Joel Poznansky and his team at Maryland’s newest Jewish-owned toy shop, Wicked Uncle, are trying to identify the best and most fun gift ideas for kids to fill eight luminous nights of Chanukah.
“No one wants another menorah, dreidel or bag of gelt,” Poznansky, a Bethesda resident, said. “It’s almost the opposite of a present.”
That’s why Wicked Uncle this year opened a “Best Gifts for Hanukkah” section on its website with some special toys and deals that cannot be found in other areas of the online store.
He also grouped the toys by Chanukah themes.
For example, under “Battling Tyranny,” the book “Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls” is featured. This is a book with 100 tales of heroism accompanied by illustrations from 60 female artists. The book profiles powerful women from ancient history to modern day.
Under the theme “Festival of Lights,” the store highlights the Laser Twister Tracks set with 12 feet of LED light-up track to arrange and rearrange, as well as an LED race car with a USB charging port.
“It’s multicolored, modern and right in line with what kids are interested in this year,” Poznansky said.
And under “Miracles”?
Poznansky recommends Make-Your-Own Unicorn Hoodies. He said this gift is warm, cozy, mythical and creative. The fabric comes pre-cut and the instructions guide the Gen Xers who tend to love this gift through knotting together the correct pieces.
It might sound too good to be true for Jewish shoppers, but for Poznansky it “was something we just thought we needed to do.”
A British immigrant to the U.S. who has been living in Maryland for two decades, Poznansky star- ted Wicked Uncle (“cool uncle” in American English) one year ago this past September. Before that, he worked in publishing, most recently at Columbia Books & Information Services.
He prays at Congregation Beth El of Montgomery County or Congregation Etz Hayim in Arlington.
The original Wicked Uncle was started in the United Kingdom by one of Poznansky’s former army buddies, Mike O’Shea, who got married late and was always looking for gifts for his nieces and nephews.
“He would go to the toy store and sometimes the employees would help, but usually they were of no help,” Poznansky said. “So he would resort to asking the parents or child, and that was not only uncomfortable, but it also defeated the purpose of gift-giving.”
Over time, Wicked Uncle’s U.K. branch was getting a lot of inquiries from American customers. So Poznansky decided to open the American store.
To this day, help in choosing the right toy is one of the most important aspects of Wicked Uncle.
“There is not very much guidance out there,” said Poznansky. “Even the age of a toy — if you look on the box it says, ‘5+.’ But that doesn’t mean that any child over the age of 5 will like that toy. A toy that is great for a 5-year-old will unlikely be great for a 12-year-old.”
“No one wants another menorah, dreidel or bag of gelt. It’s almost the opposite of a present.” — Joel Poznansky
Wicked Uncle tries to help guide buyers. On Wicked Uncle, staff categorize toys not only by age and type, but by type of child — outdoorsy, interested in crafts, etc.
The other focus is making the gift fun for the child. He said that while this might be easier for parents, even parents sometimes struggle to find unusual gifts that their children don’t already have.
Further, he said, “When you give a gift, if you are not the parent, you have to make quite a few people happy.”
First: the child. You want the child to feel like he received a good gift, he said. Second: the parents, who must approve of the gift. And third: the buyer, who usually has a budget.
Wicked Uncle offers pre-written and pre-addressed thank you cards with every online purchase. And Poznansky and his staff personally hand-write birthday and holiday cards for their buyers.
“It is a great joy to get these messages from grandparents and uncles and aunts to the children,” said Poznansky. “They are probably constructed in haste, but they are often very, very touching.”
The U.K. branch does not have a Chanukah section.
“Although Britain is very multicultural, it does not cater to different groups,” Poznansky said. But with three out of Wicked Uncle’s six employees being Jewish — including Baltimore’s Lucy Schlessinger — “it made sense to start with Chanukah.”
Poznansky told the JT that customers are also welcome to visit and shop at his warehouse on Boston Way in Lanham, Maryland. Otherwise, if they don’t want to shop online, he recommends they look at the American Specialty Toy Retailing Association website for specialty toys stores in their area.
“This year, let’s put a bit more feeling into our present selection,” said Poznansky. “Maybe fewer pencils stamped with Stars of David and more toys that reflect the true rebel spirit of Chanukah. … I would be delighted to see anyone at Wicked Uncle.”
Maayan Jaffe-Hoffman is an Israel-based freelance writer and former editor-in-chief of the Baltimore Jewish Times.