November 19, 2013

Members of Fort Worth comedy troupe launch toy venture, Maccabee on the Mantel

The book and plush toy add a fun new tradition to kids’ Hanukkah celebrations.

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Even if you don’t have one in your home, you probably recognize the Elf on the Shelf as a modern-day Christmas tradition.

The elf doll is a scout from the North Pole that keeps an eye on kids to help manage the “naughty and nice lists” for Santa. Through the holiday season, it pops up around the house, kids have fun finding it, and parents have fun using it as a way to help kids mind until Santa comes on Christmas Eve.

But what about kids who celebrate Hanukkah this time of year? For the first time, they can get in on the fun with the Maccabee on the Mantel.

This cute plush soldier and accompanying book tell the story of Hanukkah and add another element to the eight-day Jewish celebration, which begins next week.

It’s the creation of David Wilk and Frank Ford, members of the critically acclaimed Fort Worth improvisational comedy troupe Four Day Weekend, and Wilk’s writer-friend, Abra Garrett. (Together they call themselves Toy Vey! LLC.)

The Maccabee doll isn’t tied to a character (like the Elf’s Santa Claus); the creators say on their website that families can incorporate it into their own beliefs, traditions and ideas. And while the Elf is not to be touched or moved, they say, “the more hugs you give your Maccabee, the stronger he gets!”

We chatted recently with Wilk. As a self-described “nice, Jewish kid from Oklahoma,” he says he is thrilled to be part of this project.

How did you get involved with Maccabee on the Mantel?

I was at a Christmas party with [Maccabee on the Mantel co-creator] Abra Garrett, who is also a nice, Jewish girl. All the Jewish kids were gravitating together. I saw the Elf on the Shelf, and I said, “Where’s our Jew on the pew?” Abra said, “Where is our Maccabee on the mantel?”

We said, “We should really do this.” The next day, Abra came in with a rough draft. It was adorable. The next thing you know, we had illustrations and everything. It went from cocktail napkin to shelves in 18 months.

You’re also the founder of Four Day Weekend. How did your comedy experience help with this project?

Four Day Weekend has taught me so much about the power of “yes, and.” In improv we don’t say no. There are no bad ideas.

So when the idea was brought to the table, there was no “Oh, bummer. We don’t have an Elf on the Shelf.” My mind automatically went to yes. At Four Day Weekend, we have connections and corporate clients, so I said, “I can get this made.”

Improv is really what made this product go from cocktail conversation to shelves by Hanukkah ’13.

Do you have a Maccabee at home?

Absolutely. Actually, about 500. [He laughs.]

What do your kids think?

I have two boys — ages 11 and 8 —and they love it. They call him “Mac.” The older one says “Mac Daddy.”

I’ve heard the Maccabee on the Mantel can get into some mischief like his Elf friend. What has Mac been up to?

I’ve been on the road, so he travels with me. He’s been to Vegas, New York, Nashville …

What do you think Jewish children learn or get out of Maccabee on the Mantel?

Unlike Elf on the Shelf, it could be used in Sunday schools as curriculum. The book tells the story of Hanukkah through the eyes of the soldier fighting the battle.

It reminds us that because we stood up for our rights, we can pray how we want. It teaches the kids to live the principles of being strong, brave.

It’s a great lesson and really reaches out to parents.

How can families pass down their traditions?

I think what’s happening is that traditions are getting a bit diluted. I’m Jewish, and my wife is Baptist. Our house is mixed-faith, so we have a Christmas tree and Hanukkah traditions.

Judaism is losing the PR it has with holidays. Abra is in the same boat in an interfaith marriage.

She felt her kids were not getting exposed to Judaism enough and Maccabee helps that. We wanted to find a fun tradition starter that kids could enjoy.

Do you think non-Jewish families should get a Maccabee on the Mantel?

Of course. It’s an adorable story and told in rhyme. There are a lot of Yiddish phrases thrown in, like “oy, vey!” Parents who read to their kids will chuckle at things the kids don’t understand yet.

And I think any parent would want their kids to learn about other cultures.

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