A rubber duckie for Hanukkah


When the great retail successes of this holiday season are tallied, let us not overlook the Hanukkah rubber duckie.

At Rodman's discount gourmet store on Wisconsin Avenue, "the rubber duckies are almost gone," according to Charles Miller, the discount store's general manager.

And at the downtown gift store Chocolate Moose, owner Marcia Levi says the ducks are, ahem, flying off the shelves.

The Hanukkah duck has all your basic rubber-duck equipment &

the big eyes, the pert tail, the fat orange beak with the tiny hole from which you can squirt water. But in addition, it's wearing a sky-blue yarmulke and carrying a nine-candle menorah under its pudgy little wing.

It makes everyone laugh, Jews and goyim alike. But why, exactly?

"Any time you put a yarmulke on poultry, it's inherently funny," explains Jarrod Tanny of the history department at the University of California, Berkeley, where he recently taught a course on Jewish humor.

"The easiest take on the rubber duck is incongruity," e-mails Lawrence E. Mintz, the emeritus developer and director of the Art Gliner Center for Humor Studies at the University of Maryland. It juxtaposes "a religious and ethnic identity with a more universal ... symbol of childhood innocence. The Jewish context is just that much more incongruous."

Novelty ducks are "a really big business" for Toysmith, the humble Auburn, Wash., company that introduced its Hanukkah duck to the world this year, according to Rich Ockwell, the company's merchandising director. "You can't imagine. More than a million dollars."

Toysmith produces rubber duckies for all occasions, including Halloween, Easter and Valentine's Day. "If you can think of an idea in popular culture, you can make a rubber duckie out of it," Ockwell says. Bride and groom rubber duckies, for example. Rubber duckies dressed in camo.

Other companies make sets of Nativity rubber duckies &

complete with a Virgin Mary with a little baby duck under her wing. Then there's the "Christmas Carol" set that includes a shrouded black duck, presumably the Duck of Christmas Future.

Part of the trick, Ockwell says, is taking a traditional nostalgia item like rubber duckies &

"toys I played with, that my dad played with" &

and giving them a startling twist. Thanks to cheap waterproof computer chips, for example, Toysmith now makes a rubber duckie that lights up and sings "Old MacDonald," "Frere Jacques" and "London Bridge."

The success of the Hanukkah duck was amazing, however. "We didn't buy nearly enough," Ockwell says. "There was way more demand that we expected. It's exciting to us." Toysmith is planning to triple production, to about 30,000, next year. It is also researching how to broaden its Hanukkah duck line.

Good-natured humor explores cultural differences and oddities, "but in an accepting way, rather than in a harshly critical way," Mintz says. Around his North Carolina retirement home, "my neighbors put up a lot of lights. ... My wife and I ignored this for a couple of years, but now we put up menorahs and other decorative lights, which allows us to join in as a part of the community while remaining distinct in our religious and ethnic identity. It's funny because it is all fun &

parties, gift giving, special foods and all sorts of harmless celebration."

You have to be careful about how far you push all this, though, says Toysmith's Ockwell.

"As we have learned, you can't call a teddy bear Muhammad if nobody laughs."

Staff writer Annie Groer contributed to this report.

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