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‘Hannah the Hanukkah Hero’ Toy: Festive Feminist Role Model or Watered-Down Judaica?

“Hannah Maccabee is mad! Her cousins have gone off to face the Greeks and defend the Jewish people. Her father, Jacob, struck out days ago to find more oil… meanwhile she’s sitting at the Great Temple not allowed to help. Luckily Hannah is smart, strong, and has a heart filled with love. Nothing can stand in her way and the world is about to find that out!”

So reads the promotional material for Hannah the Hanukkah Hero, the latest plush sensation from the folks who brought you 2014’s breakout winter toy, the Mensch on the Bench. In the two years since I last reported” talking grandma doll. Along the way, his menschen have racked up over 27,000 Facebook likes and a lot of public goodwill for his Yiddishkayt-flavored toy company.

Now, as the Mensch on a Bench Facebook page declares, “The Whole Mishpacha Family.

With a slingshot (shades of David and Goliath!), a Star of David shield, and chic lace-up slippers, young Hannah is ready to fight for her people. But wait — the patriarchal powers-that-be have forbidden her to fight! Refusing to be left behind, Hannah sets out to prove herself a worthy leader of her family.

A strong and grounded (but still cute) female heroine, on a quest for self-actualization that does not involve finding herself a handsome prince? Sounds a lot like “Moana,” the blockbuster Disney animated film released in late November. “Moana” set off a storm of think-pieces about diversity, Disney’s new “progressive” age, and “the feminist Disney princess we’ve been waiting for.”

At first glance, Hannah the Hanukkah Hero is a great Jewish doll for a generation of children that has grown up singing along with feisty animated female leads. In an interview with The Jewish Week, Hoffman said he came up with the Hannah doll because he wanted to convey that “girls can really do whatever they want” and “anyone can be a hero.” I certainly can’t argue with the goal of female empowerment. It’s also hard not to like the effort to teach about mentshlekhkayt (human decency); as with her relative Moshe, Hannah comes with a book imparting the qualities that make her a good person. See, women can be mensches, too!

What I do object to, though, is Hoffman’s suggestion, in the same Jewish Week article, that “[w]e don’t have a female heroine that we [Jewish families] can rally around and point to and say, ‘This is what our women can do.’” Quite the contrary: a quick survey inside and outside the Hebrew canon provides plenty of compelling stories of women whose acts of bravery, leadership, and resourcefulness would make them terrific candidates for their own 21st-century action figure.

What about the original Hannah (first Book of Samuel), a mother whose intensely focused mode of beseeching the divine becomes the go-to model for prayer? Or Deborah (Book of Judges), sitting under a palm tree and dispensing her advice in an ancient precursor of the meme-tastic Ruth Bader Ginsburg? The Book of Judges also gives us the hair-raising tale of Yael, the daring woman who led the Israelites to victory by inviting the enemy Canaanite general into her tent, serving him milk, and driving a tent peg through his temple while he dozed off—a honey-trap move that even “The Americans”’ über-spy Elizabeth Jennings would admire.

Looking to the margins of the Hebrew sacred tradition, the apocrypha (texts outside of the canon) offer other narratives of female heroism. Almost completely erased from mainstream Hanukkah lore, the story of Judith was explicitly connected with Hanukkah at least through the Middle Ages. Judith infiltrated the enemy Assyrian camp during the siege of Bethulia and ended up attending a banquet with the general Holofernes. When he fell asleep — seems to be a theme among enemy generals — she cut off his head and helped spur an Israelite victory. In The Sword of Judith: Judith Studies across the Disciplines, Talmud scholar Susan Weingarten notes that the salty cheese Judith is reported to have fed Holofernes gave rise to a medieval tradition of eating cheese and cheese-based pancakes on Hanukkah.

As Menachem Wecker observes in a 2013 Forward story, visual depictions of the apocryphal Judith narrative are widespread and particularly gruesome—not really the fodder for a plush plaything. Likewise, Yael plunging a tent peg into Sisera’s forehead is far too grim for the likes of Hasbro and Fisher Price. So what to do: mourn a missed opportunity to teach Jewish children about a female hero already in our textual heritage? Or be happy that the Mensch mishpacha now includes a girl whose message of empowerment is undeniably positive? Is Hannah a welcome addition to the Moana era of confident cartoon characters who don’t need a prince’s kiss to fulfill their destinies? Or, by inventing her story of derring-do, have the toy’s creators willfully ignored several real narratives of heroic women in Jewish tradition?

However you side on this debate, the fact remains that Hoffman’s Hasmonean toys bring big bank. Hannah the Hanukkah Hero is currently sold out on the Mensch on a Bench website.

“We tell the stories of our elders in a never-ending chain,” sings Lin-Manuel Miranda in a stirring reprise towards the end of “Moana.” Though the movie portrays Polynesian culture, this lyric could just as easily be a quotation from “Fiddler on the Roof,” a musical beloved by the Hamilton creator (as was evident in this viral video from Miranda’s wedding). The goldene keyt, the golden chain between the generations, is why we retell stories on Jewish holidays. If Hannah the Hanukkah Hero inspires girls and boys to want to learn more about the female heroes who already exist in our textual tradition, then this grownup Hannah is all in.

Hannah Pressman has a doctorate in Hebrew literature and is co-editor of Choosing Yiddish: New Frontiers of Language and Culture. Her writing has appeared in the Forward, Tablet, Lilith, and other venues. She is currently at work on a memoir about her Sephardic great-grandmother’s life, connected to explorations of contemporary American Jewish identities. Dr. Pressman lives with her family in Seattle, where she is affiliate faculty for the UW Stroum Center for Jewish Studies.

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