a tiny tray of latkes is held between a person's index finger and thumb
A tray of miniature latkes for a tiny Hanukkah scene created by Masha Rumer (Photo/Courtesy Rumer)

San Jose creator’s miniature Hanukkah scene gives you a treat: tiny latkes to eat

As a child in the former Soviet Union, Masha Rumer loved to play with traditional wooden nesting toys known as Matryoshka dolls. Her favorite was the smallest one at the center of the set.

Decades later, she is still playing with tiny dolls.

Rumer, a writer who lives in San Jose, creates miniatures at 1/12 scale, then posts photos of them on Instagram and X. Her most recent is a Hanukkah scene that includes a -inch-tall metal menorah with toothpicks for candles, a tray of tiny latkes made from real potatoes, plus sides of real applesauce and sour cream. A 3-inch-tall rabbit doll eyes a box of sufganiyot made from molding clay.

Rumer began making miniatures in 2020 while sheltering at home during the early stage of the pandemic.

“There was this feeling of the heaviness of the lockdown, and I was dreaming about different places and traveling,” she said. “It brought me great joy to be able to create new worlds while the rest of us were sheltering in place.” (Rumer was not the only one who spent quarantine working on miniatures. A Missouri couple attracted media attention for creating an entire miniature home with working electricity.)

Many of Rumer’s scenes featured Puff Puff, her family’s Russian dwarf hamster, in different scenarios, such as taking a bath, baking a cake, sitting at a sewing machine and testing perfumes. After Puff Puff died in January, she started inserting Calico Critters and Lego figures into the scenes.

She has created two dozen miniatures so far, including a few with Jewish themes. In addition to the Hanukkah scene, she has staged a Shabbat dinner, with candlesticks made from screws. On the table, she placed a real, tiny challah loaf and a pot of chicken soup.

Rumer said she created the Jewish scenes with her 10-year-old daughter and 7-year-old son in mind.

“I did not grow up celebrating Jewish holidays because we weren’t really allowed to in the former Soviet Union,” she said. Today, she observes Shabbat and holidays with her children, and the miniatures “reinforce our traditions in a more playful way,” she said. Her children sometimes help her by painting items and tasting the food.

At age 13, Rumer emigrated from St. Petersburg to San Francisco with her family after the fall of the Soviet Union. She has paid tribute to her Russian heritage in a teatime scene with cups and real Russian baked goods — sweet bread rings known as sushki and an Eastern European style of rye bread.

“When I give this rye bread to people from the former Soviet Union, they instantly recognize the fragrance and the flavor, and it’s an emotional experience for them,” she said.

Each miniature takes Rumer several hours to stage in her daughter’s dollhouse. She buys materials from a variety of stores, including the Nice Twice Doll Shop in Campbell, Michael’s and Etsy. She also receives used doll furniture from neighbors who know about her hobby, and she has taken up crocheting to make her own miniature rugs. She uses tweezers to put the smallest elements — including tiny glass jars filled with grains and liquids — in place.

Rumer said she does not think of herself as an artist. She works as a communications specialist at a Palo Alto private school, and in 2021 she published her first book, “Parenting with an Accent: How Immigrants Honor Their Heritage, Navigate Setbacks, and Chart New Paths for Their Children.” She called making miniatures a “completely ridiculous hobby” that also happens to be a good distraction from writing.

“This is a wonderful outlet for me to try to remember to look at the little things in life, literally, and pause and find magic in them,” she said.

Plus, Rumer said she feels gratified when social media users leave appreciative comments on photos of her creations. “People write to me saying it’s a tiny moment of happiness and beauty in a sometimes difficult world,” she said.

Though Passover is more than four months away, Rumer is already thinking about how she might assemble a miniature seder.

“I’m nervous about making the tiny matzah,” she said. “I will try to make the little holes in it with a safety pin.”

Andrew Esensten
Andrew Esensten

Andrew Esensten is the culture editor of J. Previously, he was a staff writer for the English-language edition of Haaretz based in Tel Aviv. Follow him on Twitter @esensten.