Saturday, December 6, 2014

Hanukkah's Answer to Elf on a Shelf: It's the Mensch on a Bench!

This Mensch on a Bench (a.ka. Moshe) found many places to sit and keep watch on this day, seen here on a bench at City Hall.

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TORONTO STAR STAFF
This Mensch on a Bench (a.ka. Moshe) found many places to sit and keep watch on this day, seen here on a bench at City Hall.
With a Mensch on a Bench, Jewish kids can finally forget about that sneaky, spying Elf on the Shelf.
The Jewish answer to the popular Christmas toy came to Neal Hoffman while walking through a department store with his eldest son two winters ago.
“We were going through what I call our December dilemma,” Hoffman, who lives in Cincinnati, says.
When Hoffman and son wandered past the store’s toy section, little Jacob’s eyes lit up.
“Daddy! Can we have an Elf on the Shelf?!” the boy asked. That toy, marketed as Santa’s secret spy, has become a Christmas staple since its 2005 debut.
“No, dude,” Hoffman recalls saying. “We’re Jewish. You can do a Mensch on a Bench!”
Soon the idea of creating a Jewish cousin to the elf was all Hoffman could talk about. His wife told him to do something about it or shut up.
So he wrote a children’s book. Hoffman retooled the Hanukkah story, a tale of how a small flask of lamp oil miraculously burned for eight days after a group of Jewish warriors expelled their Grecian overlords in the 2nd century BCE. In Hoffman’s telling, a “mensch” (the Yiddish word for a person of integrity and honour) becomes the “unsung hero of Hanukkah” for volunteering to stay up and watch the lamp while everyone else sleeps.
Hoffman, who had worked at toy giant Hasbro for six years, launched a crowdfunding campaign to create a doll to go along with the book. The $22,000 (U.S.) he raised allowed him to get the book illustrated, create packaging and manufacture a smiling “Moshe the mensch doll.” Last season he made 1,000 packages that sold out in just 10 days.
“For me, in an interfaith marriage where we’re trying to raise our kids Jewish, it’s a tool to bring a little bit more Judaism into the household during the Hanukkah season,” he says of the mensch.
Families are encouraged to name their mensch and move him around the house to watch over their Hanukkia — the nine-armed candelabrum used to celebrate the holiday.
This year, Hoffman ramped up production to 50,000 mensches that are being released in Canada at stores like Indigo, Bed Bath & Beyond and independent retailers.
“It’s a little bit tongue and cheek and a ton of fun ... We’ve been very pleased with the performance,” says Robin Tameshtit, Indigo’s director of kids and teen print.
Jodi Segal, the owner of Israel’s Judaica in Toronto and Thornhill, thinks the book and doll combination is a winner for kids.
“It’s a cute item and the story is really lovely,” Segal says. “It also teaches kids how to be a mensch!”
Heidi Khoe has been tweeting about her mensch since picking it up more than two weeks ago.
“My husband is Jewish . . . and this is right up our alley for fun and kitsch,” the Toronto lawyer told the Star. “I even bought a second one for my brother-in-law!”

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