Meet Mensch On A Bench, Jewish Counterpart To Elf On The Shelf

Nov 26, 2013
Originally published on November 26, 2013 4:27 pm

During a visit to a store last holiday season, Jewish father Neal Hoffman felt bad telling his son Jake that he couldn't have an Elf on the Shelf. The widely popular Christmas toy is intended to watch children's behavior for Santa. Hoffman kept thinking, maybe there could be something similar, but rooted in Jewish tradition.

Hoffman, a former Hasbro employee, decided Mensch on a Bench was the answer. "A mensch means a really good person. It's a person that you strive to be," he says.

He raised more than $20,000, using the crowdfunding website Kickstarter, last spring. Since then, the interest has been tremendous. After the product arrived "we sold out in two weeks," Hoffman tells Michel Martin, host of NPR's Tell Me More.

Hoffman decided early on that Mensch on a Bench wouldn't be just a toy. An accompanying book is inspired by the story of Hanukkah. In it, a fictional character called Moshe tells Judah and the Maccabees he will watch over the oil while they sleep in the Temple. "They say, oh Moshe, thank you so much. You're such a mensch sitting on that bench, watching over the oil!"

He also created eight rules for having a mensch. "They range from singing and playing dreidel and doing latkes with your family, to having the mensch watch over your menorah. ... Also, one night of Hanukkah, you're not going to get presents. You're going to go out ... buy presents for somebody in need, and you're going to give them to somebody else."

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Switching gears now to a happier subject, the winter holidays are upon us.

And if you celebrate Christmas with kids or have friends who do, then you probably know about Elf on the Shelf. If you don't, then just know that the elf is magic. He or she appears early in the holiday season, sitting on a shelf or somewhere in the house. And he or she flies back to the North Pole every night to report to Santa on just who belongs on the naughty list and who is being nice. Now Elf on the Shelf has become wildly popular over the years. And Jewish dad Neal Hoffman got to thinking, why isn't there something similar rooted in the Jewish tradition? Well, meet Mensch on a Bench, a doll and book combination that Hoffman created for Hanukkah, which begins tomorrow. And Neal Hoffman is with us from Cincinnati to tell us more. Welcome, happy Hanukkah.

NEAL HOFFMAN: Thank you, Michel. I appreciate it.

MARTIN: So first of all, for people who don't know, what's a mensch?

HOFFMAN: A mensch means a really good person. It's a person that you strive to be.

MARTIN: So tell us the story of "The Mensch on a Bench." Who is Moshe?

HOFFMAN: We made him up so that we could introduce Jewish children to the real story of Hanukkah through the eyes of Moshe. And Judah Maccabee, he fights this war, the Jews win, they come back to the temple and they're exhausted. And they just want to go to sleep. And there's enough oil left for just one night. They all want to go to bed and this old man in the back says, you know what, I'll sit on the bench and I'll make sure the oil doesn't go out. And they say, oh, Moshe, thank you so much. You're such a mensch sitting that bench, watching over the oil.

MARTIN: The miracle of Hanukkah is that the oil lasts for eight nights, right? Is it seven or eight?

HOFFMAN: That - it's eight nights.

MARTIN: Eight nights, thank you. Instead of - I'm from New York. I should know this. So it lasts eight nights instead of one, and so that's the miracle. So how do you incorporate The Mensch on a Bench into your Hanukkah ritual?

HOFFMAN: We created eight rules for having a mensch that ranged from singing and playing dreidel and doing latkes with your family, to having the mensch watch over your menorah. And one of the rules we created was also, one night of Hanukkah, you're not going to get presents. You're going to go out, you're going to buy presents for somebody in need and you're going to give them to somebody else.

MARTIN: So now, as we mentioned, Elf travels every night. He or she shows up in a different place in the house every morning. And that's part of the fun of it, is you've got to go find, you know, your elf and see where he or she landed after he's reported to Santa. Does Mensch travel around in the house?

HOFFMAN: Elf is so magic that the kids can't touch him. Moshe is very different. Moshe is meant to be played with. Kids can put him in different positions, take those pictures and share them with friends and family. So one of the rules is mensches get sore sitting on the bench every night. Kids have to change up how Moshe is sitting or standing or what he's playing with. So it's a little bit more interactive.

MARTIN: So he doesn't get splinters, right?

HOFFMAN: Exactly.

MARTIN: Exactly. Got to help him out, right?

HOFFMAN: Don't want him to get splinters, or...

MARTIN: Exactly. So Moshe is very - he's got a beard. He's wearing his prayer shawl. He's got a kippah. Did you have a model for Moshe?

HOFFMAN: I did not. I loosely went off my own grandfather. Really what I wanted to do is get somebody who's Jewish but not stereotypical, so we tried to find...

MARTIN: I don't know. He's a little "Fiddler on the Roof" guy, kind of.

HOFFMAN: A little bit.

MARTIN: Kind of.

HOFFMAN: I needed him to look Jewish but not so far that we're making fun of Jewish people. So I think we found that perfect balance. And he's cute and he's cuddly. He's got the tallit, and he's very clearly Jewish. And the feedback we're getting from Jewish families already is incredible.

MARTIN: That's what I was going to ask you. That was going to be my next question. So - and you had the expertise to do this, in part, because - what? You used to work for a toy company - for Hasbro, right? So...

HOFFMAN: Yes, I worked for Hasbro for five years. Loved it there. My wife moved us out to Cincinnati. And last year we were walking through Nordstrom's and my wife and son - we're an inter-faith family. And we're raising the boys Jewish. And they asked, daddy, daddy, can we have an Elf on the Shelf? We've seen our cousins have this. And I said, no, you can't have this. You can have a mensch on a bench. And I was just kind of kidding around. And the idea really just stuck in my head. So, you know, I realized we had a cool name, but we needed a reason for being. So I went back and I wrote the story.

We got a prototype done and we went out to Kick Starter. We raised over $20,000, had over 300 people Kick Start the project. And my wife and I decided, you know what, let's take a bunch of my son's college fund. Let's take a risk, bring a bunch of little Jewish dolls into the basement for this year and see if anybody's interested. We sold out in two weeks. But the good news is that we've got some serious retail interest. We're hoping that The Mensch on a Bench is going to go national next year. And what's really cool is the people who did get them are going onto the Facebook page. They're doing exactly what we wanted. They're taking pictures of themselves and their families playing and interacting. And starting this new tradition and sharing it with the rest of the community.

MARTIN: Which makes you kind of a mensch.

HOFFMAN: Kind of.

MARTIN: Yeah, except that you didn't make enough for everybody to have one. So what's the opposite of a mensch?

HOFFMAN: I can't say that word on radio.

MARTIN: Oh, OK. All right, I'm sorry. I didn't know. All right. Well, we don't want to disappoint too many people. So I'm sorry that, you know, if you're excited about this, then, unfortunately, there are no more mensches for this year, but hopefully next year?

HOFFMAN: Here's what we're doing to try to be mensches, is anybody who goes on to our website and buys a mensch right now - we'll send it to you in the spring, but we'll also send you a free copy of the e-book. And then next year, we hope to be out in some big retail stores. And we hope to make that announcement pretty soon. We're having those meetings in the next few weeks.

MARTIN: Well, happy Hanukkah.

HOFFMAN: Well, Merry Christmas to you - or Thanksgivikkah, as the next couple days will provide.

MARTIN: Neal Hoffman is the creator of Mensch on a Bench. He joined us from Cincinnati. Thank you so much, Neal Hoffman, for joining us.

HOFFMAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.