One of Charlotte Lewin's priorities when she took over the gift shop at Temple Adat Elohim in Thousand Oaks in 1990 was to expand the merchandise selection.
Her shop was limited to a single display case, some shelves, a couple of bookracks and for special occasions, such as Hanukkah, a portable table. But she was determined to fill the space.
"I saw there were more Jewish people moving into the area and there were no gift shops oriented toward a Jewish line of products," Lewin said. "We were also seeing more people with young children who wanted to enhance their homes Jewishly."
Lewin, who operates the gift shop on behalf of the temple's sisterhood organization, is asked to turn a profit of about $2,000 annually, which is used to help fund temple activities and to support social causes.
To do that, she said, brisk sales during the Hanukkah season are critical.
"It's definitely the busiest time of year. Passover is big too, but nothing like this," said Lewin, who is given a $2,000 to $4,000 budget to spend annually on wholesale Hanukkah items. "During Hanukkah we put out an extra line of tables and stands."
Hanukkah is the commemoration of the recapture of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem from the Syrians in 165 BC. With the eight-day celebration beginning this Sunday, Lewin's gift shop is full of holiday merchandise, from the basic to the extravagant. There are traditional menorahs, menorahs shaped like dinosaurs to appeal to children, jewelry, wooden dreidels (spinning tops), crystal dreidels, glass dreidels and even a dreidel music box priced at $50.
Jean Aveis, who heads up the gift shop at Temple Etz Chaim in Thousand Oaks, said the range of Hanukkah merchandise has broadened dramatically over the past decade.
"Basically, Hanukkah is a minor holiday that doesn't have great significance. But Christmas does, and because they are at the same time of year, it develops more of an excitement in the [Jewish] children," she said. "Because of that, wholesalers have really hopped on the bandwagon. There's a tremendous demand for Judaica pieces, Hanukkah pieces, collector dreidels, designer dreidels, wrapping paper, Hanukkah games."
Dreidels, which have different Hebrew letters on each of their four sides, are commonly used to play games of chance during Hanukkah. After putting candy, pennies or another ante into a pot, participants spin the dreidel. Depending on which letter lands face up, they take from or add to the pot, or leave the pot alone. Aveis said the customer base for items such as dreidels extends beyond those who are Jewish.
"Members of the Christian community at large come in. We get students from college who want to know more about the religion. They buy books, memorabilia, all kinds of things, just to get a connection," she said. "We've had a lot of Christian people come in who have Jewish friends and they want to give them something for Hanukkah."
At Temple Beth Torah in Ventura, Hanukkah sales this year have been just moderate at best, said Margie Hanock, the temple bookkeeper.
"I wish I could say it's been excellent," she said. "I think the economy has a lot to do with it. People are definitely not spending as much. They are being much more careful."
To add to their temple funds, Adat Elohim, Etz Chaim and Beth Torah all held Hanukkah bazaars within the past month. Local vendors set up booths to sell books, clothing and other gift items, with a percentage of sales going to the temple. Gift shops were also open to accommodate customers.
Aveis said that at Etz Chaim, the gift shop alone took in $2,500 in sales during its bazaar, which was held during the first weekend of December. "People were in a real buying mood," she said. Sales figures for the entire bazaar have not yet been tabulated.