NEW YORK (JTA) — Ever since I moved here from Israel, every late November felt like the beginning of a month-long assault. Every store, business and doctor’s office blared Christmas songs, streets were decorated with ostentatious light shows and seemingly everything became green and red — which, as an art school grad, I found personally offensive to my design sensibilities.
Then there were the Christmas sweaters. I admit I have a love of tacky knitwear — but I couldn’t get behind these garish monstrosities that flaunted a holiday that I didn’t celebrate but couldn’t escape from.
So I was thrilled when, three years ago, I saw a friend at a holiday party wearing a cozy sweater with a familiar pattern on it — dreidels with Hebrew letters, perfectly if garishly designed. I ran across the room and accosted her. “Where did you get that sweater?!”
That was the beginning of my love affair with Hanukkah knitwear. I now have about half-dozen Hanukkah wearables. My favorite is a cardigan called “The Spinster,” the same one I saw at that party, with big, nostalgic corozo buttons. Yes, I have way more sweaters than I probably need, but I treasure them. They feel like my armor in the war that Christmas seems to be waging against me every time the holiday season comes around.
Since then, the Hanukkah knitwear market has grown significantly. While there are fewer Hanukkah sweaters than the Christmas variety — for obvious reasons — nowadays you can find everything from cute cardigans at Target done up with hanukkiot and boxed gifts to more controversial pieces, like the borderline misogynistic one sold (and later pulled) at Nordstrom last year. There’s an abundance of cheap, cheerful Hanukkah options on Etsy — heck, even Whoopi Goldberg jumped on the Hanukkah sweater bandwagon this season with a cutesy, bejeweled octopus design.
The Hanukkah sweater, like American-style Hanukkah itself, is a custom that expanded in a “what about us?” reaction to Christmas celebrations. “Ugly Christmas sweater parties” have been a thing since the early 2000s, although it wasn’t until a decade later that Time magazine noted the trend in an article declaring that “the tops are bigger than ever, but in a very hipstery, oh-so-ironic way.”
That first Hanukkah sweater I spotted was the brainchild of Carin Agiman, a graphic designer in California. In 2012, she launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund GeltFiend, a sweater line featuring high-quality Hanukkah knitwear with smart designs.
“I had spent the previous Hanukkah looking for Hanukkah sweaters to wear to ugly Christmas sweaters parties because I couldn’t quite stomach the idea of wearing a Christmas sweater,” Agiman told me. “I didn’t want to be that person who just waited for someone else to make the thing that I really wanted, so I took the money from my tax refund and had samples made at this factory in L.A.”
Agiman then put together a photo shoot with the sweaters called Santa’s first Hanukkah, assembled a video and launched her Kickstarter campaign. She got full funding, over $20,000.
She worked with a California-based manufacturers, making sure every little detail was perfect. “You’re dealing with these huge machines, if you want the pattern to land in the right place, that takes a lot of work,” she said. Many of the sweaters were inspired by mid-century designs, and everything from the fit to the names, like “Spinmaster,” were meticulously crafted.
Agiman saw her ideal client as “Someone who cares about the quality of the things they buy and they wear,” she said. “They want something that’s clever and not so obvious, someone who is really into being Jewish and the cultural aspect of it, not necessarily religious.”
But her customers ended up being more eclectic she expected — she got quite a few orders from Orthodox Jews, and from non-Jews too. Even Matisyahu reportedly has a sweater, she said.
Agiman kept the business going for four years — three years as a side gig, and then, in 2015, as a full-time job. But despite the positive response to her designs, she couldn’t make GeltFiend a viable business.
By the end, Agiman said, “I think we sold over 5,000 sweaters, over $400,000 worth of sweaters,” yet “we barely broke even.”
“I felt proud of it,” she added. “I gave it all that I had. It felt like a good note to end things on. I’d rather do something that I love and then let it go.”
Making sweaters is a complicated business. Unlike t-shirts, which you can design and manufacture in a matter of days, knitwear is usually manufactured overseas and in big quantities. There are mandatory minimums. It’s hard to get a business off the ground. But one Jewish sweater maven managed to get it done.
A year before Agiman launched her line, Evan Mendelsohn, a lawyer, and his friend Nick Morton, an endodontist, founded a sweater company called Tipsy Elves.
“We’d always enjoyed dressing up and wearing fun holiday clothes and we realized there was no one making fun apparel,” Mendehlsohn said. So, they decided to launch their own holiday clothes company. That year, they sold 5,000 sweaters, he said.
The next year, Mendehlson quit his job. You may have guessed by the name — Tipsy Elves doesn’t just peddle Hanukkah wares. It sells Christmas sweaters — lots and lots of ridiculous Christmas sweaters. But they make Hanukkah sweaters, too. This season, they have about six of them. Including one that you might recognize as the one Seth Rogen wore in the film “The Night Before.”
Unlike Agiman and me — who are Hanukkah purists — Mendehlsohn has a much more lighthearted approach to the holiday sweater dilemma.
“My dad is Jewish and my mom is Catholic, so I was raised doing a little bit of both,” he said.
As for Agiman — who’s still shipping leftover GeltFiend stock via Amazon — she’s kept the Hanukkah spirit alive: “The food is my favorite, the sufganiyot, the latkes, the gelt!” she said. “I think I’m just really really in love with that.”