Humor's in the cards to boost lagging Hanukka sales

In a country where 2.65 billion Christmas cards are sold each year, Hanukka cards represent a mere 11 million.

Ablack-hatted rapper - complete with peyot, beard and microphone - can hold his own in the brave new world of Hanukka greeting cards: "Have some fun/ And spin the dreidel./ Grab yourself/ A zoftek maidel./ Don't you worry/ About getting chubby./ Eat some brisket/ And kiss your bubbee./ Take a latke/ Two or three./ Cause you can't eat/ A Christmas tree... Happy Hanukka." In a market where sales of greeting cards, once a staple of American culture, have dropped precipitously over the last 15 years - insiders fix the plunge at 30-50% - manufacturers are fighting back by making you laugh. And though the Maccabees might find it puzzling, Hanukka provides plenty of fodder. Check out the 53 Jewish celebrities - from Bob Dylan to Madeleine Albright to Albert Einstein - whose names adorn the nine blazing candles. The punch line: "Not bad for a menora-ity. Happy Hanukka." Or the "Beatles Top 10 Hanukka Songs," including the No. 1 "Eight Days to Eat"; No. 3, "Happiness is a Warm Latke"; and No. 8, "Magical Miracle of the Oil Ant-Acid Tour" (so maybe Ringo was Jewish after all). THOUGH MANY are still in the market for traditional greetings, says Avraham Levine at the Israel Book Shop in Brookline, Mass., his shoppers prefer such offerings as paper cuts for special friends and relatives. He says the Hanukka rapper denotes a trend to the irreverent, something not as marketable for more serious religious holidays. In a country where 2.65 billion Christmas cards are sold each year, Hanukka cards represent a mere 11 million. Boosted to prominence in the West as - like it or not - the Jewish Christmas, Hanukka has emerged as a card-worthy holiday, even competing with the more traditional Jewish New Year's greetings. It helps that the prices, $2 to $3, aren't prohibitive enough to disallow buying these on a whim. So, tell me, how I could possibly resist "Greetings from the Dogs of Hanukka" for my veterinarian sister, what with its sad-sack "Goldman Retriever" and his jaunty Photoshopped yarmulke? We Jews have always had the knack of laughing at ourselves. And in the Diaspora, the underlying joke just may be the ridiculous sight of ourselves as strangers after all these years struggling to find a comfortable niche in the mainstream of American culture. "You know it's Hanukka," reads one card, "when the 'Fiddler on the Roof' comes down your chimney!" If Santa converted," reads another. "Merry Hanukka." And my favorite of the culture-clash ilk: A "for Santa" card propped alongside a jar of pickled herring, a bagel and a bottle of schnapps. The punch line: "Hey, just because a guy comes to the wrong house doesn't mean he has to starve. Happy Hanukka." "It's Jews and savvy gentiles who buy Hanukka cards," says Bob Furlong, who cheerfully acknowledges he's a member of the latter, and whose three Copley Flair stores do a brisk business in Boston this time of year. When it comes to Hanukka card sales, the closer the holiday falls to Christmas, the healthier. "If someone's shopping for cards, they pick them up for their Jewish friends, too," Furlong says. "Otherwise they probably wouldn't make a separate trip." ANOTHER area of recent growth is cards targeting interfaith couples. Most of the "Chrismakka" specimens I found stress the holidays' common legacies, such as peace or love, featuring an intermingling of trees and menoras, Santas and rabbis. One features a weary-looking reindeer with one antler displaying Christmas lights, the other a menora. The punch line: "Happy whatever." Whatever the message and whatever the target market, now that emails and e-cards have forced greeting cards from "I've got to" to "I want to," Furlong says, designers must, to survive, create cards that leap off the rack and into your hand. "More and more, they grab you with humor," he says. Which greatly cheers the folks at Recycled Paper Greetings, who specialize in cards that elicit a laugh or groan. "Our Hanukka cards sell all over the country," says marketing manager, Rick Baldwin, conceding, "maybe not quite as well in Nebraska as in New York." As far as humor goes, the nation's No. 3 card company is getting a run for its money from the major players. In fact, American Greetings' L'Chaim line brings us one of the year's goofiest images: President Bush, appearing oddly constipated, popping out of the shamash, surrounded by no less than eight Condoleezza Rices lighting the other branches of the menora. Inside it reads: "Ocho Condoleezzas - Happy Hanukka!" And Hallmark's Jewish line, Tree of Life, brought out wickedly funny instructions for a whole new twist on a traditional holiday pastime: "Here's how to have a lot of fun this Hanukka! Play the dreidel game with some people who aren't Jewish and make up the rules as you go along." The punch line inside: "Gimel! That means you have to dance around on one foot and quack like a duck."