Every synagogue includes a supporting cast of unofficial, self-appointed characters that make shul a more colourful experience. They include, among others: “the knocker” who carefully reminds us of special prayers to insert on special days, the “shusher” (self-explanatory), the late morning nap taker who keeps the Rabbi’s ego in check, the Kiddush club enabler who clears the room during Haftorah, and the Hatzolah guy whose radio is just loud enough for everyone to hear.
But of all of them, the most beloved and arguably the most impactful person is the Candy Man. He is the man in Shul who brings a smile to countless children’s faces with a simple piece of candy (or three) on Shabbat, and has them coming back week after week. For a kid in synagogue, he is the only person that matters.
The Candy Man is not elected, he is not represented on the institution’s letterhead. He is often scorned by parents for the sugar high they will have to deal with, and conspiracy theorists have accused him of colluding with local dentists (never proven!). But, if the survival of Judaism is dependent on the next generation, there is no doubt that he could be the most important person in the synagogue.
Many have tried and failed at the position perhaps due to poor merchandise choice or distribution policies that are too strict. What many don’t understand is that being the Candy Man is about more than the candy. It’s about ensuring that the next generation of Jews have a positive association with synagogue.
It takes special skill, sensitivity and patience to be the shul Candy Man, as the clientele is diverse, complex and sometimes tricky.
There is the tentative customer who approaches eyes shyly to the ground and then dashes instantly once the candy hits the palm of his hand. There is the kind and gracious child who smiles and says: “thank you”, melting the Candy Man’s heart. There is the child who is accompanied, almost forcefully, by his father who won’t let him leave until she says: “thank you”. And there is the child who comes back moments later with a request for another candy for “his little sister”.
Each Candy Man has a style of his own. Some give lollipops, others an assortment of packaged delights. Some give hard candies, others chewy or jellied ones. Some offer choice and others don’t. Some give only one per Shabbat, some handfuls and others encourage coming back for more. Some may require a “thank you”, or “Good Shabbos” in return, others are satisfied with a simple smile.
My father-in-law affectionately known to two generations of kids in Toronto as “Sabba Bazooka”, has a strict one Israeli Bazooka gum and a “Good Shabbos” in return before escaping policy.
Candy Men can be very territorial. While they are not assigned a specific zone in the sanctuary to operate in, once they establish themselves, they often resent competition for customers.
At the end of the day, with nothing really expected in return, the Candy Man’s mission is that every Jewish child have the opportunity to have at least one sweet and warm moment in synagogue and hopefully have him come back for more of those moments.
Perhaps one of the earliest hints to Candy Men in Jewish life, is an interesting 12th century German custom described in Sefer Harokeah, written by R. Eleazar of Worms, of bringing a child to school for the first time on Shavuot, the day the Torah was given.
They would come wrapped in a cloak, and were put on the lap of the Rabbi who would bring a slate with written verses from the Torah and the Aleph-Beit. He taught the child the verses and the letters and the child repeated them. And then Rabbi put a little honey on the slate and the child licked the honey from the letters with his tongue.
The message was clear, namely that from an early age learning had to be enjoyable. Torah, as well as all of Jewish life, can only be transmitted effectively if it is delivered in a sweet and gentle fashion.
The “World Series” in the life of the Candy Man has always been Simchat Torah, the day on which we celebrate the completion and restarting of the Torah cycle. Showering children with sweets to no end, seeing kids dancing and singing with the Torahs, is the highlight of the year for every Candy Man as he sees his mission fulfilled to its fullest.
As we celebrate and begin the Torah anew, recommitting ourselves to its transmission to future generations, let us be reminded by the Candy Men everywhere to teach it with love, as its ways are ways of pleasantness and sweetness.
Eddie Schachter, z”l, was a Holocaust survivor and Montreal legend. Eddie’s passion was caring for children as TBDJ’s legendary “Candy Man”, supporter of Jewish education and needy families. Yehi Zichro Baruch.