Three years ago while strolling through a department store during the holiday season, Neal Hoffman’s four-year-old son spied the popular Christmas toy, Elf on a Shelf. Afflicted with Christmas envy, his son begged for one.
Hoffman shook his head and explained that Jews don’t have an Elf on a Shelf.
“We have,” he quipped, thinking fast, “a Mensch on a bench.”
Hoffman was joking at the time, but the former Hasbro Toys employee couldn’t get the phrase out of his head. A Jewish spin on the elf that watches kids at holiday time appealed to him.
But while Elf on a Shelf reports back to the North Pole about who is naughty or nice, Hoffman envisioned a mensch who would spread Jewish tradition and the importance of being a good person.
Hoffman emptied his son’s college fund and raised over $20,000 in a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign in 2012 to create a cuddly blue-suited mensch with a beard.
He also penned an accompanying book relating the story of “Moshe the Mensch,” who was on the Temple Mount when the Maccabees returned victorious from the war against the Greeks. According to the book, because Judah Maccabee was exhausted from the fighting, Moshe volunteered to sit on a bench and watch over the oil to make sure it didn’t burn out. Everyone praised him for being “such a mensch.”
The book contains Hanukkah songs and activities as well as a list of Mensch Rules, such as giving gifts to the less fortunate, and making sure to use your Shamash candle to light your menorah.
When it debuted last year, the doll generated dozens of newspaper headlines, making appearances on The View and on The Today show where a grinning Al Roker held a Mensch. The toy sold out within 10 days.
This season, the Mensch has made his way into retail giants like Target, Michaels and Toys R Us. It is found in over 1,000 stores and Hoffman expects to sell over 50,000 units.
As a mark of its acceptance into American popular culture, Hoffman is set to appear in the ABC reality show “Shark Tank” on December 12.
The Mensch has also drawn a large following of 13,000 fans on Facebook and Twitter with Mensch owners posting photos of their Mensch in exotic locations.
The feedback has been overwhelming. “People send me e-mails saying this is exactly what my child needed,” said Hoffman, who has read “Moshe the Mensch” at several public schools.
Some even credit Hoffman with helping to bring the word mensch back into the Jewish American vernacular.
“Kids today do not really know what the word mensch is,” said Laurie Schacht, co- publisher of the Toy Insider, a consumer guide to the holidays. “The last person who used that word was my grandmother.”
Schacht said she found the Mensch on a Bench concept to be clever and humorous.
“There’s a very strong market for it,” she said about the toy, though she doubts it will appeal to the mainstream non-Jewish consumer. “The first time I saw it I fell in love with it. I think it adds to the holiday tradition.”
‘The first time I saw it I fell in love with it. I think it adds to the holiday tradition’
Rabbi Miriam Terlinchamp of Temple Sholom in Cincinnati brought a five-foot version of the Mensch into her Sunday school, where it travels from classroom to classroom.
“There are many ways to talk about Hanukkah and many ways to celebrate it,” said Terlinchamp. “So too with this fun story of the Mensch – it’s one more story adding to the long and dynamic history of Jews telling stories to help further Jewish values and traditions.”
Not surprisingly, the toy has also aroused criticism for its similarity to a popular Christmas product.
But the Mensch has plenty of company in the holiday aisles of stores who are cashing in on Christmas envy: There is an edible Hanukkah house, blue and white Hanukkah stockings, a menorah tree and dreidal shaped tree ornaments.
There also are two other takeoffs on the Elf concept being marketed to Jews: Maccabbee on the Mantel and Kippah Cantor. But Hoffman says his product has rung up the most notoriety and sales. It’s also the only one that’s made it into major retailers.
‘I’m taking advantage of the fact that there’s a popular item for Christmas and offering a Jewish alternative’
When he receives letters from Jews complaining that the mensch is a knockoff of the elf, Hoffman sends them a free book.
“If you think this isn’t promoting Jewish tradition, then we can have that conversation after you read the book. I’m taking advantage of the fact that there’s a popular item for Christmas and offering a Jewish alternative,” said Hoffman.
Hoffman’s zeal to provide a heimish alternative to a Christmas toy may be motivated in part because he and his wife, who is not Jewish, are trying to raise their children as Jews. The Mensch has filled their home with Jewish spirit. Now that he’s in the Mensch business, “Every day in our house is Hanukkah,” he quips.
A professional marketer who worked at major toy companies for years, Hoffman has been searching for a new project ever since his family had to move from Providence, RI several years ago for his wife’s job.
The Mensch has already turned a profit and is headed to international shores. It is being sold in Canada and plans are underway for distribution in Israel and other countries.
Now Hoffman dreams of transforming the Mensch into a brand, with Mensch gelt, candles and gift wrap. And someday, he hopes the Mensch will help families celebrate other holidays – an AfikoMensch for Passover is already in the works in which Moshe will help kids look for the afikoman while teaching about the holiday and passing on moral lessons.
Hoffman is not under any illusion that he will revolutionize the Jewish world with a plush toy that bears an uncanny likeness to an old rabbi. It is certainly not the legacy he anticipated.
“But when life gives you potatoes,” he shrugged, “you make latkes.”