Menorah trees, gingerbread houses and sweaters are the latest additions to the ancient tradition. These new customs not only prove to be another way to include non-Jewish friends and family in the Festival of Lights but are also a way to reinforce Jewish identity during this time of year. And strengthening Jewish identity is exactly what Neal Hoffman set out to do after gaining inspiration from his son to create the Hanukkah version of Elf on a Shelf. Meet the Mensch on a Bench. In only two years, Hoffman went from Kickstarter to Shark Tank. He’s even appeared on Today and The View.
Unlike its Christmas counterpart, children are meant to play with Mensch on a Bench. Every night the doll sits on his bench and watches over the menorah as the candles burn brightly. Accompanying the doll is a book telling the story of Hanukkah as well as how to be a mensch. The toy was originally intended for children, however, it has reached an older demographic, including celebrities like Seth Green and Tom Arnold. A five-foot Mensch doll was even sent to James Franco’s Bar Mitzvah in October. Mensch on a Bench provides the solution to the December Dilemma for children and adults alike!
Even though some would frown upon the adoption of Christmas-inspired traditions and say it’s just another way to commercialize Hanukkah, Hoffman explains, “I am an interfaith dad who wants more Judaism in the house.” The toy teaches about traditions and serves as an educational tool for both Jews and non-Jews. Adopting new traditions to fit Hanukkah is a reflection of the multicultural society we live in. Hoffman recognizes that Mensch on a Bench takes on the traditional Jewish characteristics, and he plans to launch additional characters that will break the Orthodox mold and reflect the diversity of the Jewish community. Also said to be in the works is a Hanukkah cartoon special. For now, if you want to see what you look like as a mensch, there’s an app for that. Similar to Elf Yourself, the Mensch on a Bench app allows users to paste their face on a mensch and dance to the Maccabeats “Hanukkah, Oh Hanukkah.” Now that’s what I call adding more “Funukkah to Hanukkah!”
Stay tuned for some more menschy surprises from Mensch on a Bench! Check out www.menschonabench.com for more information.
Dvorah Lewis is pursuing her Master’s in Library & Information Science with a specialization in Archival Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles.