How to Make a Mezuzah with Kitsch and Class

This entry was posted in Practices on by .

A mezuzah case made from a PEZ dispenser is a hoot. And unique, apparently — or so said Google at the moment of my epiphany, despite how inevitable it felt. I loved the idea and the look of repurposing an iconic, candy-enabling toy, and could not wait to share my mezuzah mashup with the world.

But the world–or the tiny corner where some of my hello kitty pez mezuzahJewish friends hang–was not nearly as pleased as I had hoped. A PEZ-uzah, apparently, might not be the thing. I concede it is a bit ironic to post a Piglet PEZ dispenser on the doorframe of my kosher kitchen, but damn, it’s funny. Perhaps a Hello Kitty PEZ-uzah would pose fewer layers of problematic meaning? No, it still creeped my buddies that I’d be touching a shaped, plastic image with reverence, and raising my fingers to my lips. I’d be kissing Hello Kitty like she was the Shema herself. (Which might be true if I actually remembered to touch any of the mezuzot in my house.)

My PEZ problem–for now, my thrilling invention had become a problem–made me ponder mezuzah rules anew. I’ve been obsessed with mezuzot since Kveller.com ran my article on making a mezuzah with kids. I saw potential mezuzah cases everywhere: empty lip balm, the cardboard tube on a dry-cleaner hanger, a toothpaste box, the fat straw in my bubble tea, a HotWheels van and so on. It felt Freudian: anything longer than it was wide could be a mezuzah. But sometimes, a cigar case is just a cigar case.

The PEZ dispenser was a revelation. It co-opted a toy for ritual use, was kid-friendly, cheap, readily available and it assumed the role with minimum modification. It’s an icon of American pop culture and, not coincidentally, irresistible to operate: pull up the head, insert the candy and dispense each piece with a backwards nod. Already similar in size and shape to a standard mezuzah case, a PEZ dispenser even has a built-in cavity for stashing a scroll. Slap some foam tape on the back and bingo: a PEZ-uzah!

But my frum friends made me wonder, is a PEZ-uzah kosher? That’s when I put down my shin stickers and candy and got busy.

Some PEZ candy is kosher, but not every variety: Only the packs distributed by Paskesz Candy, Inc., the worthies who also give us heckshered Haribo gummy bears and Orbitz gum. A PEZ dispenser is kosher, if it’s new. But, edibility aside, is it kosher as the case for a ritual object? What about that endlessly tricky Second Commandment:

“You shall have no other gods beside Me. You shall not make for yourself a sculptured image, or any likeness of what is in the heavens above or on the earth below, or in the waters under the earth” (Exodus 20:3-4).

Every PEZ dispenser is a “sculptured image,” a “likeness” of an animal, licensed character, object or human. That’s part of what makes PEZ so iconic. But they aren’t real icons in the rabbinical sense, even if they align with the pristine Greek word (eikon means image). PEZ images are kosher because they aren’t meant to elicit veneration, just to eject candy. The big picture is that the second commandment is concerned with the making of idols, not with prohibiting a Visual Tradition. No PEZ dispenser is intended as “a material representation of divinity,” even the 2007 limited edition Elvis Presley.

If your particular minhag (custom) forbids human representation, note well that PEZ makes relatively few human-shaped dispensers, and fewer based on actual people. Another consideration is that the Talmudic injunction against producing faces does not apply to those created by nonJews. I wondered if any of the injection-mold operators at the PEZ factories were Jewish, but after PEZ Candy, Inc. told me they don’t even know if its founder, Austrian physician/entrepreneur Eduard Haas III, was Jewish, I didn’t think it feasible to ask. However, Talmudic faces aside, any mezuzah case made by a nonJew is acceptable.

More significantly, the Shulhan Arukh (16th century code of Jewish law) weighs in on the side of the PEZ-uzah. Yoreh Deah 141-142 sanctions “depictions of the human body that are somehow incomplete.” “Somehow incomplete” certainly describes characters on a PEZ dispenser, human or otherwise: a head on a stick.

Is a PEZ-uzah too irreverent? Yes of course, for some. I mean no disrespect. But to me, a PEZ-uzah is irresistible and Jewish, two modifiers not used in the same sentence often enough. Converting a well-loved, secular object into Jewish ritual art is an exercise in seeing the world through Jewish eyes. Everything is Jewish, one way or another, once you start to look. My favorite book for early childhood educators is What’s Jewish About Butterflies? by Maxine Segal Handelman, whose well-supported answer to the titular question is, “What isn’t?” Jewish values are everywhere. In other words, sometimes, a cigar case is actually a mezuzah case.

The important thing about a mezuzah case is that it protects what is inside: the mezuzah itself, the kosher scroll hand-lettered with the Shema, Judaism’s central prayer (Deuteronomy 6:9 and 11:13-21). Affixing the scroll to a doorpost is a mitzvah, a commandment, and putting it in a case is a practical, protective measure. Traditionally, a case is an anything-goes category. The first ones were probably hollow reeds plucked from the riverbank in Egypt. I remember the startling DIY bivalve-shell version in The Jewish Catalog (treif to eat, but kosher to hang). As long as it is affixed properly to the proper door with the proper blessing, it’s fine. A standard PEZ dispenser can house any scroll up to 2 ¼ inches tall. It also facilitates the mandatory twice-every-seven-year inspection to make sure each letter is still legible. No need to back out screws or pry up nailheads: just slide it open in situ. Love it! Not many cases are such a boon to the observant.

pez mezuzahThere’s a Jewish tradition to beautify a commandment, hiddur mitzvah, and the beauty of the PEZ-uzah is eminently in the eye of its beholders. If a Hello Kitty PEZ-uzah looks good to me in my house, then it works. The only traditional modification a dispenser might require is the addition of the letter shin for Shaddai, one of the names of God. Use permanent ink, a sticker or glitter glue.

True to the spirit and the letter of Torah, the PEZ-uzah innovates the ritual with a cheeky sweetness. Isn’t Torah supposed to be sweet? We still initiate our kids into Hebrew School with honey and Hebrew letters. Spending time with them while making something Jewish—a ritual object, no less—is the best recommendation. Here’s another plus: a PEZ-uzah, being so noticeable, invites passersby to see and touch it, thus fulfilling its function as a reminder of the message within. The original “interactive candy” nudges us toward interactive Judaism, dispensing menschlichkeit instead of mints.

Disclaimer: The ideas and opinions expressed here are not authorized, sponsored or endorsed by PEZ Candy, Inc.

Joanna Brichetto blogs as Bible Belt Balabusta, is the monthly Lifestyles columnist for the national book review BookPage, and is an educator at a Conservative synagogue in Nashville. She has an MA in Jewish Studies from Vanderbilt University.

Posted on June 29, 2011

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy