Religion and Toys



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Mitzvah Kinder (Photo by Amudart)
Laura Arnold Leibman

Why is it that Christian Fundamentalists have had better kitsch than Charedi Jews?  Will this always be the case?  To answer this question, I turn to one segment of American kitsch industry, the religious toy.  Childhood in general and toys in particular can enhance our understanding of what is "American" about in American religion. In a recent post on gender, the family, and modern evangelicalism, Randall Stephens noted, "the story of Christianity in America has often centered on childhood as well as parenting and the family."  In this post I look at recent Charedi engagements with the toy industry and consider how concerns about the relationship between American life and religion are played out in the world of toys.  In addressing the intersection of religion and toys, I return to a question raised by Randall Stephens, but in slightly modified form: What does the study of family life, parenting, and children add to our understanding of American Religion?

Child's chair from Plimoth
Plantation, Indian Converts
Collection. Photo L. Leibman, 2005
Current Christian toys are part of a long history regarding the intersection of childhood and religion in American life.  Scholars of American Religious History have generally accepted that children's toys reflect both religious ideology and changes in American notions of childhood.  As I have noted in my Indian Converts Collection, before 1750 it was rare in New England to find objects expressly for the use of children:  the objects that did exist were utilitarian: cradles, swaddling clothes, leading strings, walking and standing stools.  Perhaps more crucially these objects were designed to restrain rather than entertain: they “forced the child to lie straight, stand straight, or walk erect” (Calvert 7). When children did possess "toys” such as rattles, they were given them because they helped with toothaches, not because they were developmentally important or entertaining (Calvert 49).

"The Mansion to Happiness"
(W. & S.B. Ives, Co., 1843).
(The Board Game Craze)
As this view of childhood and play was gradually eroded by the influence of the Enlightenment, children’s toys began to change in quantity, quality, and meaning. By the middle of the nineteenth century, children’s paraphernalia had also multiplied. Rather than restraining the “beast” within the child, children’s cribs, high chairs, and swings were intended to protect the sweet and innocent child from “physical injury, temptation, and worldly contamination” (Calvert 7-8). Children’s games became socially acceptable and encouraged (Calvert 81).  Some of the earliest American board games such as the "Mansion to Happiness" (1843) were explicitly religious in message and content and helped the child progress on his or her spiritual journey.

Tales of Glory Galilee Boat 15pc Set
"Imagine what it would have been like to sail
the Sea of Galilee with Jesus and his disciples!"
http://www.bibletoys.com
Contemporary Christian toys work with this post-Enlightenment vision of actively nurturing children, particularly in a spiritual sense, through toys.   For several decades, Christian Supply stores and Christian Bookstores have supplied the fundamentalist movement with a wide range of biblical action figures and morally upright toys that have nurtured Christian values and ideals, and engaged children in biblical narratives (left). Equally interesting are a subset of Christian toys that seem to merely relabel "pagan" ones in a way that encourages children to rethink how everyday objects could support Christian ideology (below).

"Finally there is a Christian toy manufacturer that is brave enough to save Christian children from the pagan influences of secular and worldly toys. Below we have a prime example of this in the new 'Faith Works Tool Set.' We've put the Faith Works Tool Set next to the standard pagan tool set that sells at Toys R Us so that you can see the stark difference between these two products. Aren't you blown away by the difference?! Imagine how many children the Faith Works Tool Set will save from becoming pagans!" (http://www.alittleleaven.com)

"Here’s a fashion doll you can feel good about! ...
She loves dancing and praising God.
Recommended for ages 4 to 8."
(http://nurseryrhymesandnightlights.blogspot.com)
Other contemporary Christian toys such as the God's Girlz dolls (right) likewise suggest that "pagan" American culture and Christian America are not so far apart. God's Girlz substitute a "religious" vision of American womanhood for the secular vision of American women and girls promoted by Barbies and Bratz. Although proponents of the dolls suggest that the dolls are "modest, yet fashionable, and packed with meaningful content designed to encourage thoughtful play," critics have noted that other than sporting Christian T-shirts,  these dolls aren't "any different from Barbies." One skeptic wonders, "What's the point of creating a Christian alternative if that supposed alternative isn't all that different from its secular counterparts?"  Such critics have probably missed God's Girlz's essential message.  The overlap between God's Girlz and secular dolls' representations ideal American femininity suggests some Christians see the secular and sacred as nearly compatible.  Such a message competes with forms of fundamentalism that disparage "worldly" Americanism.  While certain Christian toys may seem to combat secular notions of what it means to be an American, toys like God's Girlz provide a alternate narrative in which Christian fundamentalism and American culture are inherently compatible with only minor tweaks.  Dancing isn't sinful when directed to the proper end.  Likewise sleeveless, hot pink tank tops become "modest" when decorated with Christian messages.

"Your child will remember the discussions
of water buffalo in Shulchan Aruch (YD 28:4).
Some say buffaloes are the “meri” of II Samuel 6:13
and I Kings 1:9,19 or the “t’oh” Deuteronomy 14:5
or even the “re’em” of Numbers 23:22, 24:8,
Deuteronomy 33:17 and Job 39:9-12"
(http://kosherstuffedanimals.com/)
Enter Charedi toys.  Charedi (חֲרֵדִי) Judaism is a subset of orthodox Judaism that emerged in response to the Enlightenment.  Although by no means homogeneous, Charedi Jews are characterized by an adherence to Jewish law that seeks to separate itself from modern society, in contrast to modern orthodoxy which tends to embrace modernity and see modernity and orthodoxy as potentially compatible.  This engagement with "modernity" impacts toys:  whereas modern orthodoxy has often had a fairly liberal policy with respect to children's toys, various Charedi communities have tended to reject certain types of modern toys not only because of a dislike of materialism, but also because of the specific messages about a "good life" embedded within in the toys themselves.  Sometimes communities have taken issue with certain dolls, either because they are potentially a violation of the second commandment, or because they valorize a way of life and dress that is considered immodest.   Other communities such as the Lubavitcher Hasidim have (fairly unique) prohibitions against stuffed non-kosher animals as well as the representation of non-kosher animals on baby and children's clothing and blankets.  One company has emerged to help families abide by the Lubavitcher Rebbe's directive against such toys by making a wide range of kosher stuffed animals easily available.  Like the "Christian" Toy Tool Set, the kosher stuffed animals largely help the devout rethink what they already see around them.  For Lubavitchers, even stuffed animals have a impact on the child's soul, since "Everything that occurs around the child affects his soul, and this effect will become manifest in later years" (Shaarei Halacha U’minhag, Vol. 2, pp. 221-222; translated by http://asimplejew.blogspot.com). Thus rethinking the world by seeing certain toys has enduring importance for a person's spiritual life.

Binyan Blocks Large Shul Set
In order to help foster more toys that influence souls in positive ways, in recent years several Charedi companies have entered the toy business.  I am interested in two such toys: Mitzvah Kinder and Binyan Blocks, both of which have been advertised in Charedi magazines like Mishpacha (Hebrew: family) and online venues.

Although previously mainstream toy companies have occasionally produced "Jewish" lines like the Hannukah set for Fischer Price's Little People, Mitzvah Kinder and Binyan Blocks represent a specifically Charedi vision of Judaism.  As the New York Daily News notes, Mitzvah Kinder and similar toys are "aimed at religious parents who want to keep mainstream toys like Angry Birds, Rockin’ Elmo and Battlefield 3 away from their kids."  Mitzvah Kinder creator Toby Horowitz runs the company out of her living room in Borough Park (a Charedi neighborhood) and designed the series because "We want to keep our children entertained without the street influence” (Simone Weichselbaum Daily News, 12.22.11).

Women of the Fischer Price Little
People Hannukah Set
One aspect of the "non street influence" of  Mitzvah Kinder and Binyan Blocks is their message about Jewish gender roles and identities.  Mitzvah Kinder and Binyan Blocks women strictly adhere to orthodox laws regarding women, though they accurately display the diversity of opinions within Charedi communities about how such laws can and should be kept.  Whereas Fischer Price's Hannukah set takes a non-Charedi approach to hair covering (Jewish mother wears a doily on her head and the grandmother's head is adorned solely with naturally grey hair; right), the women of both Mitzvah Kinder and Binyan Blocks wear hair designed to look explicitly like a sheitl (wig), tichel (head scarf), snood (thick hair net), or sheitl topped with the type of small cap used by certain groups of Hasidic women (below).  While the nuances of the clothing codes which distinguish various subsets of Charedi families available in the figurines should be fairly obvious to insiders, Mitzvah Kinder also usefully identifies what type of Charedi family is being presented in each set (e.g. Litvish, Hasidic, Yeshivishe).  The Charedi world of Mitzah Kinder is explicitly diverse, respects that diversity, and does not seek to privilege one form of Charedi observance above all others.
"The Mitzvah Kinder Mommies Daven in shul and then throw pecklech at a Mitzvah Kinder aufruf!!" [Translation: the Mitzah Kinder Mothers Pray in Synagogue and then throw candies at a at the groom when he is called up to the Torah in the Mitzvah Kinder synagogue the Shabbat before his wedding.] (http://www.toys4usa.com)  Note head coverings.
Moreover, both Mitzvah Kinder and Binyan Blocks send fairly explicit messages about the distinctive spatial and spiritual roles of women in Jewish life.  While the Mitzah Kinder women definitely attend synagogue and pray, the "Mommy" play set helps children role play women fulfilling their special role before a wedding (throwing candy). Similarly Binyan Blocks's "Large Shul" (Synagogue) set separates male space from female space and male from female roles and comes complete with a mechitza (the partition separating men's and women's sections of a synagogue).  The display copy places the female figurines behind the mechitza in a smaller women's section at the physical margin of the synagogue while the male figures read from and handle the Torah at the central bimah, or reading platform (below).  As one consumer noted, even the Binyan dreidel sets are gendered: "Identical pieces, different colors: pink with purple for girls, blue with white for boys.  If the colors weren’t clue enough which gender these sets target, one miniature figure is included, like a guiding spirit presiding over the package:  a modestly dressed, pearl necklaced Mamele for the pink dreidel, and a bearded Tatele in black hat and suit for the blue" ("Bible Belt Balabusta").

Large Shul Set of Binyan Blocks: "Large shul building block set with over 750 pieces, including 10 Heimishe [friendly] people.  Shul has many benches, a bimah, seforim shank [book case] and an aron kodesh [torah ark] with 2 sifrei torah [torah scrolls]! Set includes special stickers that are reusable. Beautiful step by step instructions are included. Will keep kids entertained for hours on end." (binyanblocks.com)
Despite these commonalities, the toys have distinctive elements with respect to gender.  While Binyan Blocks and Mitzvah Kinder both emphasize the centrality of seforim (religious books) and the synagogue to Jewish life and include women in the synagogue itself, Mitzvah Kinder provides a wider range of positive women's activities.  Whereas all of the community helpers in Binyan Blocks are male emergency workers (Ambulance, Rescue Car, Shomrim Command Center, Fire Truck), the "Community Helpers" set of Mitzvah Kinders is one-third female.  Likewise other Mitzvah Kinder sets explicitly provide a variety of avenues for female role playing.  This difference may represent a perception that legos appeal more to male children than do figurines, or it may reflect the fact that the Mitzvah Kinder were created by a Charedi woman.  In both sets there is an emphasis that orthodoxy does not involve merely praying or observance of rituals, but also involves helping people, whether through emergency work, or via other communal and charitable activities (below).  Whereas Binyan Blocks makes this communal statement through "modern" activities and vehicles, both sets explicitly reference a non-urban, non-American "shtetl" past, either through farmer figures, a "shtetl road map," or merely by calling the sets a "shtetl series." This shtetl talk suggests a continuity between old world values and current observance.

"The Mitzvah Kinder toy collection has been designed to represent a yiddishe lifestyle in the world of children's play and imagination.  This set includes:  Chesky from Chaveirim Hershel from Hatzolah [Emergency Medical Service], Pinchus the Postman, Mendy the Fire-man, Esty from Oseh Chesed [a Charity Organization], [and] Brucha from Bikur Cholim [a group that visits and aids the sick]." (http://www.toys4usa.com)
Male Binyan Block
In both instances the toys reflect a vision of American Judaism that is at largely odds with larger American culture. Yet strangely, they have taken a distinctly American and modern idiom--the plastic toy--to teach this lesson.  Through the idiom of the toy, Binyan Blocks and Mitzvah Kinder make ties between the current distinctive way of life and older non-American traditions.  Unlike God's Girlz, the women's clothing is tznius (modest) according to the rules of orthodox law, and contrasts sharply with how female legos and figurines are usually clothed. Similarly the male binyan and kinder can be distinguished from secular toys by their adherence to elements of orthodox dress codes that set men and boys apart from larger American society such as payot (sidelocks), tzitzit (ritual fringes), streimels (round fur hats), yarmulkes, beards, suits and black hats (left and below).  These toys not only draw the line between women's space and men's space, but also highlight the space of American Judaism: here American Judaism revolves around adherence to Jewish law in the home, the synagogue, the book room, and helping people, not through "cultural" Judaism. Both toys are a good example of fundamentalism's ability to adapt and use modern forms even as it presents itself as adhering to a traditional way of life.
"The Mitzvah Kinder Totties [Fathers] daven in shul and dance in shul on Simchas Torah!" (http://www.toys4usa.com)

Further Resources:

4 comments:

Monica L. Mercado at: February 16, 2014 at 1:33 PM said...

Laura, what a great post - I'm completely fascinated by these Binyan blocks, and off to find the Calvert book at the library. Between this, and Matt Cressler's post on comic books, RiAH is fueling my excitement about a future project on childhood.

Unknown at: February 16, 2014 at 3:15 PM said...

This interesting article about modern religiously tendentious toys starts with an excursion into the seventeenth century, and an illustration of a chair I bought for Plimoth Plantation's collections when I was Chief Curator there (1986-1991). The chair was sold by an antiques dealer in Marshfield who mistakenly thought it might be Welsh, 19th century. Instead, it is a Dutch type from the 17th century - a type seen in various paintings including several by Pieter de Hooch. It is a low chair, in which an infant could sit safely near the hearth where the mother, preparing food, could also feed her child.
The idea that early modern children had few toys is mistaken, even though few may have survived in New England. This is discussed on pp. 404-405 of my book, Strangers and Pilgrims, Travellers and Sojourners - Leiden and the Foundations of Plymouth Plantation. Puritan theologian William Perkins gave attention to defining what games were appropriate and what, not. Games of wit and industry were good. Edmund Morgan pointed out that John Cotton thought that children up to age seven should "spend much time in pastime and play." Pictures from the time show toys. Thousands of medieval and seventeenth-century toys are preserved in Europe, although I think only one is currently identified among the scant archaeological remains in Plymouth Colony - a whistle from the Winslow site in Marshfield, probably part of a combined coral and silver teething toy.
Jeremy Bangs

Laura Leibman at: February 16, 2014 at 6:22 PM said...

Thanks Jeremy! I will check out your book!!

Randall at: February 21, 2014 at 4:04 AM said...

Really interesting post. Christian bookstores are chock full of toys and games. But I hadn't thought of the meaning of these as you do here. Had no idea bout the Jewish toys.

Now thinking about the Bible board game that Rod and Todd Flanders played on the Simpsons.

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