Taking its cue from the wildly successful American Girl dolls and novels, a small company in New Jersey has been carving out its own niche — character dolls representing Jewish girls from different countries and centuries.
Gali Girls began in 2004 as one woman’s quest to supplant the provocative messages of Barbies and Bratz with contemporary dolls that elevate traditional Jewish values such as modesty, kindness, charity and respect.
“I’d noticed the growing popularity of dolls that equated femininity with girls taking their clothes off,” said Gali Girls founder Aliza Stein of Teaneck, N.J.
“I thought, ‘How much better if we had a doll that represented something positive.’ I have a Jewish background, so I relied on that to develop the idea.”
One year after launching the product, she decided to add a line of historical dolls.
“Jewish history is very rich,” she said. “There’s so much that can create a connection between contemporary girls and their heritage, so many stories and eras from which to choose. So this was the next logical step.
“Certainly we noted that it was a successful concept for American Girl, and we figured the formula could succeed for us.”
There are three historical dolls so far. Each comes with period clothing and a novella about the character’s life and adventures.
The books are well written by Robin K. Levinson, an author and journalist who did all the research and used the stories to reveal little-known chapters of the Jewish Diaspora. The books are nicely illustrated by Drusilla Kehl.
The characters are Reyna Li, who lives in the Chinese Israelite community of Kaifeng in 1175; Shoshana Levy, whose family is forced to leave Brazil and winds up in 1662 Nieuw Amsterdam, where she becomes part of the first Jewish community in North America and makes friends with a Lenape Indian girl; and Miriam Bloom, who flees the Russian pogroms in 1914 and lands at Ellis Island.
Now, in addition to the historical and modern dolls offered with brown, blond or red hair, Gali Girls has added a dark-skinned model to represent girls of Sephardic descent. These are the Jews whose Spanish and Portuguese ancestors were expelled from Spain in the late 1400s. They subsequently settled throughout the Turkish empire, Balkans, North Africa, Italy, Middle East and beyond.
Each doll comes with matching Star of David bracelets for girl and doll and a wooden toy Sabbath kit with candlesticks, bread and wine. The price tag for the historical package is $90; contemporary dolls are $65.
Ms. Stein said the company has sold about 2,000 dolls, mostly through its Web site,
. The dolls also are used as fund-raisers for Jewish organizations.
Other characters are in the works. Ms. Stein said she hopes to add girls from Spain during the Inquisition, Israel during the War of Independence, and Ethiopia during the Israeli airlift.
The dolls are similar to the American Girl line — 18 inches high with a soft body — and each one comes with an English and a Hebrew name.
The customer base, Ms. Stein said, includes a mix of orthodox, conservative and reform families.
“The dolls are Jewish but nondenominational,” she said. “They represent girls across the Jewish spectrum.”