Op-Ed: Why it’s kosher to go a little wild with the Hanukkah swag
In October 2018 I received a letter from Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, of blessed memory. “My dear Rabbi:” she wrote, “Thank you for today’s surprise, a scrunchie I will wear not only at Hanukkah, but year round.”
In addition to being an ordained rabbi, I design fashionable, Hanukkah-themed accessories. I had created a Hanukkah scrunchie to honor Justice Ginsburg, a known fan of the hair tie. Of course, I sent her one.
Early on during my forays in Hanukkah retail, I wondered if it was kosher to contribute to the commercialization of the holiday. When I first saw one of my creations (the Hanukkah nail decals) on display at Bloomingdale’s, it was definitely a moment for shehecheyanu, the Jewish blessing of thanks for new experiences. But was it the right track for a rabbi? More importantly, was it the right direction for this holiday?
I did a bit of digging and discovered that Hanukkah has always needed a marketing boost, for lack of a better term. The Talmud tells us the story of when the ancient Temple in Jerusalem was rededicated, after being desecrated by the Greeks, and only one flask of proper oil remained. This tiny amount of oil miraculously powered the Temple’s menorah for eight days.
Now, on each night of Hanukkah, Jews light the menorah to recall that miracle. And it is considered a mitzvah — a religious duty — to place the menorah where it can be seen by others, whether outside or in a prominent window. This embodies the idea of the Aramaic phrase “pirsumei nisa,” often used in the Talmud, which means “publicizing the miracle.”
Finding creative ways to showcase Hanukkah felt like a modern extension of this Talmudic principle and my rabbinic work. I soon discovered I was part of a long line of Jewish entrepreneurs who were boosters of Hanukkah, which is considered a minor Jewish holiday.
We should honor those who have gotten us through this year on a new ninth night of Hanukkah.
A century ago, Jewish immigrants arriving in America could never have fathomed the multitude of Hanukkah products now for sale. In “The Wonders of America: Reinventing Jewish Culture, 1880-1950,” Jenna Weissman Joselit explains that during the early 1900s there was little demand for Jewish products here, as most families brought the ritual objects they needed — including menorahs — from the Old Country.
Still, by the time these Jewish immigrants arrived in this country, “Christmas already outstripped all other events as a time for merchandising,” according to Leigh Eric Schmidt, author of “Consumer Rites: The Buying and Selling of American Holidays.” If Hanukkah were to thrive — and catch up with Christmas — it needed to reinvent itself in the U.S.
In the 1920s, under the guidance of Jewish advertisers, ads were placed in Yiddish newspapers urging Jews to buy gifts and toys for Hanukkah. Yiddish ads also promoted the use of American ingredients to prepare Hanukkah meals to create authentic American Hanukkah experiences. Hanukkah-themed chocolate coins, known as “gelt,” were first produced in the 1920s. A 1932 Jack Frost Sugar ad exclaimed in Yiddish: “It’s the sugar on the latke that gives it the Hanukkah spirit.”
By the 1940s, new Hanukkah-branded products were arriving on the scene, including the first Hallmark Hanukkah greeting cards. The next 50 years saw significant growth in the market including the popularity of musical menorahs of the 1950s — which played fragments of “Hatikvah” (Israel’s national anthem) or “Rock of Ages” — and electric menorahs in the 1960s.
The next few decades also saw a sharp rise in Hanukkah toys, including sticker books and gelt-filled dreidels. By the ’90s, Hanukkah products had gone national, appearing on the shelves of many mainstream department stores.
Online shopping spurred the Hanukkah apparel category — including ugly-chic Hanukkah sweaters, echoing the Christmas sweater trend. The Hanukkah market now features gifts for pets (apparently, even dogs and cats have Christmas envy).
Have there been excesses along the way? Absolutely (see Hanukkah for pets, above). And yet I think that the overindulgence has heightened the public celebration of Hanukkah.
This year we could use a little extra Hanukkah spirit. The holiday has always been home-centric, focused on menorah lighting, latke making, and gift giving. When in-person communal gatherings are limited in size — or supplanted by virtual ones — Hanukkah swag can enhance our enjoyment of the holiday. Wearing dreidel leggings may not exactly fulfill the Talmudic principle of publicizing the miracle. But they can add some zing to a Hanukkah Zoom party.
Rabbi Yael Buechler is the Lower School Rabbi at The Leffell School in Westchester, N.Y., and founder of MidrashManicures.com.
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