times in approximately 20 years, she developed metastatic Stage 4 lung cancer. Her long-time domestic partner of 27 years, Joseph Wilder, K.C., was the love of her life. They were never far apart. They traveled the world and went on many adventures during their relationship. During her treatment, Phyllis would say how much she missed work and seeing her clients. Joey demonstrated amazing strength, love, care, and compassion for Phyllis as her condition progressed. He was her rock and was by her side 24/7, making sure she had the best possible care. Joey’s son David was always there to support Phyllis and to make her smile. Joey’s other children, Sheri, Kenny, Joshua and wife Davina, were also a part of her life. His kids would Facetime Phyllis and include her during any of their important functions. Phyllis loved Joey’s children as if they were her own.
Thank you to all of her friends and family who were there to support her during these difficult times. Phyllis is now, finally, pain free and in a better place. She was loved dearly and will be greatly missed. Interment took place in Los Angeles.
Gwen Centre Creative Living Centre celebrates 35th anniversary
By BERNIE BELLAN Over 100 individuals gathered at the Gwen Secter Centre on Tuesday evening, July 18 – under the big top that serves as the venue for the summer series of outdoor concerts that is now in its third year at the centre.
The occasion was the celebration of the Gwen Secter Centre’s 35th anniversary. It was also an opportunity to honour the memory of Sophie Shinewald, who passed away at the age of 106 in 2019, but who, as recently as 2018, was still a regular attendee at the Gwen Secter Centre.
As Gwen Secter Executive Director Becky Chisick noted in her remarks to the audience, Sophie had been volunteering at the Gwen Secter Centre for years – answering the phone among other duties. Becky remarked that Sophie’s son, Ed Shinewald, had the phone number for the Gwen Secter Centre stored in his phone as “Mum’s work.”
Remarks were also delivered by Raquel Dancho, Member of Parliament for Kildonan-St. Paul, who was the only representative of any level of government in attendance. (How times have changed: I remember well the steadfast support the former Member of the Legislature for St. John’s, Gord Mackintosh, showed the Gwen Secter Centre when it was perilously close to being closed down. And, of course, for years, the area in which the Gwen Secter Centre is situated was represented by the late Saul Cherniack.)
Sophie Shinewald’s granddaughter, Alix (who flew in from Chicago), represented the Shinewald family at the event. (Her brother, Benjamin, who lives in Ottawa, wasn’t able to attend, but he sent a pre-recorded audio message that was played for the audience.)
Musical entertainment for the evening was provided by a group of talented singers, led by Julia Kroft. Following the concert, attendees headed inside to partake of a sumptuous assortment of pastries, all prepared by the Gwen Secter culinary staff. (And, despite my asking whether I could take a doggy bag home, I was turned down.)
Palestinian gunmen kill 4 Israelis in West Bank gas station
This is a developing story.
(JTA) — Palestinian gunmen killed four people and wounded four in a terror attack at a gas station near the West Bank settlement of Eli, the Israeli army reported.
An Israeli civilian returning fire at the scene of the attack on Tuesday killed one of the attackers, who emerged from a vehicle, and two others fled.
Kan, Israel’s public broadcaster, said one of those wounded was in serious condition. The gunmen, while in the vehicle, shot at a guard post at the entry to the settlement, and then continued to the gas station which is also the site of a snack bar. A nearby yeshiva went into lockdown.
Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant announced plans to convene a briefing with top security officials within hours of the attack. Kan reported that there were celebrations of the killing in major West Bank cities and in the Gaza Strip, initiated by terrorist groups Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Hamas said the shooting attack Tuesday was triggered by the Jenin raid.
The shooting comes as tensions intensify in the West Bank. A day earlier, Israeli troops raiding the city of Jenin to arrest accused terrorists killed five people.
The Biden administration spoke out over the weekend against Israel’s plans to build 4,000 new housing units for Jewish settlers in the West Bank. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also finalized plans to transfer West Bank building decisions to Bezalel Smotrich, the extremist who is the finance minister. Smotrich has said he wants to limit Palestinian building and expand settlement building.
Kan reported that the dead terrorist was a resident of a village, Urif, close to Huwara, the Palestinian town where terrorists killed two Israeli brothers driving through in February. Settlers retaliated by raiding the village and burning cars and buildings.
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