It’s here. The Sperm Whale is finally here. My 4-year-old and I have been watching the mailbox since the ebay transaction last week. What makes this whale different from all other whales? It’s Jewish. Well, not technically. It is item #7998: a 13.5 inch, hollow Sperm Whale with operable jaw from Playmobil, a company that produces no Jewish toys per se.
So what makes this whale Jewish? My kid. He can make that whale swallow a Playmobil person in one go. And not just any person, but Jonah, as in “Jonah and the Whale.” Making the whale eat Jonah is so entertaining he rarely stops at just one victim, and the roomy critter accommodates several. Making the whale vomit Jonah safely onto dry land (as per the story) is nearly as fun.
Why Jewish Toys?
Now why is it important for my kid to have a Jewish whale or Jewish toys for that matter?
Most children are bombarded with majority culture every day, which doesn’t always leave a lot of room for Judaism. Having Jewish toys at home is a fun and easy way to help support an emergent sense of positive Jewish identity. Kids learn through play, and if you have Jewish toys, kids are more apt to play with the Jewish concepts that they know (“No Mr. Hamantaschen, I will not eat matzah on Hannukah!”) Although fun in themselves, playthings and books can teach and reinforce all things Jewish, including holiday customs, values, vocabulary, and best of all, a love of learning and Judaism.
But how do you find Jewish toys?
Turns out, Jewish toys marketed as Jewish toys (as opposed to my kid’s whale) are on the rise. When my teenager was born 16 years ago, all I could find were dated offerings in one Judaica mail-order catalog. Then came ChaiKids.com and OyToys.com, purveyors of ever-expanding variety: exquisite aleph-bet blocks from Uncle Goose, plush sefer Torahs, sturdy, wooden holiday sets from KidKraft, Hebrew puzzles and even parsha puppets. We live in Nashville—arguably the buckle of the Bible Belt, and I don’t mean the Hebrew Bible. We can’t just zip over to a Judaica shop and stock up: we do not have a Judaica shop. Jewish toys are necessary props for living a Jewish life in Music City, USA, and we are grateful for what we can find online.
Conversion (No Rabbi Required)
But, in addition to this bounty is a much bigger world of Jewish toys that aren’t Jewish, but become Jewish by choice–converted Jewish toys–and I guarantee part of that world is already strewn across the living room. Nearly any toy can become Jewish: Legos, Lincoln logs, Little People, Barbies, action figures galore. Enter Jonah and his whale, which, aside from my enthusiasm for the particular product above, can be re-enacted with any big fish and any little man. A Jewish toy is a toy that can accessorize a Jewish story, period. Converting one is easy. The only requirement is intention and imagination.
Obi-Wan is so biblical.
An obvious example is Noah’s Ark: almost every child already has a toy boat and some plastic animals. The seven days of Creation are also easy to cast, even just using random, Happy Meal-type detritus. So are the stories of the patriarchs and matriarchs and Moses–Moses offers stellar play as a baby, a rebel prince, and a tablet-wielding prophet. I like to add a touch of verisimilitude with toys already decked out in period costumes. Some manufacturers (like Lego and Playmobil) produce themes like Egyptian, Roman, ancient Persian, nativity, Star Wars, and wizard, all of which include figures with robes, long hair, beards, head-coverings or some other Biblical-looking attribute. Ditto on accessories.
Let’s just not go there.
At yard sales, I’ve found some killer kiddush cups from both companies which probably started life as pirate booty or lost treasure of Atlantis. I do not claim to be the first person to imagine Biblical scenes with non-Biblically intentioned toys: the best known are Brendon Powell Smith’s “Brick Testaments,” PG-rated storyboards made entirely of Legos. A famous Jewish appropriation of a secular toy is Tefillin Barbie, created by the modern world’s first female Torah scribe. Talk about converting toys: putting Barbie in tefillin (and reading Torah) is the ultimate conversion of a gentile cliché. (Unless you want to start talking about a bris for G.I. Joe, and I’d rather not.)
And, if you can deal with the ironies of a Jewish parent ordering a Playmobil Nativity set, you will have, after the box and illustrated inserts are in the recycle bin, a golden Kiddush cup, a siddur, a camel, a Jewish woman in a schmatte, a baby Moses, four bearded Jewish men in robes and headgear, and lots of groovy accessories.
My preschooler didn’t spontaneously decide to build a Duplo Temple. It was my idea and I sat down on the floor and started. He joined in and came up with improvements I would not have imagined. My job is to provide the stories, the toys, and a few ideas. If your cache of Jewish stories is a bit slim, start with the JPS Illustrated Children’s Bible by Ellen Frankel (or any illustrated book of Torah stories for Jewish kids). I figure any story can be learned and remembered with toys, so why not make the story and the toy Jewish? Dramatic and creative play make Jewish stories and being Jewish stick.
Sperm whales are entirely optional.
For a quick guide to some great Jewish toys and where to buy them, click