“In Jewish history, there are no coincidences,” wrote historian Elie Wiesel. So it was more than just random chance that lead to the creation of Maccabee on the Mantel, a holiday companion (in the tradition of Elf on the Shelf) that brings alive the story of Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, with an adorable plush doll and a companion storybook that is kid-tested and Rabbi-approved.
Indeed, it can only be called bashert – fated by divine providence – that the children of Abra Liberman-Garrett and David Wilk would become best friends in kindergarten. Both Liberman-Garrett and Wilk were raised Jewish (with mothers who had converted to Judaism), and now living in the Dallas-Fort Worth area with young families, always surrounded by holiday celebrations that were either blandly generic or openly Christian. “I grew up in Chicago,” says Liberman-Garrett, “where the visibility of the Jewish holidays was a given. But when I put my children in a secular school, and they scheduled a field trip on the high holidays, I realized that many people here hadn’t met many Jews – they weren’t even on the periphery.”
To remain connected to the stories and community she grew up with and share those traditions with her young children, Liberman-Garrett had worked for several years as a pre-school teacher at Temple Emanu-El in Dallas.
And so it was at another in a seemingly endless series of holiday/Christmas parties where Liberman-Garrett and Wilk happened to take a longer look at an Elf on the Shelf, now ubiquitous in most homes with children. “Where’s our Maccabee on the Mantel?” asked Liberman-Garrett playfully. Such a comment to anyone else might just remain a passing joke, but Wilk happens to be one of the founding members of the Fort Worth-based improvisation and comedy troupe Four Day Weekend. As a veteran improviser, teacher, and entrepreneur with two decades of success, Wilk almost reflexively embraces great ideas.
“We are the ‘yes, and,’ company,” Wilk explains, citing the foundational philosophy of successful improvisation and collaboration. He and his colleagues not only produce sold-out shows every weekend in their 212-seat theatre on Sundance Square, but offer classes, host corporate events, and bring their unique brand of training and performance into the business communities. Among their many awards, Four Day Weekend was just named the Small Business of the Year by the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce and recently received the Key to the City for being the “Fort Worth’s Greatest Ambassadors.”
So it was nothing but fate that Wilk would immediately challenge Liberman-Garrett, who had long worked as a freelance writer, to write a story to create the product that embodied her idea. She had already helped as an editor on Four Day Weekend’s first publication, The Art of ImproviZen, so they already had a working professional relationship: “I walked into it knowing that they were well equipped to deal with the literary world,” she remembers today.
At first, the idea was to get a book publishing deal and have the plush Maccabee doll be an add-on. With a story that Liberman-Garrett insisted be “curriculum worthy” in terms of teaching the origins of Hanukkah to children, consultation with local Rabbis on the content of the book and even the design of the drawings and the plush toy gave Maccabee on the Mantel a unique profile among holiday season gifts. There was no reason to make up a generic Jewish character or make up a new story – the power and passion of the story of the Maccabee’s escape from the despotic King Antiochus was enough to anchor the brave Maccabee soldier in real Jewish history. “It’s such a cool holiday!” enthuses Liberman-Garrett. “Children know the rituals, they know about the presents and the menorah, but not the genesis of it, which is about fighting for your rights, facing insurmountable odds, and believing in yourself.”
“The problem was we are a ‘yes-and’ company and we ran into a few ‘no-but’ people in publishing,” Wilk continues. “We got inspiration when we started to think of this not as a book with a plush toy, but as a toy that comes with a book,” says Wilk. Having already developed relationships with many major regional and national businesses because of their active presence in the world of corporate training and events, Four Day Weekend and Liberman-Garrett realized that there would be less resistance – and more control for them – if they could team up with a product distributor. “One of our clients had been Marshmallow Fun Co,” says Wilk. “A couple of the Marshmallow owners came in as partners and we were able to put out the product exactly as we wanted.”
That also meant that Four Day Weekend could create commercials and marketing strategies for the product, including a series of YouTube videos that comically reimagine that now-fated idea at a holiday party, with Wilk and Liberman-Garrett playing themselves, and others featuring Wilk as a life-sized Maccabee, perched awkwardly on a mantel.
“Ultimately, the Maccabee on the Mantel is all about making kids laugh, making them happy and educating them about the holiday and Judaism,” says Liberman-Garrett. “It is indelibly rewarding to see these children connecting to the Maccabee – and to their religion – in such a fun way.” Someday, perhaps, someone will tell the tale of “The Mom who Saved Hanukkah” and relate the story of how the Maccabee on the Mantel came to be; but you can be sure that like all Jewish history, it would not be a coincidence.