Ten years ago, a new book popped up ahead of Christmas.
Called “An Elf on the Shelf: A Christmas Tradition,” it’s the story of an elf sent to spy on kids and report back to Santa whether they’re naughty or nice. The tradition is to move the accompanying toy elf around the house each night.
A fad took hold, and suddenly the elf was in every bookstore, a marketing juggernaut that led to an unlikely spin-off – the Mensch on a Bench.
It tells the story of Moshe, who was in the temple with the Maccabees and volunteered to watch over the burning oil. To play the game, Moshe is moved around the house, shamash in hand, for the eight nights of Chanukah.
The idea, creator Neal Hoffman has said, came to him as he was walking through a store and his son asked for the elf.
He was concerned his children did not have a relevant holiday toy like the elf enjoyed by their Christian friends, and the story of Moshe was born.
Many have welcomed the addition to the holiday line-up as one more meaningful than a new set of Lego; others decry it as another example of making Chanukah more like Christmas.
Being Jewish in a secular world often brings with it a sense of being an outsider, but that’s never more acute for me than at Christmas.
What to say to the well-meaning clerk who asks whether you’re done your Christmas shopping? How to explain that no, you don’t have Christmas tree and yes, you know it’s not a “religious” thing, but still don’t have one.
And the ever-present – well, Chanukah is just like Christmas, right?
“Christmas and Chanukah share a spiritual message: that it is possible to bring light and hope in a world of darkness, oppression and despair,” writes Rabbi Michael Lerner, the editor of Tikkun.
“But whereas Christmas focuses on the birth of a single individual whose life and mission was itself supposed to bring liberation, Chanukah is about a national liberation struggle involving an entire people who seek to remake the world through struggle with an oppressive political and social order.”
That’s a mouthful to explain to anyone, let alone a toddler.
And that’s where I find myself this year – wondering, as a parent to a young child, how I’m going to navigate this season of otherness as she grows older.
Rabbi Moshe Goldman of the Rohr Chabad Centre for Jewish Life in Waterloo, Ont., was asked what Jews should say when wished a Merry Christmas.
He offered some suggestions, but also counselled patience.
“The bottom line is that one’s identity is strong and solid, it isn’t defined by what others say or think,” he wrote.
“And developing a sense of identity that is that strong comes from practical observance, in actual deed, of mitzvot and Jewish customs.”
Seeking a way to involve our daughter in Shabbat, we recently got her a wooden Shabbat set.
Now, as we set the table on Friday nights, she gets out her Shabbat bag, lines up her own candlesticks, challah and wine glass, and follows the routine for each along with my husband and me.
She doesn’t yet know what Shabbat is, but as she “lights” her candles or places the blue felt cloth over two round wooden challahs, she knows it is a special time. In turn, watching her brings new meaning to the Shabbat ritual for us.
What Hoffman was doing with his mensch wasn’t so different – attempting to create a way for his son to find meaning in a holiday and, in turn, forge a sense of Jewish identity.
None of us should be closed-minded to ways to engage our children in the mitzvot, customs and traditions of our faith. They help us grow as people, families and communities, even if the new customs we’re creating are borrowed from somewhere else.
After all, even the dreidel – replete with meaning today – started out as just a simple spinning top.
Over the coming months in this column, I hope to explore issues like these connected to Jewish family life and parenting, drawing on my own experiences, but also those of other young families in Ottawa.
I look forward to your feedback and suggestions.