We Need to Talk About the Mensch on a Bench™

I was not going to say anything.

I mean, there are plenty of products out there on the market that I’m not going to buy for my home, so why go out of my way to pick on the Mensch on a Bench™? If the topic were to come up on conversation, I’d just say, “Not for me,” and change the subject. I would let it go. I don’t disagree with the message to our kids: be a Mensch (a person of high moral character). I say it all the time to my kids because it was said all the time to me by my grandfather (of blessed memory). I think the world needs more menschlichkeit and if some hokey doll can help with that, then what’s the harm?

But I can’t….

mensch on a bench

Image: Gwyneth Anne Bronwynne Jones via Flickr

I mean I could, but then I got a promotional email inviting me to “Welcome a Mensch into your family!” I could ignore the Mensch on the Bench™, but when he entered my inbox he crossed a line and I can keep silent no more.

I hate the Mensch on a Bench. I hate everything about him. I hate the concept. I hate the cheap imitation of a (creepy) Christmas tradition. I hate that he holds onto the shamash candle needed to light the other candles of the Menorah and that kids are told that if they misbehave he may not let it go, resulting in no lit Menorah and no presents. I hate the ultimate focus on gifts as a reward for good behavior (distinctly unmensch-like). I hate the slogan urging us to put more “Funukkah in Hanukkah.” I hate the Mensch’s “origin story” — he stayed up all night making sure the Menorah in the Temple didn’t go out so the Maccabees could get some sleep, AND HE WASN’T EVEN GRUMPY ABOUT IT THE NEXT DAY!

Most of all, I hate the picture of “normative” Judaism his white, bearded, talit-wearing, short-and-dumpy physique projects. In the companion book he anachronistically pals around with the Maccabees but still dresses like a 19th Century Polish Hasid. Because, as we’ve all come to be taught, the ultra-Orthodox Jew is the Jewiest Jew there is, imbued with all the moral authority of “authentic” Judaism (when he isn’t spitting on immodestly dressed 8-year-old girls, demanding sex-segregated busing, delaying the departure of Israel-bound flights or demolishing a town’s secular education system). This is the personification of a mensch.

ladies man

Image: The Wu’s Photo Land via Flickr

Hanukkah isn’t Christmas. If your kid wants an Elf-on-a-Shelf better you should give him or her one, than embrace this B-minus, novelty shop, moralizing troll. Move the Elf around the house. When the kids are asleep post your ironic “Elf in the Hot Tub with Barbie” photos to Instagram. Then when they wake up, teach your kids how to be mensches by your behavior: by how you treat them and how they see you treat others. Talk to them about the injustices in the world, big and small, that you and they can do something about. Hanukkah already has a mascot — the Maccabees, who overcame tremendous odds to defeat a much more powerful enemy in the cause of being able to worship freely.

I don’t bear the creator of the Mensch on a Bench™ any ill will. From the website, he seems to be a nice guy, with a background in the toy industry, who just didn’t want his kids to feel left out around Christmas. He’s singing the right song, just hitting the wrong notes in the process. While kids like their toys when they are young, once they get older the toys don’t matter so much as the lessons we teach them. And I contend that parents can teach their kids better than the Mensch can.

Advertisements

9 Comments

Filed under Jewish Stuff, Parenting

9 responses to “We Need to Talk About the Mensch on a Bench™

  1. Yes, we do need to talk….Neal Hoffman creator of the Mensch on a Bench here.

    First of all, I appreciate that you have well thought out your comments and are not just some internet troll.

    Secondly, we have said from the beginning that the Mensch on a Bench was a creation that we made for our family and shared with others (who all loved it)

    Third, hate is a really strong word. We don’t let our kids use it and if you hate the Mensch, you need to take a step back and remember that this is all in good fun with the objective of teaching kids good values.

    Mensch is not a cheap imitation of Elf on a Shelf, but rather an opportunity presented by him. Elf left the opportunity for millions of Jewish families to have a tradition that brings them together and adds more fun to the holiday. With our own twist, we made it decidedly Jewish by teaching kids Jewish values and concepts.

    Having your Mensch hold a Shammash candle and using it to reward your kids is optional. What is not optional is taking one night of Hanukkah and giving presents to those in need rather than receive presents.

    As for how he looks, many older Jews find the traditional garb a reminder of their childhood and love it. Younger Jews need an icon that has Jewish cues and in today’s day in age, we could not get the rights to Jon Stuart.

    Overall, It seems like we both agree that the focus of parenting is the values that we impart on our kids and the Mensch is a tool to teach them to be good people.

    You could have just said “not for me” and that would have been fine. The Jewish people don’t have a Grinch yet….but don’t tempt me to make a line extension for next year.

    Happy holidays to all…those with and without Mensches!

    Neal Hoffman

    Like

    • Thanks Neal.
      Respectfully, I think we’re looking at things from different perspectives, each of which has some merit. You’ve taken the admirable step of attempting to innovate new traditions to enrich the Hanukkah experience. You did this for your own family, and when you saw there was a market for your innovation, you wisely went ahead to make the most of that opportunity. No fault there. Your background is as a toy designer — and obviously you are very successful and skilled at that.
      My perspective comes more from having worked in the field of Jewish culture for two decades and thinking critically about the ways in which we in the Jewish community represent ourselves to ourselves and to others. Of real importance to me is the way nostalgia — often for times and things that never existed — is manipulated to reinforce constraining notions of “authentic” Judaism. You are not alone in privileging the image of the ultra-Orthodox Jew as quintessentially Jewish — from Fiddler on the Roof to The Simpsons this image recurs in popular culture. That image is so dominant that I feel it does real harm to those who cannot identify with it: Jews of Sephardic and Mizrahi heritage, Jews by Choice, Jews of color and other communities that have been excluded from Jewish life like the LGBTQ community.
      So on the one hand, the Mensch is a harmless piece of fun…except that given the broader view, it isn’t because we are transmitting that image, which we’ve tried so hard to overcome, to another generation whose Jewish community won’t look at all like the Mensch’s. Perhaps this is all a bit PC — but I truly believe that the strength of the Jewish community for the next generation is its diversity and the many different ways of being Jewish.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Josh,

        You make some valid points…but in my case I made the decision to embrace the “stereotype” in order to bring more Judaism into my household.

        As part of Mensch we are trying to welcome all Jews and interfaith families and make Jewish culture more welcoming, not less. I hope we are able to accomplish this goal!

        We can agree to respectfully disagree and hopefully you have a great holiday season. If you change your mind, I will send you a free Mensch!

        Like

  2. Julie

    Interesting debate. I’m dying to see a Josh-the-Grinch doll now!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Halley

    I *love* that kids are being given the idea of being a mensch as something to which they should aspire. (Obviously, there’s plenty of shit society holds up instead.) And to have a concrete image for kids to connect with is really useful in that project, versus some vague notion of being a good person.

    But seriously, every damn year I’m having more conversations about how, no, Santa is not “for everyone,” and no, Christmas is not just an American holiday (think about the first half of that word, folks…). Must be nice for those people to always have their experience reflected in all forms of dominant culture. And we know how rabid some folks can get in “defending Christmas!”… as if it’s actually in peril and might disappear.

    So I *totally* get why someone would want to make their kids not feel so left out of the dominant Christmas spirit!, and how *powerful* it can truly be to create something in order that you DO see yourself represented in that dominant culture.

    But wait. The problem here is this: by simply taking the Elf and essentially changing it’s clothes and accessories to make it the Mensch, we’re all endorsing that system. The Mensch is a Christmas toy, that appears as the kind of palatable, broadly-accepted Jewish stereotype that is no threat (even though it bears little resemblance to what Jewish culture looks like for millions of Jews).

    Chanukah/Jewish culture is not just a knock-off version of Christmas/”white” American culture – why try to make it so?

    The Mensch says, “Rock on with your (Christian/Christmas/etc) privilege! No need to examine it to see how it’s not universal or excludes millions of people, and erases their experiences as valid. We’re good! We’ll just be over here renting this corner of a culture we’re happy to keep letting you own.”

    Okay, so it’s just a doll. I’m not expecting one toy to either take down or forever reinforce how we approach the winter holiday season.

    But I also don’t have to like a toy that essentially tells me to shut up and just be fine with erasure and accept Christmas as the unchallenged universal experience… AND then, to accept that erasure in the form of a stereotype that keeps leading so many people to call themselves (unnecessarily) a “bad Jew” because they don’t practice or identify with the stereotypes we reinforce.

    If the toy’s goal is to say, “we belong, too,” then why do it in a way that ultimately affirms Christmas and further severs more and more Jews because they don’t “look Jewish”?

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Aside from an accidental convergence on the calender, Christmas and Hanukkah really have nothing in common. Hanukkah is a celebration of a military victory.

    Yes, I realize that the miracle of the lamps burning in the Temple is an integral part of telling the story, but the Feast commemorates the defeat of Antichos Epiphanies by the Maccabees. The original rag-tag group of rebels in the hills, taking on an overwhelming military force to retake their homeland. That, for me, is the message of Hanukkah–don’t passively accept evil, fight against it, no matter what the odds, no matter what the cost, and to trust in G-d to be faithful.

    It is not Christmas and trying to make it “just like” Christmas does a great disservice to both traditions.

    Like

  5. “You make some valid points…but in my case I made the decision to embrace the “stereotype” in order to bring more Judaism into my household.”

    This is why this debate is really about a fundamental difference in values.

    Neal, bringing a little Hassid doll into your home doesn’t bring Judaism into the home any more than bringing the Taco Bell dog into your home brings Catholicism into it. If you want Judaism in your home, you should join (or become more actively in involved in) a synagogue. Join the JCC. Bring books into your home. Study some Talmud. Review actual Jewish history with your kids.

    Instead, you made up a funny little story and drew a cartoon. That’s great. You used it to make your kids feel better. That’s admirable! But you didn’t bring Judaism into your household by putting a Tallit on a doll. And quite frankly, you didn’t want to bring Judaism into your home. You wanted to bring YOUR perception of Jewish culture (in this case, a 19th century Hassid) into your house. What I, and what I think Josh is speaking to here, is that by mass-marketing this sort of thing you are trying to solidify YOUR image of Judaism as THE image of Judaism.

    I’m a Jew. I’m also Italian American. So now I have to explain to my daughter why, despite the fact that I’m Jewish, I look so unlike what major retailers tell her a good Jew should look like.

    Eastern European clothing is not Judaism. Bagels and lox are not Judaism. And the Mensch on a Bench? That is absolutely not Judaism. That’s commercialism. We have enough stories and legends. We don’t need to make stuff up.

    I appreciate that you dislike the word “hate” so let me just say that I’m disgusted by this product. I’m even more disgusted that so many people wish to cheapen their religion by buying it. Your intentions seem sincere, but if you think that this doll brings Judaism into your home, you evidently have so little grasp of Judaism that saddens me.

    Like

    • Tim,

      At a time when families are struggling to bring Judaism into their homes, the Mensch offers an opportunity to introduce kids to ideas such as The Maccabees, dreidel, tzedakah, and the miracle of G-D in a new and exciting way.

      Yes, I made this for my family with what my image of Judaism is. People have responded in droves that they love the Mensch and how he is bringing the family together. Sure he looks classical, but if I made a doll of Tim and called it the Mensch on a Bench, it would not have the cues that would make it a great toy. Jews come in all shapes, sizes, and colors, this is just one.

      This item is not for everyone, we respect this. You are welcome to your opinion, but after creating this product MY home has much more Judaism in it…and many others feel the same.

      I look forward to seeing what ideas you come up with to try and make a positive difference in the lives of thousands of families.

      Neal

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s