December 15, 2005
Latke Larry Cooks Up Dough for Kids
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, 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."
Kaltmann created the battery- and computer-chip-powered toy as a fundraiser 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. 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 fundraiser for Friendship Circle."
To record Larry's voice, 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 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 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."
"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, 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 Santa Fe, N.M., said she got the doll through Chabad House there for her daughter, Ryanna.
"It's hilarious," Kramer said. "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.
Retailers are fascinated, too. Kaltmann sold 13,000 of the 21,000 dolls he had ordered before they arrived from the manufacturer. Buyers have picked up the dolls for sale in a number of department and specialty stores, including Filene's Basement and Bed, Bath & Beyond.
The design for Latke Larry comes from 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.
Kaltmann has sent fliers about Latke Larry to synagogues around the country. He also has promoted the doll on mainstream radio stations. 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."
The doll also is available through its official Web site, www.latkelarry.com, and by calling (888) 528-5352.