Alas, the day after Hanukkah I received an email with the subject line: “Goodbye from GeltFiend.” It announced the demise of my favorite Hanukkah sweater company, which started a scant four years ago.
This made me melancholy, but also thoughtful, in the longstanding tradition of our people. Four years ago, Hanukkah sweaters were not a thing. Then GeltFiend exploded onto the scene with a hugely successful Kickstarter campaign and a genius photo essay, called “Santa’s First Hanukkah.” The sweaters were witty and high-design, parodies of Christmas sweaters that actually had a retro-chic, Jewishly-clueful style of their own.
But now Hanukkah sweaters are everywhere. They are as cheaply made and ugly as any Christmas sweater. Their Jewishness is clichéd, thoughtless, tacky, pro forma. They pretend to be ironic while lacking any actual self-awareness. And I worry about the parallels to our place in American culture and the role of Hanukkah therein.
While I don’t think we all have to keep kosher, go to shul or make challah on Fridays—many of our grandparents and great-grandparents didn’t do those things either—we do need to maintain an awareness of difference, as our great-bubbes and -zeydes did. Even those who furiously rejected Jewish ritual often embraced social justice and Jewish literature, journalism, music, and art.
Today, many of us don’t reflect at all on our Jewishness, in any way. In our clueless entitlement, we see Hanukkah as fully equal to Christmas, deserving of the same sartorial respect. If the goyim get ironic millennial ugly Christmas sweaters, we should have ironic millennial ugly Hanukkah sweaters. But Christmas is a major holiday for Christians, and Hanukkah, religiously speaking, is not a major holiday for Jews. What I liked about GeltFiend’s sweaters is that in their graphically savvy referentiality—the nods toward Hasidism and academic varsity letter sweaters—they indicated an awareness of Jewish history and fundamental otherness. The holiday of Hanukkah itself is about resisting assimilation, so it’s ironic that today’s new crop of poorly made, unimaginatively designed contenders don’t view Hanukkah as anything different from Christmas. Hey, it’s just one more shopportunity. (My husband, a technologist, has always maintained that an innovator often loses to a fast follower. VHS was inferior to Betamax, but VHS had more reach and wound up dominating the market. So it is with GeltFiend.)
In an email interview, I asked Carin Agiman, founder of GeltFiend, daughter of immigrants and Hanukkah-sweater-visionary, whether she’d become a victim of her own success. Were less creative and cheaper knockoffs stealing her latkes?
She responded in an email: “It’s been an amazing four years with great media exposure and product expansions, but your husband is right. I stuck with my principles and tried to make as much as I could in the U.S., stuck with high-quality materials like the wood buttons on our Spinmaster sweaters and chenille patches on Gimmelman, and spared no expense when it came to our yearly photo shoots and videos. But at the end of the day, sparing no expense has a high price, and it’s always easier for a non-Hanukkah specific company to throw in a couple of cheaply-made Hanukkah items and meet the need. I’m proud that we set a high bar—our main competitor went from offering one Hanukkah sweater to now carrying five, a clear sign that they’re taking the Jewish market more seriously.”
Sadly, that main competitor managed to get one of its sweaters into the new Christmas movie The Night Before. In promos, Seth Rogen sports a Fair-Isle-esque Star of David sweater while standing between Christmas-sweater-clad Anthony Mackie and Joseph Gordon-Levitt (who is actually a Jew, but hot and not schlubby, so he gets to play a goy, apparently). There’s no wit in Rogen’s sweater. And Agiman’s competitor clearly has no true Yiddishkeit, because the Hebrew letters on their dreidel leggings are all upside down.
As we speak, GeltFiend’s inventory is being sold at blowout prices on the company’s own site, and on Amazon. (Modern Tribe still carries some of Agiman’s stuff, but you’ll have to pay retail.) Agiman, now 30, told me, “I’m an independent graphic designer, so I’m going to focus on that while new business ideas keep baking.” I wish her mazel, and the continued ability to have her gelt and eat it too.
Marjorie Ingall is the author of Mamaleh Knows Best: What Jewish Mothers Do to Raise Successful, Creative, Empathetic, Independent Children.