Hanukkah goods that can hold a candle

Lots of people make a living from the seasonal business of Christmas — lights, trees, stocking stuffers, artery-clogging eggnog — but the much-more-niche business of Hanukkah products is tougher. Some entrepreneurs have made it work (or are trying), with quirky products whether earnest (like the Star of David tree topper) or mildly subversive (like the Santa Claus yarmulke).


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Some purveyors of these seasonal products, like Neal Hoffman, never expected to be in the Hanukkah business. Hoffman was shopping in a Nordstrom in 2012 when his son ran up to him holding an Elf on the Shelf, the popular Christmas toy.

Neal Hoffman designed the Mensch on a Bench dolls after realizing the Jewish community was left out of the Elf on a Shelf craze. (Nathan C. Ward/The (New York Times)) (New York Times)

That turned out to be both complicated and fortuitous: complicated, because Hoffman is Jewish, his wife is Catholic, and they had decided to raise their children Jewish.

And fortuitous because of what happened next.

“I was like, ‘Dude, you can’t have that,’” said Hoffman, who previously had worked at Hasbro, the toy giant. “’You can have a’ — and I was like, what would be Jewish I could rhyme with?” he said. “And then I said, ‘I’m going to get you a Mensch on a Bench.’”

After raising more than $22,000 on Kickstarter, Hoffman produced his first run of Mensch on a Bench dolls for the next holiday season, and he has been selling them ever since. They come with a storybook that situates the bearded character, who wears a black hat and a Jewish prayer shawl, in the Hanukkah story: He watches over the oil in the Maccabees’ temple to ensure it burns for eight days.

That first year, 2013, sales of Mensch on a Bench, which retails for $30, reached about $100,000, mostly through Hoffman’s own website. In 2014, Bed Bath & Beyond picked up the product and Hoffman appeared on “Shark Tank,” and sales climbed to $900,000. Revenues were $800,000 last year and will be about the same this year — which suits Hoffman, who works out of his home and enjoys the lifestyle of a niche product entrepreneur.

“We pull in a six-figure profit, I get to do something I love, and I work maybe 20 hours a week during most of the year,” said Hoffman, who this season introduced a plush talking toy, Ask Bubbe.

Amy Kritzer, who with her brother Andrew owns Modern Tribe, an online Judaica store with an offbeat edge, said that Hanukkah accounted for about 40 percent of annual revenue.

Popular this year is the Emoji Menorah from Rite Lite ($30), with each candle base wearing a different expression, and the Jewdolph Knit Koozie ($12), a bottle sleeve with a red-nosed reindeer whose antlers form a menorah, from Freakers.

Also on the website is the Yamaclaus, a fluffy red-and-white Santa Claus hat in the shape of a yarmulke.

Alan Masarsky started Yamaclaus with his boyfriend, Larik Malish. Both grew up in interfaith homes, and both were fans of the 2003 episode of “The OC” that popularized the term “Chrismukkah,” a portmanteau for a merged Christmas and Hanukkah celebration. On the episode, characters wore what they called a yamaclaus.

The couple had no inkling of starting a business when, in 2011, they hosted a holiday party and made their guests a crude version of the beanies out of red construction paper and cotton balls. They were a hit, so they checked to see if the trademark for Yamaclaus was available (it was) and if they could raise $2,500 on Kickstarter to start production (they did). In 2013, Yamaclaus ($11) began selling on the company’s website, which today accounts for about 70 percent of sales.

Masarsky, a marketing manager at Facebook who lives in San Francisco, said year-over-year sales had increased 200 percent this year, as it had the previous two, but declined to provide more financial details.

Yamaclaus wearers who post photos on social media tend to be in nonreligious settings.

“Tons of our customers wear them when they’re lighting a menorah,” Masarsky said. “But not at shul — not at a synagogue.”

The Menorah Tree grew out of a similar marital dynamic: Michael Patchen, who is Jewish, wanted something festive to suit his wife, Mary, who was half Catholic and half Jewish. In 2006, Patchen and his brother, Alex, made a menorah out of wood and artificial pine garland, decorated it with ornaments and lights, and surprised her with it.

Now they sell a metal version that is seven feet high, assembles like an artificial tree and sells for $295 on their website. They’ve sold in the “low to mid-hundreds” since introducing the product in 2013, said Alex Patchen, who declined to be more specific.

But Dr. Dreidel may not be widely available until next Hanukkah. Hannah Rothstein, a conceptual artist, conceived of the dreidel in 2014 and has made fewer than a hundred of the wooden tops on a commission basis, charging $150.

The dreidel features images of Dr. Dre, the rapper and record producer, and a mass-produced version will retail for about $40 — barring complications.

“I have not gotten any cease-and-desist letters from Dr. Dre’s lawyers,” Rothstein said. “And if he wants to go in on the idea, we could make a million together.”

Next year she also hopes to produce a Hanukkah homage to Macklemore, another hip-hop artist: the Mackle-menorah.

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