Meet Rebecca

Published in 2009; author Jacqueline Debmar Greene; illustrators Robert Hunt and Susan McAliley


Rebecca Rubin is the fourth of five children, a daughter of Russian immigrants. Her family--housewife mother, shoe-store-owner father, fourteen-year-old brother Victor, twelve-year-old twin sisters Sadie and Sophie, and five-year-old brother Bennie--lives in New York City. The story opens on a Friday, as Rebecca's mother is busy preparing for the Jewish Sabbath. No work is to be done from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday, so she needs to make sure things are clean and food is ready. Nine-year-old Rebecca is eager to help, but notices that her family doesn't seem to trust her with much responsibility. She's quickly distracted as the dinner guests arrive: her grandparents and her mother's cousin, Max (formerly Moyshe). Max wants to be a movie star and is "on" most of the evening, making Rebecca and her siblings laugh a lot. Later in the evening, he recounts a Russian folk tale and Rebecca acts it out, prompting his to say that she should try to a be a movie star, too. Rebecca thinks that's a wonderful idea, but her other family shoot it down as inappropriate for a woman, and wouldn't she rather be a teacher instead? Again, Rebecca feels that people are leaving her out of things for because of her age.

Privately, Rebecca thinks she can save up some money to buy a pair of silver candlesticks. Then she can light them at the Sabbath dinner (a big responsibility, done while reciting Jewish prayers). She already has some money saved up, so it should be easy, and it would prove that she's responsible if she can save up to afford the candlesticks. But a moment later her father reads a letter from his brother in Russia, describing their poverty and desperate need to get out of the country. Her cousins need the money more than she. Rebecca offers her father what little she has--twenty-seven cents--but he declines, saying he'll find another way to raise the $175 his brother's family needs for transportation (in 2014, those would equivalent to about $6.29 and $4078, respectively). Rebecca still doesn't feel quite right about keeping the money for something frivolous when her father already works seven days a week to feed his own family, but at least she tried. 

The next day Rebecca helps her father at this shoe store. While he's helping an annoying classmate of hers pick a pair of shoes, the boy's mother notices the fancy lace doily Rebecca's crocheting, part of a set of linens she's making for her wedding chest. Explaining that she has a lot, Rebecca gives the mother a completed one from her bag. On their way out of the store, the mother slips a quarter to Rebecca: she's been paid! Maybe there are other ways she can earn money, and she could still get those candlesticks. Emulating Max, Rebecca puts on a show on her apartment stoop, with Benny helping. Her grandmother sees what's going on, and scolds Rebecca for begging, from their neighbors no less. Rebecca feels she was entertaining, but it's no use trying to explain. Rebecca splits the proceeds--six cents--with Benny. She reflects that she didn't even earn much anyway. But if she helps her father in the store on the weekend and sells her crocheted things...

A month later, Rebecca has earned quite a bit. She's taken to quietly but obviously arranging her things while customers wait for their turns, and when asked explaining that the items aren't for sale, which prompts people to offer more money, which she again refuses saying her father wouldn't like it, which prompts more money. She doesn't have many items left, but she has plenty of time to make more before she marries. And she's easily earned enough for candlesticks!

But she keeps thinking about her sick cousin, Ana. She can't think of something as frivolous as candlesticks when Ana is ill and her brothers might be pressed into military service at any moment. Max drops in then, announcing he's found acting work and will have a steady paycheck...and gives Rebecca's parents $25 (almost $600 in 2014). Nervous but inspired, Rebecca tells her parents that she's been selling her wedding linens, and her desire to buy the candlesticks. At first her mother and grandmother are disappointed that she'd be so impatient, but when she explains that instead she'd rather give her eight dollars toward her cousins, they are more understanding. Sadie and Sophie offer to sell some of their things too, and even Rebecca's grandmother! Rebecca's father agrees to sell them in his shop--as long as Rebecca handles those transactions. He's known about the selling the whole time, and is proud of his daughter's business sense.

Looking Back

In the 1910s, as now, New York City was America's largest city. It was home to many immigrants, who often lived near others from their same regions and ethnic backgrounds. In Russia, Tsar Nicholas II was in power, and he oversaw horrendous mistreatment of the country's Jewish population. They were forbidden from owning land, traveling freely, and obtaining most jobs, but boys as young as twelve were still drafted into military service, where they were given dangerous and sometimes fatal jobs. Pogroms, government-approved or -led acts of vandalism and violence, were routinely carried out against the Jews. It's little wonder that many wanted to leave Russia. Between 1880 and 1914, two million Jewish people left Eastern Europe (many countries other than Russia were also...unkind) for the United States.

Many settled in New York City, which was soon home to a burgeoning Eastern European Jewish population. Some were more observant of their religion than others, which is true of any religion, but it was still a tight-knit community. A lot of them spoke Yiddish, enough plays and movies were translated or produced in their language. This shared culture helped the immigrants and their families feel even more connected. When World War I began in late July 1914, those with family still outside the United States had to act quickly to bring their loved ones to the US (which didn't enter WWI until April 1917; the armistice was signed November 11, 1918--a day many countries still commemorate).


This book is dedicated to "my mother, Rachel B. Debmar, who opened my world to dolls and books."

Based on the book's illustrations, Max is incredibly tall.

The sign on Rebecca's father's shoe store is written in English, Yiddish, and Italian.

The fact that Rebecca's father (and sometimes other family members) work on Saturday is a cause of tension between him and his in-laws, but Rebecca's grandparents do recognize that he needs the money.

Rebecca sings "Take Me out to the Ball Game" at one point, which I thought was an anachronism, but the song had been around for at least six years by the time this book is set. She and her older brother also talk about a new baseball player and wonder if he'll be any good--Babe Ruth. 

Rebecca and her sisters often work on hand-crafted linens that they'll use in their married lives. Rebecca is especially good at crochet, and has made more items than either of her sisters have, despite being five years younger.

Rebecca's father does something pretty clever: sometimes when people buy new shoes from him, they don't want to keep their old ones. If they're still in decent shape, he gives them away to needy people. But to avoid embarrassing them, he takes their worn shoes to the back room for "polishing" and gives them the newer ones. Everyone knows what's happening, but it helps people save face.

The glossary of Yiddish words includes bat mitzvah, but fails to mention that it's a rite of initiation and symbolic of a boy's passage into manhood.


Card Catalog said...

It seems like they took a really long time to get around to a Jewish character! But this sounds like a really interesting series, I look forward to the rest of it.

SJSiff said...

And they still haven't had an Asian, Arabic, or Hispanic historical main character!