Unlike cities with larger Jewish populations, Spokane lacks a proper Judaica store. This means that when local Jews, or even non-Jewish Spokanites who are preternaturally fond of Judaism, want to purchase something that doesn’t just say “Jewish” but screams it, they must turn to the Internet. And one of the most popular online sources of vintage, homemade, and otherwise distinctive Judaica is Etsy.
Like any repository of unusual merchandise, Etsy is a mixed bag. You’ll find some genuine treasures — gorgeous Seder plates from Israel, say, or beautiful, delicate paper-cut ketubot — as well as plenty of more, well, questionable items. As much as the former are well worth exploring, it’s the latter to which I turn my attention here. After all, who can say for sure that you won’t end up at a rollicking white elephant gift exchange this Chanukah? Thus, I give you: the Judaica of Etsy!
Let’s start with items that juxtapose Jewish symbolism with secular ideas in peculiar ways. During a year in which many of our countrymen and -women seem desperate to Make America Great Again, the existence of an America the Beautiful Menorah shouldn’t surprise me. And yet, the blend of Judaism and patriotism makes me uneasy. Sure, many thousands of Jews came to the U.S. from Hitler’s Europe to rebuild their lives, and a robust degree of national pride makes sense in that context. But c’mon — can’t we keep Chanukah focused on Maccabees, miraculous oil, and fried food? Do we have to make the Festival of Lights look like the Fourth of July? I say no.
The menorah is, for better or worse, a frequent victim of weird hybridization. Take the EMS Emergency Medical Services Silhouette Menorah, billed as “great for retirement/senior homes, college dorms, and young children” because it includes LED lights in addition to candles — safety first! Still, the only meaningful connection I can see between EMS and Judaism is that we Jews may, on rare occasions, be slightly more preoccupied with our physical health, and reducing any/all risks to it, than the average non-Jew. (Not neurotic; never neurotic. Perish the thought!)
For those bold, stereotype-busting Jews who run to embrace danger, a glass menorah tie might be just the thing. Imagine your family’s awestruck looks as you defy death by keeping nine tiny flames burning on your chest, dangerously close to your nice dress shirt that is probably very flammable! As store owner Yafit Haba puts it: “I’m sure any man would love to have it as his personal menorah. So cool!!” By which I assume she means “hot.”
Then there’s this. If ‘Murica, the EMS symbol, and a standard necktie aren’t good menorah fodder, is there a reason to think abstract sculpture would be? Don’t get me wrong; I totally dig Etsy’s super-DIY aesthetic 99 percent of the time. But $500 for something that, frankly, looks like I made it in Sunday school when I was 6? I’ll pass, thanks. (Confidential to shop owner Ruth Waldman: My sincerest apologies. I don’t know how I turned out this snarky. I blame Woody Allen, Philip Roth, Chandler from “Friends,” and my highly sardonic father.)
Let’s breeze through a few more strange bedfellows. There’s the uneasy satirical melding of Judaism and the Black Lives Matter movement, made all the dicier by the recent controversy surrounding content related to Israel in BLM’s platform. There’s scarily realistic-looking food jewelry. And, finally, there’s just-as-terrifyingly-lifelike matzo ball soup soap, the existence of which can be explained only by the fact that “soup” and “soap” sound similar and Jews love puns.
Had enough? Almost? OK, let’s explore just one more realm of Jewish tackiness. I don’t have to tell you what makes creepy dolls creepy. You already know: They look like they’re going to come to life and kill you in your sleep. Well, some of them do, anyway. Some look like they’re going to use your favorite kind of candy to lure you into a windowless van. Some just blithely (and arbitrarily!) appropriate Native American culture. The shiver that just went up your spine? Maybe it’s because the figurine of an American Indian girl holding a menorah that’s roughly her size was made by the Goebel company of Germany, whose name bears a disquieting resemblance to that of Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels. You’re welcome.
Bottom line: The Judaica of Etsy is a wild frontier that can’t, or won’t, be tamed. If you dare venture in, remember this word of caution: When purchasing Jewish tchotchkes from this or any DIY site, know your audience. If wacky Cousin Mitch is likely to appreciate a brain kippah, then by all means, get him a brain kippah. But if Aunt Trudy is a bit on the conservative side, maybe forgo The Official J.A.P. Paper Doll Book and just get her a nice card. Better safe than sorry!