That may be true, but unlike many Jewish holidays, Hanukkah doesn’t reveal much of what Jewish life is about. It’s an empty celebration, and in its lack of substance, it has become filled with literal stuff. “Nobody’s buying anything for Yom Kippur … other than break-fast food and some bagels,” said Neal Hoffman, a former Hasbro employee who invented Mensch on a Bench. This, if you haven’t heard, is the Jewish alternative to Elf on a Shelf, first made in 2013 and now sold in places like Target and Bed Bath & Beyond.
The immaculate conception of Mensch on a Bench is, in many ways, the story of contemporary American Judaism. Hoffman is married to a Catholic; his two sons, Jacob and Alex, are being raised Jewish. Around Christmas time, his boys kept asking for trees and presents and the dreaded Elf on a Shelf. Hoffman would retort, “Jesus is the meal, Christmas is the dessert. And you can’t have dessert if you don’t have your dinner.” But he didn’t want to have to play defense against Christmas; he wanted his kids to have pride in their own cultural heritage. Thus, the Mensch—a stuffed incarnation of the mythical, long-ago Jew who sat on a bench in the Temple and made sure the oil didn’t burn down. In three years, Hoffman said, he has sold 120,000 dolls, and his company has started making books even for off-market holidays like Yom Kippur. “The truth is, we lose money on those,” he said. “We as Jews have not shown that we want to buy things for other holidays. I don’t think that’s necessarily bad, that we’re keeping the other holidays a little more pure. We’re keeping Passover about Seder and keeping Yom Kippur about the fast.”
The word he used, pure, is telling—even this Hanukkah pusher acknowledges that the Festival of Lights is a lesser holiday, fine to adulterate with endless products. It is a low-stakes, low-consequence celebration, and yet for a lot of American Jews, it has probably become one of the few times they encounter their religious culture during the year.
Hoffman, of course, wouldn’t sell it that way. For him, the Mensch experience has been one of pride, not just professionally, but for his family. “I have a thousand of my Mensch menorahs in the house. They all have this Try Me button,” which produces a little song. “If you’ve been near a 3-year-old, you know that if they see a Try Me button, they’ll press it every time,” he explained. (Oy, the patience his wife must have—bless her.) “Now I find [my son] walking around by himself, and he’s singing the Hanukkah prayers year-round, mumbling to himself. I’m so proud of that, so happy about. That it’s all coming from the brand I created—I’m proud of that.”
Perhaps this should be enough—it’s a Hanukkah miracle of its own sort for a 3-year-old to slowly start to embrace his Jewish heritage. The holiday may be ridiculous and totally lacking in substance, but “it’s part of the joke that we do all this stuff for this unimportant holiday,” said Ashton. “We all know what we’re doing. We know we’re making something grand out of a minor festival because, culturally, we need a much more grand, fun, event” in December.
And besides, griping about Hanukkah is a tradition of its own. Every year, Jews kvetch about commercialism, “saying how distasteful it is, or this is completely distorting what this holiday is about,” Ashton said. “People have been saying that for more than 100 years.”