It’s Christmastime at Bed Bath & Beyond on Rockville Pike. The store is stuffed with red, green and gold products wishing customers a Merry Christmas, from pillows to sweaters to Christmas ornaments. Christmas music plays on rotation.
The color scheme is different at two display shelves near the checkout. There, deep blue stockings reading “Happy Hanukkah” hang near small blue plastic Christmas trees, ornaments in the shape of the Star of David and string lights shaped like dreidels. Welcome to the state of Chanukah retail in 2018.
A confused shopper might ask, why were these products created? And, is anyone actually buying them?
To be sure, the Chanukah gift market is tiny. Last year the Huffington Post reported that of 324 million Americans, 280 million celebrate Christmas. Six million U.S. Jewish consumers is a drop in the holiday bucket.
Still, you can’t stop an entrepreneur from trying.
There are plenty of Chanukah-themed products to buy that are inspired by Christmas traditions. Punny or humorous ugly Chanukah sweaters with sayings like “Deck the Hall with Matzah Balls,” “Oy to the World” and “Keep Your Friends Close and Your Family Kosher” are all available for sale.
Other items try to square the Chanukah-Christmas circle. Morri Chowaiki created the Hanukkah Tree Topper, a six-pointed star to put on the top of a Christmas tree, after years of squabbles with his non-Jewish wife, who wanted to decorate the house for Christmas.
Finally relenting, he asked her not to go overboard. She responding by decorating in a Jewish blue and silver. The only exception was the star on the Christmas tree. It had five points.
Chowaiki says his wife apologized, saying she had looked everywhere but couldn’t find any six pointed stars for the tree. So Chowaiki decided to create his own.
“I started looking at the market and I couldn’t believe what I saw,” he says. “In previous years, 50 percent of Jewish people who had gotten married, married non-Jews, mostly Christians.”
That was in 2009.
“This was the first business I had ever launched, not thinking about the money. I’ll never forget putting it on Amazon. I got 7,500 preorders in October and November.” He only had 300 toppers made.
Chowaiki appeared on “Shark Tank” in 2013, received $50 thousand dollars for a 35 percent stake in the company and later sold his product license to the New York-based holiday wholesaler Kurt S. Adler.
“Because of interest, the category has definitely grown,” says Judy Weiss, a sales representative for Kurt S. Adler.
The company sells a variety of Chanukah tree ornaments, including ones in the shape of dreidels, a plate of jelly donuts, a Star of David and menorot. They also stock Chanukah string lights and a Fabriche Santa wearing a tallit and holding a dreidel.
All of these products, including the Chowaiki’s tree topper are geared toward mixed-faith families.
Reigning as the undisputed king of Jew-ish gift items is Mensch on a Bench and a growing family of dolls and plush toys, waiting to spread the joy of Chanukah, and Judaism.
“The goal of Mensch is to celebrate Jewish values,” says creator Neal Hoffman, a former toy designer for Hasbro and “Shark Tank” alum. “We are trying to teach kids good values and pass down Jewish values in a fun way.”
Since Mensch was released in 2012, Hoffman’s company, Monkeybar, has brought out Ask Bubbe and Ask Papa. By pressing the doll, Bubbe will ask you if you’re hungry, or why you haven’t settled down yet. Ask Papa a question and he will say, “Yes, you should do that. It’s a mitzvah.”
But that’s not all. There’s Hannah the Hanukkah Hero, a girl who sets out on her own to find more oil for the Temple in Jerusalem, despite her family’s orders not to. Dreidel Dog is a Dalmatian with dreidel-shaped spots, who comes with a neckerchief with a place for hiding
And this year, there’s Mitzvah Moose, a blue moose whose antlers are in the shape of a menorah. Mitzvah Moose has a backstory. A companion book explains that his antlers light up whenever he does a good deed.
As of 2017, Mensch on the Bench has done more than $3 million in sales, and is “in the hands of more than 100,000 Jewish children,” according to UVA Today.
Aside from a planned Mensch on the Bench book for Yom Kippur, Hoffman plans on sticking with Chanukah.
“There isn’t the appetite in Jewish community to consume products during holidays except Chanukah,” he says. “There’s also not a lot of retail space for Passover trinkets. There aren’t a lot of toys” that can be made.
Are we seeing Chanukah excess in the aisles of big box stores and on Amazon? Some have been saying so for quite a while.
Back in 2011, “Big Bang Theory” actress Mayim Bialik wrote a scathing article for Jewish parenting site Kveller after she saw an ad for the Hanukkah Tree Topper.
“How on earth does placing a Magen David on top of your Christmas tree satisfy the celebrating of Hanukkah?!” she wrote. “Maybe topping your Christmas tree with a lightable hanukiah would be in theory the ‘perfect’ way to celebrate both. But that would be a fire hazard, so you didn’t hear it from me.”
“Haters are just cheerleaders with dirty pom-poms,” is Chowaiki’s response. In fact, he brought up the Bialik piece in his interview. “It was never about assimilating the holidays. I knew who I was. I knew what my family represented.”
Is Chanukah a bubble waiting to burst? In a 2015 article in The Atlantic, Emma Green explained how the holiday took on such an importance in American Jewish culture despite it being a minor holiday in the Jewish calendar, and why elevating Chanukah to such a high level of importance might backfire.
“As far as the options for a Jewish gateway holiday go, Hannukah is a pretty poor choice,” she wrote. “Some, like Chabad, explicitly intend for it to be a means of drawing Jews into observance, yet there’s not much theological or ritual complexity to the celebration.”
Mensch on a Bench, she wrote, is “the story of contemporary American Judaism.”
And so, these products are probably here to stay, along with a bevy of other vaguely Jewish but not necessarily Chanukah-related items, like the toy Matzah balls on sale at Bed Bath & Beyond, each one sitting in a toy soup bowl that reads Happy Hannukah.
Or even those ridiculous Chanukah stockings.