It all started with a text.
A photo flashed across my screen with the message: “Do you want this?”
Pictured in the photo, surrounded by Elves destined for Shelves, was one lonely looking Hasidic-looking stuffie, complete with black hat, tallis, and little suit.
“What is it?” I texted back.
“Not sure,” my non-Jewish friend replied, “but it’s Jewish and it’s the only one. Do you want it?”
I have a problem with orphan Judaica. At least once a year, I walk into a store and there’s some random item that was likely mis-shipped to our mostly Christian town, sitting lonely on a display table or shelf, waiting sadly amidst the Christmas or Easter stuff for someone to come and take it home. Last year it was an exceptionally ugly turtleneck Hanukkah sweater. Two years ago it was this mysterious friend: the Mensch on the Bench.
The Mensch on the Bench is Hanukkah’s answer to Christmas’ Elf on the Shelf, a toy and book set that features a “scout Elf” that hides in people’s homes to watch over the children to see who’s being naughty or nice. The Mensch comes with a book that explains his backstory; he sat in the Temple to watch over the ner tamid (eternal light) and made sure that it didn’t go out.
So, what do you do with a Mensch on a Bench?! I’m not much of a decorator, I don’t really do cute, and I’m not keen on surveillance as a behavior management technique. The notion of ascribing magical qualities to this doll seemed somewhat, well, idolatrous, frankly, and I couldn’t quite wrap my head around arranging one staged scenario after another.
But I gave it a go. The mensch would play dreidel with assorted action figures and dolls, he perched on the chandelier, made snow angels in icing sugar, and then, inevitably, before the eight days of Hanukkah are even over, my menschiness would run dry. Ugh… he has to do something new? Again? It’s just not my thing.
But my kids are very, very fond of him. They cart him around the house and they like to pose him hilariously; mensch on the potty, anyone? It’s fun, I get it. And I also get that it helps them to feel a little more included in the holiday madness that surrounds them at this time of year.
So we’ve come to a compromise: Every night of Hanukkah, I hide the mensch somewhere in the house, and every morning they run around, giddily searching for him. No magic, no elaborate posing, and not terribly cute, but they still love it. It’s like a Jewish treasure hunt and, if nothing else, it keeps the energy of the holiday going over the whole eight nights.
Now, you’ll have to excuse me, I’ve spied a lonely-looking pair of dreidel socks and I must rescue them immediately.