I revisited An American Tail this past weekend for maybe the first time in 25 years or more. The theatrical Fievel Mousekewitz adventures (1986’s An American Tail and 1991’s An American Tail: Fievel Goes West) were a big deal to young Adam Riske. I didn’t just own the movies on VHS (more on that in a second), but I had crazy amounts of Fievel merch as well. I owned a 22” plush Fievel doll from Sears, Fievel Goes West trading cards, illustrated books from McDonalds, and even Viewmaster reels. I was very into it. I once told my parents that our VHS copy of Fievel Goes West was defective so we could go back to Suncoast Video in the mall to get a new one. There was nothing wrong with the tape. I just wanted to have the experience bringing Fievel home one more time. Fievel Mousekewitz was one of my childhood heroes. It was because he was a little boy just like me. It was because his family was of Russian heritage just like me. Most importantly though, it was because he was Jewish just like me. That representation made me feel special. He was me, but a mouse.
I’ve been lucky throughout my life that I’ve seldomly been made to feel bad about being Jewish. What I felt more was not knowing how to handle my religion, especially at an early age. For example, the holiday season as a Jewish kid in elementary school was confusing for me. We would sing Christmas carols at assembly and make decorations out of construction paper and I felt I had to ask my teacher if it was okay for me to join in. I self-consciously “othered” myself. But Fievel was someone my non-Jewish friends knew about and liked. In hindsight, I must have figured if they liked Fievel, they probably didn’t care that I was a little bit different, too. In addition to the demographic factors, I often felt a kinship to characters like Pinocchio and Fievel. As a kid, I was constantly afraid of screwing up and these two characters were emotional and anxious just like I was. I recognized me in them and that made me feel good.