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Latke Larry Doll Brings Joy to Kids with Special Needs

December 20, 2005
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For a second or two, it seems like the cloth doll is 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.'” says the rabbi, fidgeting in his chair as he activates 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 30-plus 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. Part of the cost covers manufacturing and distribution. 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 the actor Jon Voigt asked him to do it. Voigt, a longtime supporter of Chabad, had encountered Rabbi Kaltmann at events over the years.

Stiller said he was intrigued. Speaking from his dressing room on the set of “The King of Queens” in Los Angeles, he said the rabbi “arranged for me to meet him in the middle of 14th Street and Eighth Avenue (in New York). I had just come from the orthopedist, and I couldn’t find him. Then suddenly, he waved at me. I thought, ‘This is “Fiddler on the Roof” once removed.’ He screamed and we stopped traffic.” The pair went upstairs and Rabbi Kaltmann played the song for Stiller.

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. He had to go to a studio to do this.” Stiller also donated his time in a commercial for the doll airing in Philadelphia and Chicago. The spot was arranged by Jon Diamond, president of the Columbus-based Safe Auto Insurance Company. Diamond’s children were volunteers with the Friendship Circle program.

“Areyah brought me the doll one day and I said, ‘Wow, that’s very clever and very well done,'” said Diamond.

Rabbi Kaltmann bills the doll as something more than an amusing toy. He sees it as an identity-builder for children who need something Jewish in their lives. Chabad is known for reaching out to unaffiliated Jews. In Columbus, Rabbi Kaltmann and his wife, Esther, teach in the Chabad Hebrew school, which draws 60 students who don’t belong to synagogues.

“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.”

On the back of the doll’s box, Rabbi Kaltmann put a latke recipe for those who might want to try to make the traditional Chanukah food.

The dolls have circulated throughout the country as a test to see how kids would respond to them. Beth Kramer of Sante Fe, N.M., said she got the doll through Chabad House there for her daughter, Ryanna.

“It’s hilarious,” said Kramer. “It’s a great Jewish toy. I love the recipe on the back.”

Katie Kaufman of Columbus said her children, 4 and 2, enjoy playing with the doll. “It’s adorable and it appeals to both kids and adults,” she said. “With Christmas being everywhere, the more mainstream Chanukah stuff that’s out there to bring joy to children is a good thing.” 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.

Columbus-based distributor Eden Lane has added the doll to its catalog, which goes to about 3 million customers. The company has sold 800 dolls since October, said Eden Lane’s president, Larry Levine. He said the doll’s sales have quickly caught up to those of a competitor, Harvey Megillah, a singing doll that has been included in the company’s catalog for several years.

“You just don’t have a product that sells like that,” said Levine.

The doll also is available through its official Web site, and 1-888-LATKELARRY. Rabbi Kaltmann said he hopes people will choose the direct order number and the Internet to purchase the toy so that Friendship Circle can receive more funds from the sale.

The Web site also contains information about the doll. The design for Latke Larry comes from Rabbi Kaltmann’s brother-in-law, Eli Toron, a graphic artist for “Sesame Street.” Larry’s song was written by two of the rabbi’s friends, Neil Greenberg of Philadelphia, who works in marketing, and Aaron Evenchik of Cleveland, an Ohio State University graduate who attended Chabad House regularly during his college years.

The enterprise has been a lesson in licensing, manufacturing and marketing, said Rabbi Kaltmann. Getting the doll (made in China) from the drawing board onto retail shelves involved countless details. They included registering for a design trademark and wrangling over the materials and the size of the doll (it’s now 7 inches tall, but the prototype was nearly twice as large).

“For example, this ‘on-off’ button (on the doll’s foot) cost 50 cents,” said the rabbi. “But this is a first-class production.”

Rabbi Kaltmann has sent fliers about Latke Larry to synagogues around the country. He also has promoted the doll on mainstream radio stations.

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.

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

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