Latke Larry Cooks Up Dough for Kids
For a second or two, it seems like the cloth doll is going to leap from the table to the stove and start wielding a spatula.
Or maybe it’s just that Latke Larry’s creator, Rabbi Areyah Kaltmann, head of the Ohio State University Chabad House in Columbus, is so excited about the singing, dancing Chanukah action figure and how it will benefit children with special needs that his enthusiasm seems capable of casting a spell.
“How can you resist Latke Larry? He’s all about transforming the ‘oy’ of Judaism to ‘joy,'” says the rabbi, fidgeting in his chair as he activates the doll’s song.
Latke Larry, clad in a chef’s hat, tzitzit dangling from his waist, rocks to and fro and sings (to the tune of “Rock of Ages”): “Latke Larry comes to you, a friend to play with and fun to chew. I’ve got tales of Maccabees — oy — and plenty of calories.”
Kaltmann created the battery- and computer-chip-powered toy as a fundraiser for Chabad’s national Friendship Circle. The program pairs teenagers in 30-plus communities with families whose children have special needs. The teens are companions to the children, playing games with them and joining them on outings. Kaltmann and his wife, Esther, spearhead the Columbus chapter of Friendship Circle.
Latke Larry retails for $17.95. Part of the cost covers manufacturing and distribution. Profits from the doll’s sale will be distributed to all branches of Friendship Circle.
Rabbi Levi Shemtov, a Chabad rabbi in West Bloomfield, Mich., and founder of the 11-year-old Friendship Circle, said the doll is only one idea brewing to raise money nationally for the program. “I’m really excited about this,” he said. “It’s a consistent and very appropriate fundraiser for Friendship Circle.”
To record Larry’s voice, Kaltmann got comic actor and TV star Jerry Stiller — for free. Stiller said the actor Jon Voigt asked him to do it. Voigt, a longtime supporter of Chabad, had encountered Kaltmann at events over the years.
Stiller said he was intrigued. Speaking from his dressing room on the set of “The King of Queens” in Los Angeles, he said the rabbi “arranged for me to meet him in the middle of 14th Street and Eighth Avenue [in New York]. I had just come from the orthopedist, and I couldn’t find him. Then suddenly, he waved at me. I thought, ‘This is “Fiddler on the Roof” once removed.’ He screamed and we stopped traffic.”
The pair went upstairs and Kaltmann played the song for Stiller.
Stiller later unveiled Latke Larry to his family.
“We had a little get-together, my son, Ben, and the kids — and we played it,” he said. “Everybody cracked up. A lot of the children there were not Jewish, but they got the greatest amount of joy out of this.”
“Jewish kids have no icon for Chanukah,” the rabbi said. “I thought, ‘How can we give children something where kids can express their Judaism, feel good and have a good time?’ I want Jewish kids in America to feel proud of their heritage.”
On the back of the doll’s box, Kaltmann put a latke recipe for those who might want to try to make the traditional Chanukah food.
The dolls have circulated throughout the country as a test to see how kids would respond to them. Beth Kramer of Santa Fe, N.M., said she got the doll through Chabad House there for her daughter, Ryanna.
“It’s hilarious,” Kramer said. “It’s a great Jewish toy. I love the recipe on the back.”
Katie Kaufman of Columbus said her children, 4 and 2, enjoy playing with the doll. “It’s adorable and it appeals to both kids and adults,” she said.
Retailers are fascinated, too. Kaltmann sold 13,000 of the 21,000 dolls he had ordered before they arrived from the manufacturer. Buyers have picked up the dolls for sale in a number of department and specialty stores, including Filene’s Basement and Bed, Bath & Beyond.
The design for Latke Larry comes from Kaltmann’s brother-in-law, Eli Toron, a graphic artist for “Sesame Street.” Larry’s song was written by two of the rabbi’s friends, Neil Greenberg of Philadelphia, who works in marketing, and Aaron Evenchik of Cleveland, an Ohio State University graduate who attended Chabad House regularly during his college years.
Kaltmann has sent fliers about Latke Larry to synagogues around the country. He also has promoted the doll on mainstream radio stations. Kaltmann said he has other ideas for Latke Larry. He wants to write a children’s book featuring the character addressing children with special needs.
He said, “The idea of Friendship Circle is about putting smiles on faces of people who deserve to be happy.”
Monica Garcia had her daughter-to-be in mind when she designed a modest line of Barbie clothing while she was pregnant last year.
“Barbie is a slut,” she says. Some people “want a doll that’s dressed appropriately.”
Garcia, who converted to Judaism four years ago, started the line of handsewn, brightly colored clothing when she was pregnant last year.
The clothes move Barbie from flirty to frummy.
Unlike much of the standard Barbie line, most of the clothes are loose fitting and made out of cotton and satin. The clothes often have details such as bows or buttons.
“I didn’t like the way Barbie was dressed,” says Garcia, who has about 100 customers — equally split between Jews and Christians.
Garcia, who currently works as a longshoreman in Los Angeles by day, hopes to add a line of accessories such as hats and purses — and maybe one day create her own doll.
When asked what that doll would look like, Garcia said, “She would not be blond. She would be a brunette with nice brown eyes.”
This past year, Toys R Us was excoriated for proposing and, in some instances, constructing separate “Boys World” and “Girls World” sections. But public outrage quickly forced the 707-store retailer to abandon this gender-based marketing concept, which it euphemistically referred to as “logical adjacencies.”Twenty years ago, I would have vehemently condemned Toys R Us’ discriminatory actions, perhaps even joining the ranks of the politically correct protesters. Girls, I would have argued, have as much right to play with a Tonka truck as boys with a Little Tikes vacuum cleaner. And not only a right, a need.Twenty years ago, I was single, childless and clueless.
But I had come of age in the late 1960s and 1970s, witnessing the birth of the pill, Ms. Magazine and Helen Reddy’s hit song, “I am Woman,” watching a total upheaval of traditional sexual roles, rules and expectations.
By the early 1980s, I had seen Sally J. Priesand ordained as the first female American rabbi, Sandra Day O’Connor appointed as the first female United States Supreme Court justice and Sally Ride launched into space as the first American female astronaut. And I firmly believed the slogan – before I met my husband, Larry, of course – that a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.
The truth is that the feminist movement, especially during the last 30 years, has brought women unprecedented and very necessary civil rights. It has increased our pay, our sense of confidence and our reproductive options. Clearly, in the words of Bob Dylan, “the times they are a-changin’.”
Changing so much that by late 1983, married and pregnant, I envisioned raising my first son in an idyllic, egalitarian environment. I would teach him to be vulnerable and sensitive, to share his toys graciously with his playmates and to assist me joyfully and willingly with household chores. My future daughter-in-law, whoever she might be, would sing the praises of my parenting skills.
Then Zack was actually born – and I watched the powers of the Y chromosome unfold before me. I watched him hide his favorite toys before a friend would come over. And even more horrific, in our then-adamantly pacifistic, weapon-free home, I watched him fashion guns out of Legos or pieces of toast. Or shoot with a pointed forefinger and raised thumb.
In 1987, Gabe was born. As a toddler, he transformed his cute, cuddly Care Bears into deadly weapons to hurl against his older brother. Later, he used his artistic skills to draw guns and forts and armed castles. Then, in 1989, with the birth of Jeremy, I learned the true meaning of the word risk-taker. Barely walking, he regularly climbed atop the kitchen table and marched across it. Worse, before he learned to swim, he jumped fearlessly into the deep end of swimming pools. He also wrapped Levolor cords around his neck and headed for electrical outlets with letter openers.
By the time my fourth son, Danny, arrived in 1991, my feminist outlook had flip-flopped. I had accepted the reality of innate, intrinsic and God-given gender differences, differences not easily altered by well-meaning and enlightened parents and parenting manuals, differences fundamentally immune to social and cultural influences.
The Talmud agrees. “It is the way of man to subdue the earth, but it is not the way of a woman to subdue it.”
My friend Doug Williams also agrees. Recently comparing our respective hormonally charged home environments, Doug, the father of three daughters, said, “At our house, we have talking, talking, talking. Everything has to be processed.””Come to our house,” I offered. “We have punching.”
“Boys are just hard-wired a certain way,” my husband, Larry, says. And studies confirm this. Males have 10 to 20 times higher testosterone levels than females as well as lower levels of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that reduces confrontational and impulsive tendencies.
Overall, men are more competitive, aggressive, physical and prone to taking risks.That’s why, with four boys, we have plastic surgeons on call.And that’s why females, who have been trying for the past several decades to remake males in our image, to make them more communal, cooperative and compassionate, have been unsuccessful. Indeed, no matter how much we ask our husbands and sons to talk about their feelings, how often we ask them to process and not necessarily solve problems or how many pink polo shirts we buy them, biology trumps behavioral influences, nature trumps nurture.
This doesn’t mean that I don’t passionately and unequivocally believe in equal civil, social and religious rights for males and females.
It doesn’t mean that I condone rude, offensive, outlandish or inappropriate behavior. Or that I ever accept the excuse that “boys will be boys.”
But it does mean that no matter how generically, unideologically or “illogically adjacent” Toys R Us arranges its thousands of toys, my sons, every time, will make a beeline to the weapon aisle.