Latke Larry doll gives children a memorable holiday icon

columbus, ohio | For a second or two, it seemed like the cloth doll was going to leap from the table to the stove and start wielding a spatula.

Or maybe it’s just that Latke Larry’s creator, Rabbi Areyah Kaltmann, head of the Ohio State University Chabad House in Columbus, Ohio, is so excited about the singing, dancing Chanukah action figure and how it will benefit children with special needs that his enthusiasm seems capable of casting a spell.

“How can you resist Latke Larry? He’s all about transforming the ‘oy’ of Judaism to ‘joy,'” said the rabbi, fidgeting in his chair as he activated the doll’s song.

Latke Larry, clad in a chef’s hat, tzitzit dangling from his waist, rocks to and fro and sings (to the tune of “Rock of Ages”): “Latke Larry comes to you, a friend to play with and fun to chew. I’ve got tales of Maccabees — oy — and plenty of calories.”

Rabbi Kaltmann created the battery— and computer-chip-powered toy as a fund-raiser for Chabad’s national Friendship Circle. The program pairs teenagers in more than 30 communities with families whose children have special needs.

The teens are companions to the children, playing games with them and joining them on outings. Rabbi Kaltmann and his wife, Esther, spearhead the Columbus chapter of Friendship Circle.

Latke Larry retails for $17.95 and can be purchased online at Profits from the doll’s sale will be distributed to all branches of Friendship Circle.

Rabbi Levi Shemtov, a Chabad rabbi in West Bloomfield, Mich., and founder of the 11-year-old Friendship Circle, said the doll is only one idea brewing to raise money nationally for the program. “I’m really excited about this,” he said. “It’s a consistent and very appropriate fund-raiser for Friendship Circle.”

To record Larry’s voice, Rabbi Kaltmann got comic actor and TV star Jerry Stiller — for free.

Stiller said actor Jon Voigt asked him to do it. Voigt, a longtime supporter of Chabad, had encountered Rabbi Kaltmann at events over the years.

Stiller later unveiled Latke Larry to his family. “We had a little get-together, my son Ben and the kids – and we played it,” he said. “Everybody cracked up. A lot of the children there were not Jewish, but they got the greatest amount of joy out of this.”

Rabbi Kaltmann called Stiller “a super-mensch. He has so much going on, and he found the time.” Stiller also donated his time in a commercial for the doll airing in Philadelphia and Chicago.

Rabbi Kaltmann bills the doll as something more than just an amusing toy. He sees it as an identity-builder for children who need something Jewish in their lives.

“Jewish kids have no icon for Chanukah,” the rabbi said. “I thought, ‘How can we give children something where kids can express their Judaism, feel good and have a good time?’ I want Jewish kids in America to feel proud of their heritage.”

Retailers are fascinated, too. Rabbi Kaltmann sold 13,000 of the 21,000 dolls he had ordered before they arrived from the manufacturer.

He has been tirelessly traveling to holiday trade shows in such cities as Atlanta and New York to show the doll, play its song and make his pitch.

Buyers have picked up the dolls for sale in a number of department and specialty stores, including Filene’s Basement and Bed, Bath & Beyond.

Rabbi Kaltmann said he has other ideas for Latke Larry. He wants to write a children’s book featuring the character addressing children with special needs.

“The idea of Friendship Circle is about putting smiles on faces of people who deserve to be happy,” he said.