Jewish bean babes leap off holiday shelves

They're cute. They're cuddly and they're for Chanukah.

There's Cantor the horse, Muttzuh the pup and Mooses the moose.

Maccabeans are the Jewish answer to the popular Beanie Babies. All together there are eight of these haimish critters.

"Jacub, he's a cutie," Aziza Mara, owner of L'Chaim, a Jewish gift store in Danville, says of the little bear cub. "The kids love them. We just ordered some more."

During Rosh Hashanah, Afikomen in Berkeley sold out of Shofar, the orange ram with the curly yellow horns. The store ordered more for Chanukah. The creatures sell for about $6.99 at Judaica stores.

Although each member of the family can be bought separately, L'Chaim is promoting the whole mishpoche — one for each night of Chanukah.

"They are phenomenal this year," said Elaine Orner of Alef Judaica, the Culver City manufacturer of the stuffed animals. "They're made out of nice fabric and there are a lot of beans in each one. People are buying the whole set."

Each has a name tag and little saying attached to it.

Like Purrim, the black cat with the white face, who says, "I don't like being stuck in a tree. I like the carnival named after me."

Or Torah the red bull, who says, "I hold my stories rolled up tight in the ark under the eternal light."

If you want to go all out, these beanies can be accessorized. Cindi Orensten of Meshugana Press designs a line of Jewish accoutrements that includes a kippah, tallit, Star of David necklace and a sweater embroidered with a Chanukah menorah. The accessories set, which sells for $36, also include Maccabean-size Shabbat candlesticks, a siddur, dreidel, menorah, happy Chanukah sign, a present and, of course, some gelt.

Orensten went into the beanbag creature accessory business as an outlet for her frustration after Ty Inc., manufacturer of the official Beanie Baby, came out with its third Christmas design.

"I had sent numerous e-mails to the people at Ty and said, 'Why don't you do something Jewish, something for Chanukah, something for Kwanzaa. There are other people out there,'" Orensten said in a phone interview from her home in Wisconsin. "I got no response at all. I got angry and thought, 'what can I do with this anger?'"

Being a longtime crafts person, Orensten turned her anger into a cottage industry. Her dining room is now the production center for Jewish accessories for both the Beanie Babies and Maccabeans. She also has a Web site:

It looks like the Jewish bean babes will continue into the next millennium. Orner said Alef Judaica is planning to introduce a new line of Maccabeans in time for Passover. Gefilte the blue fish will be carried over, but a new addition will be Pascal the lamb.

Although the Maccabeans are not official Beanie Babies, they are — like the originals — quickly becoming collectibles. They have been noted in the magazine Mary Beth's Bean World, the bible on such subjects. Also Ty unwittingly catapulted the Maccabeans into the world of collectibles.

When the Jewish collection first went on the market, it was called Maccabeanies. Shortly thereafter Ty notified Alef Judaica that it was violating the Beanie Baby trademark by using "Beanie" in the name.

The two companies were able to work out an agreement without any legal action: Alef was allowed to sell the Maccabeanies that were already on the market, but it agreed to call its future creatures Maccabeans. The first-born bearing the Maccabeanie label, according to Orner, are now worth more than the second-generation Maccabeans.

And that, my children, is the story of the Maccabeans of 5760.