Making Toys Jewish

A version of this article was first published at Kveller.com as “Converting Toys to Judaism.”

Do Jewish kids need Jewish toys?
What makes a toy Jewish?

Most little kids are bombarded with majority culture every day. Providing Jewish toys and books at home is a fun and easy way to help support an emergent sense of positive Jewish identity.  Both can teach and reinforce all things Jewish, including holiday customs, values, vocabulary and best of all, a love of learning and a love of being Jewish.

Books are key. They create a “curriculum” simply by being read aloud, and can provide the foundation for Jewish learning even if parents have zero background. The stories can be introduced, dramatized, explored and remembered with toys.

But what makes a toy Jewish?  Two things: intention and imagination.

Converting toys: Jewish play

Jonah and the whale a la Playmobil

It’s here. The Sperm Whale is finally here. My four year-old and I have been watching the mailbox since the ebay transaction last week. What makes this whale different from all other whales? It’s Jewish. Well, not technically. It is item #7998: a 13.5 inch, hollow Sperm Whale with operable jaw from Playmobil, a company that produces no Jewish toys per se, and whose massive inventory—which includes an elaborate Nativity tableau—does not offer any Biblical themes “older” than the New Testament.

So what makes this whale Jewish? My kid. He can make that whale swallow a Playmobil person in one go.  And not just any person, but Jonah, as in “Jonah and the Whale.”  Making the whale eat Jonah is so entertaining my kid rarely stops at just one victim, and the roomy critter accommodates several.  Making the whale vomit Jonah safely onto dry land is nearly as fun.  Just saying vomit is fun if you are four years old and playing with toys in the bath, as is saying spew, which is the verb’s official JPS translation in Jonah 2:11.

And before anyone starts to argue that the beast in Jonah is a dag gadol “big fish” and not a whale, which is a mammal, I must point out the book was written long before biological classification and that the sperm whale is the only whale with a gullet large enough to actually swallow a human whole.   As if the story happened at all. But one of the lovely things about being a child is that complexities like these simply do not matter.  Stories are stories, and if they are fun or scary or meaningful or really weird, they stick.  Complexity (along with historical thinking and exegesis) comes later.  What comes now is play.

Jewish toys marketed as Jewish toys are on the rise.  When my older child was born 16 years ago, all I could find were unintentionally dated offerings in one Judaica mail-order catalog.  Then came ChaiKids.com and later, OyToys.com, both purveyors of ever-expanding variety: exquisite aleph-bet blocks from Uncle Goose, plush sefer Torahs, sturdy, wooden holiday sets from KidKraft, Hebrew puzzles and even parsha puppets.  We live in Nashville—arguably the buckle of the Bible Belt, and I don’t mean the Hebrew Bible. We can’t just zip over to a Judaica shop and stock up: we do not have a Judaica shop.  Jewish toys are necessary props for living a Jewish life in Music City, USA, and we are grateful for what we can find online.

But, in addition to this bounty is a much bigger world of Jewish toys that aren’t Jewish, but become Jewish by choice—converted Jewish toys—and I guarantee part of that world is already strewn across the living room. Nearly any toy can become Jewish: Lego, Lincoln logs, Little People, Barbies, action figures galore. Enter Jonah and his whale, which, aside from my enthusiasm for the particular product above, can be re-enacted with any big fish and any little man.  A Jewish toy is a toy that can populate and accessorize a Jewish story, period. Converting one is easy. The only requirement is intention, and the best halacha, imagination.

An obvious example is Noah’s Ark: almost every little kid already has a toy boat and some plastic animals. The seven days of Creation are also easy to cast, even just using random, Happy Meal-type detritus. So are the stories of the patriarchs and matriarchs and Moses—Moses offers stellar play as a baby, a rebel prince and a tablet-wielding prophet. I like to add a touch of verisimilitude with toys already decked out in period costumes. Some manufacturers (like Lego and Playmobil) produce themes like Egyptian, Roman, ancient Persian, nativity, Star Wars and wizard, all of which include figures with robes, long hair, beards, head-coverings or some other Biblical-looking attribute.  Ditto on accessories.  At yard sales, I’ve found some killer kiddush cups from both companies which probably started life as pirate booty or lost treasure of Atlantis.  I do not claim to be the first person to imagine Biblical scenes with non-Biblically intentioned toys: the best known are Brendon Powell Smith’s “Brick Testaments,” PG-rated storyboards made entirely of Lego.  A famous Jewish appropriation of a secular toy is Tefillin Barbie, created by the modern world’s first female Torah scribe. Talk about converting toys: putting Barbie in tefillin (and reading Torah, and hefting Hagbah) is the ultimate conversion of a gentile cliché. (Unless you want to start talking about a bris for G.I. Joe, and I’d rather not.)

Dollhouses and play kitchens can convert with kosher play foods and tiny candlesticks. And building Jewishly is easiest of all.  Any system makes an irresistible tabletop sukkah: we’ve built with Lincoln Logs, Jenga pieces, Mega Blox, Duplos, Lego, Bristle Blocks, Magnext, K’nex, TinkerToy and wooden unit blocks, and I’m dying to try Keva planks.  Invite guests: zoo animals, Tonka firefighters and Disney princesses can share tiny polymer clay challah under the schach (roof covering).  Any of these components can build the Mishkan, too: we’ve erected a tabernacle in the wilderness of the dining room for vintage Fisher Price people (aka the Israelites), with the police officer as Kohein Gadol (her hat being the tallest of the lot). And a Duplo Temple is just the right scale to bring the Hanukkah story to life. We accessorized ours with plastic soldiers, Lego pirates, pig figurines and a mini-menorah: stuff we already had, and it was so neat we used it as the storytelling prop for a classroom visit at our son’s school.

Does any of this sound like fun? If so, your enthusiasm will naturally incite a child’s. My preschooler didn’t spontaneously decide to build a Duplo Temple. It was my idea and I sat down on the floor and started.  He joined in and came up with improvements I would not have imagined.  My job is to provide the stories, the toys and a few ideas.  If your cache of Jewish stories is a bit slim, start with the JPS Illustrated Children’s Bible (2009) by Ellen Frankel or any illustrated book of Torah stories for Jewish kids.  Beyond the Bible, a Jewish story can be midrash, folktale, holiday histories or the latest PJ Library selection.

Any story can be learned and remembered with toys, so why not make the story and the toy Jewish? Dramatic and creative play make Jewish stories and being Jewish stick. Sperm whales are entirely optional.

Retail addendum:

Having focused on converting toys you already trip over, I can also highly recommend the following:

Moses and Pharaoh action figures (exclusively at ChaiKids.com). Add some plastic frogs and you are guaranteed a seder more fun than last year’s.

And, if you can deal with the ironies of a Jewish parent ordering a deluxe Playmobil Nativity set (#5719), you will have, after the box and illustrated inserts are safely out of sight in the recycle bin, a golden Kiddush cup, a siddur, a camel, a Jewish woman in a schmatte, a baby Moses, four bearded Jewish men in robes and headgear, and lots of groovy accessories.  Highly recommended.

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