Responsible parents typically instruct their children to never accept candy from strangers. This is true in the Jewish world except when it comes to the synagogue candyman (or candywoman), i.e., the person sitting in shul who hands out loads of lollipops and tons of taffy to every kid who crosses his (or her) pew. The synagogue candyman greets with sweets and shows affection through confection but he does so with a particular, mitzvah-infused purpose, i.e., to enhance the synagogue experience for the many restless rascals. With every sugary treat the calculating candyman strategically sends a subliminal message to each junior recipient, creating a subconscious sweet association in their menschy minds between candy and synagogue. The hope is that the children will carry such memories into adulthood, though the further hope is that one day they will be able to sit in shul without needing a sugar fix. Thus, the candyman’s hidden agenda is to increase the number of Jews who enjoy going to shul. (Note: Those who hand out broccoli and brussels-spouts are far less effective.)
The concept of creating a sweet connection between treats and Judaism is nothing new. The Torah refers to a land “zavat halav u‘dvash” (“flowing with milk and honey“)(Devarim, 31:30) and the Talmud interprets these words as referring to “milk [that] flows from goats” and “honey [that] flows from dates and figs” (Ketubot 111b). That said, Maimonides actually cautions against juvenile honey consumption: “Honey and wine are harmful to the young and wholesome for the old.“ (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Deot 4:12)(Note: Other things in life also are not for the young but are wholesome for the old including marathon games of Canasta, Rummikub and Mahjong.) However, Rabbi Eleazar of Worms, a/k/a Rabbi Eleazer ben Judah ben Kalonymus (1160-1230), in his beautiful book Sefer HaRokeach (The Book of the Perfumer), notes that when children were brought to school for the first time, they were plied with honey cake to create a sweet connection with Torah learning. (For the record, Rabbi Eleazar of Worms did not hail from a family of non-arthropod invertebrate animals or from a town famous for its fishing bait. Worms is a city in Germany and it is not the only city in the world that shares its name with an animal. See, e.g., Spider, Kentucky; Fly, Ohio; Beaver, Alaska; Buffalo, New York; and White Horse, New Jersey.) In some nursery schools, there is a similar custom of placing drops of honey on the letters of the alef-bet to foster this sweet association. The synagogue candyman undoubtedly is an extension of this beautiful tradition.
There is some science to support the cause (candy) and effect (increased shul attendance) approach. Generally speaking, scientists recognize the power of classical conditioning and the most famous research on this topic was conducted by Dr. Ivan Pavlov (1849-1936) and his dogs. Dr. Pavlov noticed that the dogs he was using for a digestive study began to salivate whenever the technicians who fed them would appear, regardless of whether the technicians were holding food. Dr. Pavlov referred to the dogs’ anticipatory salivation as “psychic secretion” but the concept of association through such stimuli became known as the Pavlovian response. Does this mean that synagogue candymen treat children like salivating dogs? Perhaps. Does this mean that synagogue candymen deserve a Nobel prize? Possibly.
Given how successful most candymen are in making shul more kid-friendly, it makes you wonder whether the candyman concept should be employed in other contexts. For example, if you want your child to clean-up the autumn leaves, station a candyman in the front yard with a bag of candy and rake. If you want your kids to change the sheets on their beds, place a candyman in the linen closet. If you want your children to behave in the backseat of your SUV, strap a candyman to the rooftop luggage rack.
Of course, not everything in life can be cured with candy. If you forget your wedding anniversary, candy will not placate your livid spouse. If you jokingly put your neighbors’ house up for sale without their knowledge or consent, candy will not help them find the humor in the peculiar prank. If you set up an elaborate fireworks display in your in-laws’ living room, candy will not diffuse the explosive situation. If you are flying a long distance and fail to call your mother and father to advise that the plane has landed safely, candy will not soothe parental paranoia.
Bottom-line: If you have to admit to your friend that their favorite jacket has a massive candy stain, don’t “sugarcoat” the truth.