If you happen to know a child of almost any age, you probably have heard about Silly Bandz. If you don’t, you likely haven’t, even though these rubber band bracelets have taken the country by storm, following in the footsteps of the great fads of prior decades like Pet Rocks, Beanie Babies and Cabbage Patch Kids.
With almost no marketing, a Toledo entrepreneur named Robert J Croak, shaped brightly colored silicone bands into the outlines of animals, letters, instruments, celebrities and sports teams, sold them in groups of 24 for $5, and suddenly the thing took off. Kids began wearing them as bracelets, stretching them out so the original figure would no longer be visible and then taking them off their arms to reveal the original form.
Suddenly these shape-shifting wrist huggers appeared on more arms than Madonna’s red thread, and they were being traded over school lunches more than baseball cards. Croak says he has sold millions. Schools began banning them because, well, that’s what schools do when something becomes so popular that kids are distracted from the task at hand, bedazzled instead by what’s on their hand.
But where some educators saw a threat, I saw an opportunity. Here was a chance to reach middle schoolers where they’re at — and anyone who deals nonstop with bar mitzvah students craves a chance to hitch our wagon to the latest fad. Under my tutelage, students have written memorable bar mitzvah speeches about teeny bopper vampires, Mr. Spock’s Vulcan Greeting, Krusty the Clown’s bar mitzvah and all things Pokémon.
But this fad is different from the others. It comes closest to the slap bracelets of the early ‘90s, those nine-inch metal strips that, when slapped against a child’s wrist, would wrap firmly around the arm. We grownups really had a cow over that one, possibly because it smacked (literally) of the kind of self-flagellation we typically see in videos from Tehran, or maybe we were concerned that the kids would come to like the feel of handcuffs. Silly Bandz also go around the wrist, but there is no sadomasochism involved in putting them on and little danger of long-term physiological or psychological damage.
So why, then, are they so popular? I asked my middle school students. One wrote her bat mitzvah speech on Silly Bandz (along with the equally trendy string friendship bracelets), noting the similarities to our own Jewish wraparounds: tefillin and tzitzit. We discussed whether Silly Bandz’ rise to cult status could be replicated with these ancient cultic objects. Could we create a scenario where teens would put on phylacteries and prayer shawls with the same abandon now reserved for Silly Bandz?
How can we make these Jewish accessories cool?
Maybe tzitzit would be more popular if we called them “Silly Strings.” How about “Temple Tassels?” “Torah Threads?” “Shul Shawls?” “Nifty Knots?”
My student looked at me quizzically when I said the word “nifty.”
But once you get beyond the names, Silly Bandz, tefillin, tzitzit, and friendship bracelets all accomplish similar goals.
– They express a banding together of people of different backgrounds, providing a great (and inexpensive) equalizer, a common uniform that also allows for individual self-expression.
– They are tactile — no small thing in a world where most of the other senses have succumbed to the virtual. We see, hear, smell and taste the artificial much more than the real. We spend more time looking at projected images on screens than the real world around us and listening to encoded, digitalized sound more than real voices or chirping birds. But what we touch is what we get. Maybe kids are looking for reminders of real. They want to reach out, touch and be touched.
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But while Silly Bandz anchor us to what is fixed and real, they also enable kids to transform that reality into something new and magical. And it’s the shape-shifting aspect of Silly Bandz that I find the most attractive to this elusive, perplexing, altogether strange new generation that we are producing, these post-millennials whose identities seem forever to be shifting like the shapes of the bands they now wear. Facebook transformations occur instantly. Doctor a photo. Invent a relationship. Create a whole past.
Transformation has become endemic to our culture. We see it in movie after movie: People become vampires, cars become robots and boys become Spider-heroes. Teens become adults, and 30-year olds become teens again. Old men grow backwards until they become babies.
In 1983, Woody Allen’s “Zelig” tugged at our inner chameleon, and more recently, Sacha Baron Cohen, today’s preeminent shape-shifter, reminded us in “Borat” that an anti-Semite’s worst fear was that a Jew would somehow transform into anything, even a cockroach, both to hide and to blend in.
For contemporary teens, perpetual transformation has become routine and Gregor Samsa’s nightmare has become Bella Swan’s dream (if you don’t know who she is, ask any teenage girl — and then marvel how the guys in marketing came up with the perfect transformational name, “Swan”). Kids now can wear a rubber band that morphs into their own personal emblem, something that tells a story about their unique loves, attachments and aspirations; much like tefillin straps, which give divine power to my outstretched arm, and tzitzit knots, which bind us together in a cosmic unity. What we wear reminds us of our capacity to transform ourselves into something sacred and wonderful.
And there’s nothing silly about that.
Rabbi Joshua Hammerman is the spiritual leader of Temple Beth El in Stamford, Conn. Check out his Hammerman on Ethics column on the Jewish Week Website