There are certain times and places that rather jump out as having been unusually terrible for Jews. I cannot imagine anyone reading this and not immediately thinking of a bunch, but since you never know who finds themselves on which website, I will spell it out: 1930s Germany, not good. The Spanish Inquisition—the real one, not the Monty Python sketches—not so wonderful, either. And then there’s today, where we’ve been hearing, since Donald Trump’s election, that there is rising antisemitism in North America.
Less obvious, then, are the historical blips, or even longer stretches, where things have been more, shall we say, Judeo-positive. There’s the expression, “Happy as a Jew in France,” which was used by shtetl Jews back in the day, in reference to what they knew/imagined to be a haven. But then there’s the actual time and place where it was all delightful and that was the 1990s.
Yes, it makes perfect sense that the story of the new American Girl dolls, Jewish and from an interfaith household, is set in 1999.
American Girl dolls are, for the uninitiated, high-end (“Isabel and Nicki Hoffman retail for $115 each,” and that’s USD) dolls that are meant to serve an educational purpose, each with a historical backstory. There also are, or were, American Girl cafés, where girls could bring their dolls and have tea or something, I have no idea, I never had (or requested) one of these dolls, but they were, and I guess still are, a thing.
Let others dissect the significance of their hybrid religious and cultural identity. Let others emote about what it means that the late 1990s are now understood as historical. (It means you’re old, I’m old, we are, we must push past this.)
No, what interests me here is the Jewish significance of 1999. American Jewish I suppose but maybe also Canadian, or if not, please do correct me, [email protected]. But it is my contention that 1990s nostalgia, while also being a big deal in mainstream society, is extraordinarily, wait for it… Jewish.
Here’s what was going on in the late 1990s: Bill Clinton was president. Until 1998, Seinfeld was putting out new episodes; The Nanny, which was even Jewier, ended in 1999. Jewish women (Monica Lewinsky and, even more tragically, Chandra Levy) were no longer the butt of Woody Allen or Philip Roth jokes, but were sufficiently assimilated into mainstream society as to appear on the public scene not as nagging wives to Jewish men with big dreams, but as political mistresses or harassment victims. (The U.K., however, got there first.)
Most crucially, 9/11 had not yet happened. Nor the Second Intifada. Nor had the (second) war in Iraq, or the one in Afghanistan. Nor had Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer’s 2007 book, The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy. Nobody was speaking in conspiratorial tones about “neoconservatives,” where it wasn’t clear if they meant a specific political ideology or just, you know. No one was talking about “Jewish privilege” as if that were somehow a progressive concept, nor about the need for Jews to interrogate their advantages.
It’s not that the 1990s was a perfect time Jewishly. (1991, very not perfect.) But it was a moment when things were easy-breezy, centrist-Democrat-ish, no big threats to liberalism, no concerns that anyone who wasn’t extremely fringe was going to give you a hard time about being pro-Israel, or indeed that being pro-Israel would mean supporting a state that even plenty of Zionists are rather frustrated with these days. It seemed plausible-ish that there would be a peaceful two-state solution, or at least struck me, as a teenager in 1999, as the sort of thing that would doubtless happen any day now.
Also in 1999? I was much younger.
The CJN’s senior editor Phoebe Maltz Bovy can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @bovymaltz