Oy to The World
Decorating a Chanukah Bush Is Prickly Business
Linda Lynwander sat in a New Jersey country club one fall afternoon in 1983 with her tennis partner, plotting. Lynwander, who would one day become my mother-in-law, wanted to create a new holiday craze--the Chanukah ornament.
Lynwander had always been on the lookout for the next big thing. Over the decades, she had left a trail of entrepreneurial ventures in her wake. There was Linda Lynwander the voice-over maestro, the one-woman resume writing service, the founder of a lecture series, the regenerator of has-been New York actors' careers, the CEO of a successful tour company, and in between she wrote freelance stories for the New York Times or columns for community papers.
"I always think one of these is going to hit and I'm going to be the next Donald Trump," she says.
Sitting with her retired engineer husband in the den of her split-level house on a Ridgewood, N.J. cul-de-sac, it is clear that Lynwander is not wanting. She simply can't quell her entrepreneurial spirit. She channels that energy onto the garage-sale circuit where she'll haggle a 50-cent plastic toy to half price. She scours the streets on her daily two-mile walks, looking for discarded treasure--she's found a dildo, endless American Flags, and coins so mangled that they were no doubt mistaken by previous pedestrians for metal slugs. She once even rescued items with eBay potential from a burning pile on her street that signaled the end of a neighbor's marriage.
Back in 1983, Lynwander's grand plan was to turn Jewish Christmas envy into some serious gelt. The idea: Make ornaments for Chanukah bushes. It wasn't just a get-rich-quick scheme, though. She also wanted to add a little pageantry to the season, make it fancier than "our paltry decorated Chanukah homes with a few dreidels and presents," she says.
Perhaps she was projecting a bit. Growing up it was just Lynwander and her mother (her father died when she was young and her brothers were already grown and out of the house.) She remembers friends showing off their holly-decked homes and "I always saw how beautiful it was, but in my heart of hearts I was always kind of angry. You would see this big, happy family and there was just my mother and I.
"What we Jews need is a glittery holiday. We need something that is bright and snazzy," she remembers thinking. So she convinced her tennis partner, an artist and a Catholic, to make the Chanukah ornaments. Lynwander picked icons to represent the holiday: a dreidel, a menorah, a camel, a mezuzah, "some sort of food dish," and two others she has long since forgotten. A yarmulke, perhaps? Her friend cut the designs out of felt, glued a written explanation on to them, embroidered some rickrack on, applied a hook for hanging, and sealed each $2 ornament in a sandwich bag. The results were what one might expect from a $2 felt ornament.
"It looked absolutely homemade," Lynwander says. "It didn't look like anything, quite frankly."
Undeterred, and without a shred of sales experience, Lynwander managed to convince a few local gift stores to carry the ornaments on consignment. But she feared that wouldn't be enough to get the word out about her breakthrough in Jewish assimilation, so she bought a smidgen of advertising space in a local paper "on the bottom of the page in the back section with too much writing, not enough white space, not enough [room] for a picture," Lynwander remembers. But apparently her home phone number caught some eyes.
And the phone started to ring. As she went to answer the first call, she was sure she had struck gold. But the people on the other end of the line weren't placing orders, they were unleashing their outrage. Suddenly she was fielding call after call from irate fellow Jews. Her Jewishness was challenged. She was called an anti-Semite. "What kind of person would do such a thing?" one woman asked.
And that wasn't the worst of it. Another caller said, "'I was in the Holocaust, I cannot believe you would show so little respect to put this in,'" recalls Lynwander, with an ability to channel the caller's anger a quarter of a century later. "I didn't know what they were talking about," she says.
"You always feel like when you're yelled at, there is a tiny nugget of I did something wrong. But then you think, Wait a minute, I did it for the right reasons."
Despite the days fielding anonymous wrath, she believed that mainstream Jews would find their way into the stores and buy her wares. But in her haste to get the ornaments out in time for the holidays, she neglected to create counter displays for them. The stores didn't know what to do with them, and doomed her homemade creations to the stock room.
Chanukah 1983 came and went, and Lynwander and her friend failed to sell even one ornament. The stores soon called her to retrieve her merchandise. She still remembers the sad lap she made retrieving her misfit ornaments. Lynwander occasionally held her own tag sales, where the Jewish ornaments would be pushed heavily without much success.
Thinking back, Lynwander ridicules herself for not having more of a strategy than making the felt patterns--no business plan, nor the stomach to do any real advertising. Still, she doesn't believe she crossed the line and, in fact thinks the idea, if executed correctly, could turn things around for the Jews.
"I thought that people were secretly feeling what I always felt and I had the courage to put it out there."
The 2009 City Paper Holiday Guide
The Gifts That Count (11/18/2009)
The presents that have stayed in our writers' thoughts
The Wish List (11/18/2009)
Gifts we wish we could afford
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