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Happy Chanukah!

Layout 1Historic Thanksgiving-Hanukkah overlap leads to math and merchandise

By Jacob Kamaras/JNS.org

Nov. 28 marks Thanksgiving Day, as well as the first day of Hanukkah 2013. It would be a natural reaction for an American Jew, when noticing that overlap during a casual reading of the calendar, to smile or even laugh. But Dana Gitell took things much further.

A marketing professional living in Norwood, Mass., Gitell coined and trademarked the word “Thanksgivukkah,” launched a website as well as Facebook and Twitter pages for the joint holiday, and partnered with Judaica retailer ModernTribe.com on a line of t-shirts and greeting cards to mark the occasion—one that, according to one analysis of the Jewish and Gregorian calendars, won’t occur again for more than 75,000 years.

Gitell, who had known “Thanksgivukkah” was coming for five years, said the more she thought about it, the more she came to appreciate the significance behind the overlap of two holidays which “both celebrate religious freedom” and have “similar themes.”

“You can celebrate Judaism, you can celebrate America, and you celebrate the Jewish-American experience on the same day, because how would this be possible if we didn’t have a country as free and as welcoming as America?” Gitell told JNS.org.

Exactly how rare is Thanksgivukkah? Gitell did her due diligence through online research and taking a stab at the math herself, but said she ultimately leaves such matters “to the scientists.” Enter Jonathan Mizrahi, who has a Ph.D. in Physics from the University of Maryland and currently works for Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, NM. Mizrahi used the math software program Mathematica to chart the futures of the Jewish and Gregorian calendars, and the output “produced no results other than this year.”

“I thought I made an error in the program, and I checked what I’d done, and everything seemed okay, and I pushed the year out further and further and further… and it still was telling me that it wasn’t ever going to happen,” Mizrahi told JNS.org.

According to an analysis posted online by Mizrahi, the Jewish calendar “is very slowly getting out of sync with the solar calendar, at a rate of four days per 1,000 years.”

“This means that while presently Hanukkah can be as early as 11/28, over the years the calendar will drift forward, such that the earliest Hanukkah can be is 11/29,” Mizrahi wrote. “The last time Hanukkah falls on 11/28 is 2146 (which happens to be a Monday). Therefore, 2013 is the only time Hanukkah will ever overlap with Thanksgiving.”

“Of course, if the Jewish calendar is never modified in any way, then it will slowly move forward through the Gregorian calendar, until it loops all the way back to where it is now. So, Hanukkah will again fall on Thursday, 11/28… in the year 79811,” he added.

Gitell got enthusiastic feedback when she started posting juxtapositions and mashups of different cultural aspects from Thanksgiving and Hanukkah online.

“So many people that I talked to, many who aren’t Jewish, think it’s exciting and funny,” she said.

After creating the Thanksgivukkah Facebook page with her sister Deborah, Gitell worked with graphic illustrator Kim DeMarco to design t-shirts and greeting cards, and approached ModernTribe.com about being the retailer. She said she got an email response from ModernTribe.com within five minutes of sending the inquiry.

“After talking with Dana, and seeing the modern designs and illustrations of Kim DeMarco, I knew that a collaboration to create Thanksgivukkah items was a perfect match for our mission to create ways for modern Jews to express their faith and keep our traditions alive, meaningful and fun,” Jennie Rivlin Roberts, president of ModernTribe.com, said in a statement.

The ModernTribe.com Thanksgivukkah merchandise employs the slogan “Light, Liberty, & Latkes.” Ten percent of its proceeds will benefit the nonprofit MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger.

“I felt like [Thanksgivukkah is] almost like a Woodstock-like event, we can tell our kids, ‘I was there, I lived through Thanksgivukkah. I remember that day, it will never happen again.’ So that gave me the idea for something akin to a concert t-shirt, expressing that you were there, you lived through it, as a memento,” Gitell told JNS.org.

Gitell said her childhood in Squirrel Hill, Pa., a neighborhood of Pittsburgh with a significant Jewish population, colored her passion for the Thanksgivukkah project.

“[Squirrel Hill] was a place where most kids were Jewish, and people who weren’t Jewish, they felt left out,” she said. “Non-Jews wanted to have their own bar mitzvah in middle school. That’s the kind of experience that probably could only happen in America.”

While American Jews prepare for Thanksgivukkah, whether or not 2013 is the first-ever occurrence of the “holiday” is up for debate. In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln enacted Thanksgiving to fall on the last Thursday in November. But Thanksgiving was changed to the fourth Thursday of November—not necessarily the last Thursday—in 1942 under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a move intended to extend the holiday shopping season. Using the former date of America’s Thanksgiving, the last Thursday of November, Thanksgivukkah would have occurred in 1888, according to Mizrahi.

Thanksgivukkah’s frequency can also depend on whether the first night or the first day of Hanukkah is used as an indicator. This year, the first candles of Hanukkah are lit the night of Nov. 27, while the first full day of the holiday is Nov. 28, corresponding with Thanksgiving. According to an analysis by Eli Lansey, who has a Ph.D. in Physics from the City University of New York and like Mizrahi used the Mathematica software program, the first night of Hanukkah will correspond with Thanksgiving in the years 2070 and 2165—much sooner than 79811, the next time after 2013 that Mizrahi said Thanksgiving would fall on the first day of Hanukkah.

No matter what metric one uses, Thanksgivukkah has garnered a significant following—Mizrahi’s mathematical analysis garnered about 100,000 page views online, to his “utter amazement.”

“When I first did this, I thought it was interesting, but I did not expect anywhere near the response I got,” Mizrahi said.


“Thanksgivukkah” t-shirt

offered by Judaica retailer


Credit: ModernTribe.com.





Famed Christmas elf toy meets its Jewish match: ‘Mensch on a Bench’

By Matt Robinson/JNS.org


When his son asked for The Elf on the Shelf—the famed Christmas toy that is said to keep an eye on children and report back to Santa Claus regarding their behavior—entrepreneur Neal Hoffman says he felt an admitted pang of “elf envy” and saw the need to offer something more appropriate.

“I said to myself that I wished there was a toy and book that was an alternative, that was rooted in Jewish traditions,” Hoffman tells JNS.org.

Hoffman, at the time an employee of the Hasbro toy and game company, would go on to create a new toy to ensure that those celebrating Hanukkah wouldn’t experience the same “elf envy.”

With roots tracing back to the 1970s, The Elf on the Shelf has sold nearly 2.5 million units. The elf has now met its Jewish match through Hoffman’s The Mensch on a Bench, a toy and book set based on the story of the character “Moshe the Mensch.” Available for the first time this Hanukkah, the set costs $36 (plus shipping and handling). Using the popular crowd-funding website Kickstarter to raise money (in Jewish-appropriate denominations of $18) Hoffman brought his dream of a Jewish judge of childhood behavior to life. The book that comes with Moshe explains that this savvy tzaddik was in the Temple with the Maccabees when they defeated the Greeks in the second century BCE. As the age-old story goes, there was only sufficient oil for one night, but it lasted for eight. How? Moshe volunteered to sit on a bench all night and keep an eye on it. Thousands of years later, Moshe is still on a bench and still watching over Hanukkah, much like The Elf on the Shelf watches over Christmas.

Hoffman, a Massachusetts native who now lives in Cincinnati, Ohio, explains that as a father of two in an interfaith household, he was well familiar with The Elf on the Shelf from his nieces and nephews. When his son asked for one, he says he initially laughed off his idea for a Hanukkah-themed alternative to the toy, but the idea kept coming back until he could resist it no longer.

While Hoffman sees The Elf on the Shelf as a symbol of the commercialism of a holiday, he suggests that Moshe the Mensch is a keeper of the eternal traditions of Judaism.

“The Elf is more secular and not as religious, just pure fun,” he says.

Moshe may not be an “answer” to the elf, but it is an “alternative” that is appropriate for Jewish children and allows them to create their own Hanukkah tradition, Hoffman says.

Hoffman used his years of experience at Habsro—where he worked (and played) with the legendary likes of G.I. Joe and the Transformers—to his advantage for creating The Mensch on a Bench. Yet the experience was different from anything he had done before, he says.

“This was the first time I had to take an idea and figure out everything, including the design, engineering, packaging, marketing, fundraising, Web development, and timeline management,” Hoffman recalls. “It really made me appreciate the caliber of people I had worked with in the past.”

While he didn’t have his former Hasbro colleagues working with him, Hoffman was far from alone. He quickly found fans on Facebook and backers on Kickstarter, and says his biggest support came from his family. The passion for Moshe the Mensch was immediately “contagious,” he says.

In an effort to explain Moshe to the masses, Hoffman hurried to come up with a believable backstory, and created the book to accompany the toy.

“The book is inspired by the story of Hanukkah,” Hoffman says. “It tells about how the Maccabees came back to the Temple and were tired from the war and needed to sleep. With only one night of oil, they were worried it would go out overnight and leave them in the dark. One man volunteered to watch over the lights: Moshe the Mensch.”

To give Moshe and his story more staying power and appeal, the book also includes activities for each of the eight nights of the holiday. Hoffman hopes to bring the book not only to his local library, but also to the Jewish literacy nonprofit PJ Library, which to date has delivered more than 3 million books to youths. He also says sequels are possible.

“There are still a lot of words that rhyme with ‘mensch’ that we can work with,” Hoffman says. In the meantime, Hoffman is looking forward to opening his own Moshe on the first night of Hanukkah (Nov. 27).

“I think we have a fun idea that Jewish families can rally around and use to make Hanukkah more fun,” Hoffman says. “Over the next couple years, Jewish families will decide if this is a great idea and something they want, or if the Mensch will become a rare collectors item.”


Moshe the Mensch,

the newly offered “Mensch on a Bench.”

Credit: The Mensch on a Bench.




Chanukah Calendar

Sunday, Nov. 24

AMHERST – Chanukah Celebration at the Yiddish Book Center with crafts, singing and activities for all ages, 10 a.m. – 4 p.m., 1025 West St., (413) 256-4900.


FLORENCE – Thanksgivukkah Celebration; light the menurkey, try sweet potato latkes and celebrate both holidays, 3:30-5:30 p.m., at Beit Ahavah, 130 Pine St., (413) 587-3770.


SPRINGFIELD – The Independent City of Homes Association Hanukkah Breakfast, 9 a.m., “all-you-can-eat” bagels, lox, eggs & latkes, and small gifts for the children, at Springfield JCC, 1160 Dickinson St., RSVP: (413) 796-1802.

FREE & open to the public


Wednesday, Nov. 27

SPRINGFIELD – Chanukah First Light at the Springfield JCC; with arts & crafts at 4:30 p.m., followed by community lighting of the menorah, 1160 Dickinson St., (413) 739-4715, ext. 311.


WORCESTER – Chabad Grand Menorah Lighting at Newton Square; with remarks by dignitaries and city leaders, potato latkes, coffee and refreshments will be served;

4:30 p.m.


Friday, Nov. 29

NORTH ADAMS – Chanukah/Shabbat Celebration and Potluck; lighting of the chanukiyot (feel free to bring your own) Chanukah songs and vegetarian/dairy potluck dinner with latkes, 5:30-7:30 p.m., Congregation Beth Israel, 53 Lois St., (413) 663-5830.


Saturday, Nov. 30

WORCESTER – Young Adult Division (YAD) Chanukah celebration with gift swap, latke cook-off and dreidel tournament, 6 p.m., RSVP: mevi88@hotmail.com or www.facebook.com/groups/centralmassyad


Sunday, Dec. 1

LANESBOROUGH – Chanukah Family Festival featuring Bubblemania, 4 p.m., with menorah lighting, children’s crafts, live music, latkes, dreidels, sufganiyot, face painting, raffle and more, Berkshire Mall, Macy’s Court, (413) 499-9899 or www.jewishberkshires.com.



LONGMEADOW – Chanukah Wonderland at Lubavitcher Yeshiva Academy (LYA), 11 a.m. – 2 p.m.; make your own doughnuts, create Chanukah crafts, face-painting, interactive Chanukah games with Judah Macabee, magician Jeff Kempton; 1148 Converse St., (413) 567-8665 or email info@lya.org. FREE & open to the public; lunch will be sold


WESTFIELD – Chanukah Party led by Rabbi Joyce Galaski, with latkes, songs, storytelling and crafts, potluck dairy dinner (bring your own menorah) 4-8 p.m., Second Congregational Church, 487 Western Ave., (413) 569-1402. $5/individuals; $10/families


Monday, Dec. 2

LONGMEADOW – “An Electric Chanukah” Annual PTO Chanukah dinner and entertainment with Jeff Boyer at LYA, 5:30-7:30 p.m.; meat and pasta dinner with latkes and doughnuts (vegetarian/vegan option is available upon request); following the dinner and before the show, there will be a Chanukah menorah lighting and performance by the LYA Choir, 1148 Converse St., Reservations by Nov. 28: (413) 567-8665 or info@lya.org. $9.00 for adults, $5.00 a child, with a family price of $40.00


SPRINGFIELD – Menorah Lighting Court Square, downtown Springfield, featuring community leaders, schoolchildren and members of community, with latkes, doughnuts, cocoa and Israeli dreidels 1:10 – 1:45 p.m., (413) 567-8665 or info@lya.org


Monday, Dec. 3

LONGMEADOW – JLI Adult Chanukah program & dinner with actor/comedian Reuven Russell, 6:30 p.m., LYA, 1148 Converse St., RSVP: (413) 348-4978 or ymwolff@gmail.com.


Wednesday, Dec. 4

LONGMEADOW – Heritage Academy Hanukkah Show with songs and performances by Heritage students, 6:30 p.m., 594 Converse St., (413) 567-1517.


SPRINGFIELD – Sandi Kupperman Memorial Event and Hanukkah Celebration with family fun, student performances, latkes, sufganiyot, raffles and more, 6:30-9:30 p.m., Temple Beth El, 979 Dickinson St., (413) 733-4149.


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