It all started when Norman Steinberg of Teaneck, who now owns more than 400 Pez dispensers — including all the presidents, cartoon characters, superheroes, and collections from Disney and Pixar films — realized that there were lessons to be learned from this diverse assemblage.
(Pez, incidentally, is an acronym. According to the Burlingame Museum of Pez Memorabilia, the word is an abbreviation of the German word for peppermint — PfeffErminZ. The candy was originally sold in small tins.)
But back to Teaneck and Mr. Steinberg, who — when he’s not selling construction materials or investing in real estate — is devising ways to use his dispensers as teachers of Jewish values. This writer came across Mr. Steinberg at Teaneck’s Congregation Beth Sholom on Sukkot. He was holding facsimiles of the Lion King’s Simba and Mufasa and teaching a group of small children the meaning of passing things down from one generation to the next.
“Every week I look through the parashah for a theme,” he said. “One that is relatively simple for children.” Some readings, he acknowledged, are more difficult than others. Then he looks at his Pez collection to determine what would be appropriate. “One for each hand.”
“A number of the parashah themes are based around leadership or good and evil,” he noted. “For good, I typically turn to Dumbledore, and for evil, to Voldemort.” Both are characters in the Harry Potter books. Or he may juxtapose Star Wars’ Yoda and Darth Vader. “For leadership and the founding of a people, I can always go to George Washington.
“I’ve read a fair amount of American history,” Mr. Steinberg continued. “Washington work s for Shemot — leading a revolution, leading people to safety. James Madison is good for the giving of the Torah, since he wrote much of the Constitution.” Lincoln, he said, often is an obvious choice.
Mr. and Mrs. Incredible and Bart and Homer Simpson are not historical, but often they’re useful, Mr. Steinberg said. He also has some dispensers that have Andy Warhol’s pop art pieces. “I never run out of lessons,” he said.
The reason why he cannot turn to Abraham or Moses is that there are no Jewish-themed Pez dispensers, he said — or at least not yet. He hopes that will change. While he has Halloween dispensers, “It would be great to have Jewish themes — maybe a star, or menorah, or a Torah — or various themes from the Bible that can be related to.”
Mr. Steinberg and his wife have three sons; a 29-year-old and 26-year-old twins. They “put up with it,” he said of his collection, noting that it’s actually cheaper than other vices. It’s also fun, he added, and said that he keeps his dispensers in actual Pez display cases. Indeed, so identified has he become with the items that “a friend made me a hat crowned with Pez dispensers.” Other friends made a large dispenser and put his headshot on top of it for his 60th birthday.
Mr. Steinberg is a longtime co-chair of Beth Sholom’s Ruah Committee, which organizes events such as the Sukkot barbecue and a progressive dinner where you don’t have to leave the synagogue. He started his informal teaching gig years ago, when he used the candies as a way to remain alert during long sermons. While “the adults were tittering, I offered it to them and it brought back fond memories,” he said.
“The kids saw it and wanted it. I morphed into a kind of candy man, and started giving it to children as well.” But, he stressed, “I have a strict rule. They need permission from their parents.” From there, receiving Pez became a lure to draw children to synagogue services. “If they came, they got a pack of Pez.” By now, he knows many of the children. And on birthdays, “I carry a few extra dispensers. I give them a dispenser and a pack of Pez and tell them to pay it forward.” All the Pez carry a hechsher, he said.
Children come to him alone or in bunches, he said. He asks them if they know the name of the parashah and how his dispensers might relate to it. “They come up with creative answers,” he said. “If they give the right answer, I give them a Pez.” The more knowledgeable among them may leave with a handful.
Mr. Steinberg said that he grew up in Brooklyn, and “my father was community-minded.” Also, “you had to be creative to survive the 60s and 70s. You tried not to think of problems but of solutions.” Not surprisingly, he calls himself “a hands-on kind of volunteer.” Rather than sit at meetings, “I prefer to do projects from beginning to end.”
He has been distributing Pez — and Torah wisdom — for some 15 years. “I wanted to do something useful and I realized I could create lessons from the parashah,” he said. Sometimes he has to do a bit of “stretching, like using Mr. Spock as a priest.” Leonard Nimoy talked about how he watched the kohanim duchening when he was a child. When director Gene Roddenberry was looking for a way for Spock to say hello, “Nimoy used the kohen’s hand symbol, and ‘Live long and prosper’,” which paraphrases a verse from Deuteronomy, Mr. Steinberg said.
Mr. Steinberg clearly enjoys what he does. “The more you give, the more you get,” he said. “Beth Sholom helped raise my children.” He hopes his Torah lessons add to the Shabbat experience of today’s youngsters, “helping them see the synagogue as a friendly place.”