By Samantha Melamed
The Philadelphia Inquirer
When it comes to visual impact, it's hard to compete with the glow of the Christmas tree.
Now, though, the menorah has backup. Meet the Mensch on a Bench, a jovial little prayer-shawl-and-fedora-wearing fellow named Moshe from some unnamed shtetl (or, perhaps, Williamsburg) to inspire good behavior among the Jewish set.
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"It's really an opportunity for the Jewish kids to not miss out on fun traditions," said Jon Schwartz of Haddonfield, whose daughter, Josie, age 4½, became acquainted with Moshe last Hanukkah.
Perhaps it's a sign that the Elf on the Shelf, that prefab holiday tradition that began as a self-published book in 2005, has reached critical mass.
Chanda Bell, one of the Elf's creators, said 7 million of the sets have been sold, which include a book and an elf that observes children's behavior and reports back to Santa. The franchise has expanded to include female elves, dark-skinned elves -- and, new this year, Elf Pets, in the form of a reindeer that requires cuddles to keep up its Christmas spirit as it schleps a sleigh from the North Pole. It has also spawned a social media phenomenon, as fans (and haters) post endless photos of elves' meshugana antics.
Bell, who even in interviews clings to the conceit that the elves are magical creatures dispatched directly from the Arctic Circle, nonetheless insisted that they're also flexible when it comes to religious affiliations.
"A good tradition is something any family can adopt and make their own," she said. "I've met fans that are Jewish or that are atheist. I think people incorporate it in a way that works best for their family."
So her voice takes on a twinge that could be mistaken for annoyance when asked about niche imitators like the Mensch.
"It is odd to see people be able to mention something like Elf on the Shelf and get so much press, because when we launched there was no reference point for something like this. There was no tradition-in-a-box, per se," she said. "You had to explain to every person you met what this elf in a box was."
Neal Hoffman, the macher behind the Mensch, doesn't look at it that way.
The former Hasbro employee and toy aficionado from Cincinnati is open about the fact that his own book-and-stuffed-toy set was created in response to the ubiquity of the Elf.
"We were walking through a store and my son said, 'I want an Elf on the Shelf.' And I said, 'No, we're Jewish. We don't do elves on shelves. We do mensches on benches.' "Last year, he decided to manifest that concept by running a Kickstarter. It raised $22,000 in 10 days and landed him appearances on Today and The View.
This year, the mensch has gone to mass production; it's in select Target stores, Barnes & Noble, and Bed, Bath & Beyond.
Schwartz, who backed the Kickstarter last year, said he looked at the mensch as a fun addition to his family's mixed-faith celebration.
"We had thought about Elf on the Shelf, and the big difference for us is the Mensch on a Bench is a plush doll you can play with, whereas the Elf on the Shelf is something that just sits on the shelf and, as my wife likes to say, scares kids."
For the uninitiated, the elfin rules are as follows: Santa's "scout elves" show up after Thanksgiving and hang around until Christmas, reporting back on kids' behavior in between. They're not to be touched by children, and they move overnight from one place in the house to another as if by magic.
Rachel Scott of Fishtown said her sister-in-law gave her family an elf last year. After a long debate between Scott and her husband over how to present Christmas lore to their 3-year-old daughter, the elf felt like a compromise.
The idea was: "Let's give her some magic of Christmas," she said. "I don't care much about Santa, but Elf on the Shelf I can manipulate more and make it more fun. It's very tangible, whereas Santa's just out there. She'll never see him."
Whether Moshe, with his dapper suit and bearded punim, lends himself to similar shenanigans is another matter.
But Hanukkah has never been about magic (except, of course, for the miracle of a day's worth of oil burning for more than a week). So the mensch is more focused on explaining Jewish holiday traditions and introducing various rules. For example, on one night, the mensch book asks kids to forgo receiving a gift and give one instead."We're trying to teach kids to be mensches," Hoffman said.
As well, the concept of the elf as supernatural surveillance operative -- a notion that has brought toddlers to tears and led to some backlash against the toys -- is subtler in the mensch. But it's there, if parents want it.
"It doesn't take it to the same extreme, where we're watching you and reporting on you," Hoffman said. "It's not core to what the idea is."
The truth is, Hoffman isn't sure how parents will use the mensch. He's looking forward to finding out.
"A lot of people are getting their mensches now and taking pictures of them. There was someone who posted a mensch who caught an elf in a trap with a candy cane," he said, kvelling. "Jewish parents, for years, have felt like they were missing out on the social media phenomenon, and now we're giving them that outlet. I anticipate that as the elf comes out in earnest, the mensch will come out as well, and it will be a blast."
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