I reject the Mensch on a Bench and you should, too

There are many things about Christmas that perplex me, but that doesn’t mean I can’t love the Christmas season. And I primarily love this most wonderful time of the year because I don’t celebrate Christmas.

I have no halls to deck, no lights to hang, no tidings to send. Somehow, though, as everyone else is decking and lighting and sending their tidings, it is impossible to avoid being swept up in a tornado of good cheer—that is, of course, if you can tune out the commercialization of every possible facet of the celebration. For a few weeks, the world feels like a giving, thankful, bright, happy place, and I love basking in its glow. Despite the shopping, cooking, decorating madness, as an outsider, it feels like people are trying to help other people.

December always brings the Hanukkah/Christmas cage match. Hanukkah is not the same as Christmas, and I never pretend otherwise. It is not the holiest of days, nor the apex of spiritual celebrations. I have always enjoyed the fact that Hanukkah is a minor festival, and ever since I was small, I felt completely satisfied with spending a week lighting candles, singing blessings, giving gifts, frying latkes, and reminding ourselves about another religious miracle.

But each year as my kids grow older, I face new questions and confusion about holidays and our religious identity. Now that my oldest is in public school, I am getting an earful about Christmas traditions of her friends. She’s already complained that she doesn’t hear “Hannukah music on the radio” and that more people celebrate Christmas at school. Their questions force me to think about the religious tenets that matter to me and compel me to make meaning for my children, to help them make sense of the world that is full of lights and trees and especially elves.

I know the Elf on a Shelf is a relatively new Christmas tradition for some, and last year more than any other year on social media, I could not escape photo after photo of these elves on shelves. I attribute the uptick to a confluence a few factors including the aging of my friends’ kids and the availability of social media for sharing everyday life. The elves hang from the chandelier, drink the family’s juice, play in the toy box, leaving reminders to the children that they are under a watchful eye. They create mischief and children must follow several important rules so as not to wreck Christmas magic (and ultimately, their Santa spoils, right?).

I know this relatively new tradition is supposed to be fun for children, but it seems to cause a fair amount stress for parents, working to create this Christmas magic. When I confessed my confusion (and really my mild disapproval) for the Elf on a Shelf on Facebook last year, I faced my virtual and actual friends who quickly schooled me on the enthusiasm for (and fear of) their family’s elf. Another friend pointed me towards an even newer Christmas tradition developed in opposition to the Elf on the Shelf called “Kindness Elves.” These hipster elves also move around your house but instead of asking you to behave for presents, they leave little notes encouraging children to practice acts of kindness like delivering toys to a local homeless shelter or baking cookies for a neighbor.

All of these new, manufactured traditions are commodification in the name of good cheer. I am still unclear why we can’t simply expect good behavior from our children or devote our time to helping others without the watchful eye of a stuffed toy. But, it’s not my holiday tradition.

That is, until someone went out and created the Mensch on a Bench.

If I wasn’t too fond of the Elf on a Shelf, I kept it to myself. In fact, this year, I’m even seeing a little Elf backlash, so I know I’m not the only person who finds the tradition onerous. But this Mensch on a Bench product infuriates me.

The Mensch on a Bench is the brain child of an entrepreneur who created the story of the mensch for his sons to overcome his own “elf envy.” He claims that his product will add “more funakkah in your Hanukkah.”

My Hanukkah is just fine.

And elf envy is not a thing. It simply cannot be a thing because Hanukkah is not the same as Christmas.

At first, I thought I would give the product the benefit of the doubt and I perused the website with an open mind—or as open a mind as I could muster–but I did not even make it through the PR reel. It’s so clearly a commercialized ripoff of the Elf “tradition” that I had to stop listening to TV hosts awkwardly “kvell” over this nonsense. Though the Mensch backstory is grounded in some of the traditional story of the holiday–Moshe the Mensch promised Judah Maccabee that he would watch over the menorah in the old temple and now he’ll watch over your menorah (and subsequently your children’s behavior) while you sleep–the doll comes with a list of rules that sound eerily the same as the list for the Elf on a Shelf.

Neal Hoffman, the brains behind this product, claim that it is “widely accepted in the Jewish community.” Last year, Hoffman manufactured 1,000 dolls and sold out, so this year he has the shelves of major retailers like Target or Bed, Bath and Beyond stocked with mensches. As if my holiday was not already misunderstood enough, now this absurd little man is becoming its emissary? Critics of the mensch rightfully recognize that this little, plush man represents an extremely limited view of who modern Jews are or how modern families are constructed. In my local Jewish community, I have not found a critical mass, not found one person who thinks this product is a good idea. I am appalled that anyone would spend money on this product that so transparently rips off another commercialized holiday “tradition.” (Note: I originally typed that last four words of the previous sentence in shouty-caps but self-edited because I am a lady.)

Maybe if the Mensch on a bench was modeled after an age-old Christmas tradition like some new “Hanukkah activities” I would not take such offense. I am still not crazy about the Manischewitz Chanukah house modeled after the gingerbread house or the “Hannukah bush” knocked off from the Christmas tree. These two traditions, while still slightly strange (and a little appalling), are at least grounded on old, cultural celebrations of a holy day.

This Mensch business is like a bad copy of a bad tradition.

This Mensch on a Bench manufactured nonsense tradition does not solve the problem I’m going through: how to teach my daughter to be proud of her religious faith when she is in the minority. Our Hanukkah traditions are grounded in generations of stories and suffering, and honoring those traditions is what makes us mensches. I want my daughter to know she comes from somewhere, that the people who came before her, made it possible for her to have Hanukkah, this little celebration of miracles. The Mensch puts no more “funakkah” in my holiday; in fact, it creates more stress just like the elf on a shelf does for lots of Christians.

A mensch is a person of integrity and honor.

All I could hope for in life is for my children to be looked upon as little mensches. Instead of intimidating my children into being mensches by posing some creepy doll around my house, I’ll spend my holiday season creating actual traditions with them. I’ll ask them to fry latkes, we’ll try our hand at making donuts, we’ll play dreidel, exchange gifts with our cousins, spend time at our temple and JCC, and write notes of thanks to their teachers and grandparents. We’ll keep it simple, because simplicity leaves room for honest chatter, for quality family time, and for focusing on the things that matter to us.

And most importantly, we’ll inspire them to be mensches because acts of kindness, integrity and honor are not only for eight days of obligation in December.

The most mensch-y of mensches is a mensch even when–nay, especially when–no one is watching.

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About rglw

Sociologist mom writes for work and for pleasure.
This entry was posted in being jewish, everyday life, family, holidays, kids, parenthood, personal, religion, writing and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to I reject the Mensch on a Bench and you should, too

  1. “Instead of intimidating my children into being [good] by posing some creepy doll around my house, I’ll spend my holiday season creating actual traditions with them… We’ll keep it simple, because simplicity leaves room for honest chatter, for quality family time, and for focusing on the things that matter to us.”

    Amen! Well said! I hope that supporters of Santa and Elf on the Shelf will read your post and also realize that, for their Christmas celebrations, the focus should be on Jesus and building character in their children, remembering that “Acts of kindness, integrity and honor are not only for eight days of obligation in December.”

  2. Neal Hoffman says:

    Hello,

    Neal Hoffman, creator of the Mensch here…Thank you for sharing your opinion. The Mensch is not for everyone and we appreciate that…but there are a few things you overlooked…

    1. Elf Envy is real. Jewish kids feel left out at the holidays and in my house this was magnified by the fact that we are an interfaith household raising Jewish kids. I created a tool by which I could bring more Judaism into the house. You can say that Hanukkah is not the same at Christmas…but with a 24 foot section at major retailers…that train has kind of left the station. So lets try and make it a little “more jewish” and create meaningful family experiences.

    1a. I created this as a solution for MY OWN FAMILY! When I started to share the idea, people were so excited that we had found a way to add some more Jewishness and excitement to the holiday, we just kept making more.

    2. Sure, we are using Elf as our inspiration, but our book and rules are pushing the same traditions you are. We want families to spend more time playing dreidel, making latkes, and singing songs.

    3. I notice you failed to mention the NEW tradition that we are trying to get to take hold which is to have kids give presents to those in need during one night of Hanukkah, rather than get presents.

    Read the book, give it a shot, and let us know what you think. We will send you a free one!

    • rglw says:

      Neal, thanks for taking the time to read and respond to my blog post. I understand that you and your company are trying to promote the same morals and values that I discussed in my post, but I stand by my contention that Hanukkah is not the same thing as Christmas, and that the mensch product complicates rather than eases this distinction. Just because Christmas is over the top with consumption and commercialization does not mean that Hanukkah should go along for the proverbial ride. These two holidays represent very different events in each religious and cultural heritage. And just as many people who celebrate Christmas find the commercialization of their holiday and new “traditions” like the Elf on a Shelf abhorrent, I find the efforts to answer to “elf envy” by putting Hanukkah and Christmas on a level playing field equally offensive. Our Jewish children will never be in the religious majority and there are many beautiful things we can teach them about our heritage, history, values and morals. However, teaching them to love their holiday using the commercialized traditions of another religion is something I cannot do for MY family. So while I appreciate what you’ve done as a young family man, making a new tradition for YOUR family and others, and while I appreciate your offer to send us a Mensch, after seeing you tell the Sharks on Shark Tank that the mensch is something “the entire Jewish community is behind,” as I continue to disagree with your position, your offer is one I must respectfully decline.

  3. Pingback: Christmas as social control | Memoirs of a SLACer

  4. Rabbi Joshua Edelmanm says:

    Hey Neal,

    I’m not going to put your offensive little doll in my home. I wouldn’t take one if you paid me. My wife and I are both Reform Rabbis. That you chose to make your “mensche” a characiture of Orthodox-ish components sends a message that this is what Jews look like.

    So how does your book explain to our son (who is Korean) why this new face of Hannukah is someone he would NEVER see in his own congregation? Why must that representative be a white man?

    If you had attempted to inject even a modicum of diversity into your product I would applaud the effort. But instead you cheapened our religion and are attempting to profit off of stereotypes. The only thing I find more offensive is the fact that you found Rabbis willing to write letters to target to put this filth on the shelf.

    I will be writing to any retailer who carries this garbage.

    • Neal Hoffman says:

      Rabbi Edelmanm,

      I would love your feedback on adding diversity to our book. We are making edits for next year and I would welcome thoughts. I understand that Jews come in all shapes, sizes, and colors (mine are blond hair with blue eyes).

      While this product does reflect an orthodox Jewish person, it also opens the discussions for families to talk about the Maccabees, our tradition, and giving back to those in need.

      As for your son, let me send him a free Mensch and see what he thinks. Does he like the story, the message, the ideals? If I could have made a Mensch that looks like myself, I would love to! But people need cues to identify with the character.

      In the future we are looking at adding female Mensches and adding more diversity to our cast of characters. Instead of rallying against this, we would welcome you to share your ideas and make it better.

      However you feel about the Mensch, you cannot question my intentions. As an interfaith household I was looking for a tool to bring Hanukkah traditions and more fun into my household and am proud of what I have accomplished.

      Neal Hoffman

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