In Conversation With Abra Liberman-Garrett – Co-Creator of “Maccabee on the Mantel"

While visiting in Chicagoland, Abra Liberman-Garrett, co-author of “Maccabee on the Mantel” has been reading from her book to pre-school children in various settings.  This book has been credited by it authors as “saving Hanukah”.  Curious to know why and how, Chicago Splash Magazine editor, Barbara Keer (BK) had the chance to interview author, Abra Liberman-Garrett, (ALG)


B.K.: Why do you think that the Maccabee doll is such a significant aspect of Maccabee on the Mantel?


A.L.G.: The Maccabee doll is a significant aspect of our concept for a variety of reasons. When my son graduated preschool at Temple Emanu-El in Dallas and began attending a public school, "Elf on the Shelf", which he had never seen before, was all of a sudden everywhere. Having an Elf at our house didn't make sense being as we are raising the children Jewish and as such we don't have visits from Santa (I know lots of Jewish people who do, but he doesn't happen to visit us) so a doll whose purpose is to report back to Santa seemed confusing and superfluous. I did however, want the children to have the fun of waking up and searching out the hidden plush each morning, all of their friends were talking about their Elf's various antics and I knew my kiddos felt left out. The Maccabee doll allowed them to contribute and feel included while simultaneously circumventing what I felt to be a potentially complicated situation - where I had to explain why no matter how well they behaved Santa was not coming. Another reason I find the doll significant is that it is designed to be an actual Maccabee, he sports a Star of David on his shield, which I love, and to me he fosters a connection to Judaism because of the historical significance.


B.K.:  Why the Mantel?  


A.L.G.: I mainly chose mantel because I like alliteration, but I also wanted the title of the book to be indicative of what this concept was: a doll who could be moved, hidden and searched for like the afikomen – or Elf.


B.K: Why was it so important to you that this book be educationally approved?


A.L.G: Because I am a teacher it was imperative to me the book be educationally based. I was teaching preschool at Temple Emanu-El at the time and working with the 2 year olds. They loved stories, they loved rhymes and they loved to learn. Combining a fun story with an opportunity to educate seemed like such a cool opportunity to me. The Jewish Holiday curriculum was and is a big part of Temple preschool and children are such sponges, this is the age to develop their connection to and love of their religion to help facilitate a lifetime of that identity, to me this book being educational was a small piece of that big daunting process that both teachers and parents face.


B.K.: What is the message that you are hoping children will take with them after reading the book?


A.L.G: Perseverance, as well as standing up for yourself and others. The Maccabees had a much smaller army but they believed in their rights to worship their God and so they continued to fight – even when giving up may have been easier. Clearly the Jewish people have a long history of persecution, but I try and present it to my own children in more tangible terms by comparing it to bullying, which is of course a huge topic on everyone's mind these days. I have said to them King Antiochus was a bully because he tried to make people do things that they felt were wrong, they had to be brave and courageous and believe in themselves to do what they knew to be the "right thing."


B.K:   What response have you had at the reading you have done in the Chicago area?


A.L.G.: People have been warm and wonderful and the feedback has been great! Growing up in Deerfield I had a far different experience than my children do where we live. There are only a few other Jewish children at my children's school. I, of course, had many. So whereas I have read in some parts of the country where the response was very much "Thank goodness I needed something for my kids like this because of Elf on the Shelf and we are one of only a few Jews." here in the Chicago area it has been viewed more as an educational vehicle and less as a response to the Elf. It does serve both those purposes: an alternative to Elf for Jewish children as well as a means by which we can educate about the holiday. It has been interesting to see the different ways people embrace the Maccabee. I think Chicago is one of the best places in the universe so receiving these kind words about the book means the world to me!


B.K.: Would you say this is a Hanukah version of “Elf on the Shelf”? or is there a stronger message here?


A.L.G.: That's a very interesting question and one I have thought about extensively. I originally had a line in the book that read something like "Maccabee is not here to narc you out, that is not his deal; He is here to help you make good choices, it's a whole different schpiel." I ended up taking the page out however, because I felt as though it may be interpreted as a dig on Elf, which was NEVER my intention. I think Elf is darling. it just did not make sense for our family. I feel there is something very powerful about a book for children that is based on history and teaches something that can be scary (i.e. war and religious persecution) in a way that is safe and, dare I say, fun. I would like to think that our book does just this. So while I do see how it is thought of as a "Hanukkah version" my intention in writing it was driven much more from a place of honoring my own family and heritage and trying to create a sense of connectedness to something bigger. Our days are so busy, the holidays are beyond crazy, but when you get past all the hoopla what I want Jackson and Charley, my own son and daughter, to know, is that they are Jewish and theirs is a lineage that is rich, complicated, painful, and beautiful. This may be the weirdest thing you have ever heard a mom say but I look forward to the day my children are old enough for me to tell them stories of their ancestors who died in the holocaust, because to me it elucidates more than anything how important, how significant, religion is – for better or for worse. I'm honored to be related to both the survivors and not in my family. In my heart the strength of the message of Maccabee On The Mantel comes from the strength of the Jewish people.


B.K.:  How long has Maccabee on the Mantel been available and where can it be purchased? 


A.L.G.: One whole year! It can be purchased on Amazon, Hallmark stores, Jewish Source, many Temple gift shops and our website among others.


B.K.:   Is there anything else you would like Chicago Splash Magazine readers to know about your book?


A.L.G.:  I just feel really honored whenever anyone wants to make it a part of their home and family traditions. This has been a bit of a roller coaster at times but when I go to a preschool and read the book to the children and they listen and they laugh, it truly makes my heart swell. 

B.K.:   Can you expand a bit on the fact that the book “is kid-tested and Rabbi-approved”?


A.L.G.: The "kid tested" comment has to do with the gazillions of children I have read the book to along the way, we laughingly called them our "focus groups". The "Rabbi Approved" part is based on the work I did with our rabbis as we developed the story and illustrations. We have the most amazing family of rabbis at Temple and when I embarked on this journey I sought out the leadership of one in particular, it is his daughter the book is dedicated to in fact. I wanted to make sure that I explained the story correctly, that the history was accurate and that it was something a rabbi would be comfortable reading to their own children.  







B.K.:   Would you say that Fort Worth-based improvisation and comedy troupe Four Day Weekend had a role in the creation of this book?


A.L.G.:  I would say Four Day Weekend had a staring roll in creating this book! In fact, I would say there would not even be a book without them. This is Four Day's second book, I actually assisted with the editing of their first, The Art of ImproviZen. Because they have been previously published in conjunction with their business acumen and heartfelt belief in this project, we were able to take it from an idea to a reality. Their entire philosophy is based on "yes, end" which essentially entails creating opportunity everywhere. With every challenge we faced they went straight to a solution-centered approach. And plus they're hilarious – which helps me a ton since I don't have the attention span to work well when I'm bored.  


 Maccabee on the Mantel Website

Four Day Weekend Website






Photos: Courtesy of "Maccabee On The Mantel"

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