November 16, 2018

Set a place at the holiday table for Mensch on a Bench

I first encountered the Christmas tradition of “Elf on the Shelf” — based on the 2005 children’s book of the same name — in the home of a dear friend six years ago. The elf, with its red plush body, hard Kewpie-doll face and pointy hat, is said to be a “magical helper that helps Santa Claus manage his naughty and nice lists by reporting back to him at the North Pole.” 

Parents put the toy elf on a shelf in their house, surreptitiously moving it around and dressing it in whimsical outfits to convince their kids that the elf is alive — and watching. It is, for millions of kids, a treasured Christmas memory. For others, it can be a thing of terror. 

As I stared deeply into the glassy blue eyes of the shelved elf all those years ago, I felt thankful that Jews didn’t have anything like it for Chanukah; it would seem that our pervading sense of guilt would render such a toy obsolete. 

So, you can imagine my surprise when I recently visited the holiday aisles of Bed Bath & Beyond and found a “Mensch on a Bench.” The plush Orthodox man — named Moshe — had a black hat, big nose, full gray beard and mustache, tallit and suit. He comes with an austere wooden prayer bench, a plush toy shamash candle, and a book that contains the story of Chanukah. Stereotypical? Yes. Offensive? It treads a fine line. And it could have been worse: It could have been “Jew on a Pew.” 

The commodification of Chanukah seems to be a relatively new thing. Growing up in the ’90s, I remember the paltry selection of Chanukah-themed gifts available at my local department store. The inventory was mostly limited to candles, brass menorahs, plastic dreidels and old chocolate coins that masqueraded as gelt. In stores with aisles upon aisles of Christmas goods, we Jews were lucky if we got a shelf without an elf on it.

Turns out, we were a delightfully untapped market. 

Now, businesses such as Bed Bath & Beyond carry a plethora of Chanukah tchotchkes. While on a mission to find towels, I came across two robust aisles dedicated to everything Jewish. Some of the stuff actually seemed useful, such as the dreidel-shaped latke tongs, Star of David bottle stopper and “Knish Me, I’m Jewish” serving platter.  

Other selections seemed more curious. I couldn’t exactly see myself owning a wiener dog-shaped chanukiyah, though I’m sure someone else might appreciate it (I am, after all, a cat person). The dog motif carried through the collection, which also included a dancing Chanukah puppy and a Chanukah dog lighted holiday decoration. There also was an animatronic plush rabbi who sang “Havah Nagilah” and danced to the beat, a distant cousin of the Mensch on a Bench, no doubt. 

I was a little vexed by the 20-inch-round lighted Chanukah bear, which was really just a sparkly white globe with bear things (round ears, snout, the works) and a kippah and bow tie. There also were dreidel-shaped pathway lights that, in theory, should lead someone to a party. A cynical me would say that both of these items were meant to serve as Jewish lawn ornaments, but I could also give manufacturers the benefit of the doubt and say that the items are really just the opening acts to the grand candle-lighting finale. 

Except … then there were some straight-up Christmas appropriations: A Chanukah gingerbread house. A quilted velvet embroidered Chanukah stocking with 12 Swarovski crystals in blue, white and silver. A Star of David ornament that is meant to be hung from an undisclosed promontory. A sparkly Jewish Star tree topper. And, of course, the Mensch. 

Don’t get me wrong: Bed Bath & Beyond, to name just one retailer, has a lot of normal things that a lot of Jews can enjoy. But if you’d prefer to walk through the holiday aisles these days and set off all the singing rabbis at once, well, now’s your chance!