How a Jewish educator took the Hanukkah llama from TJ Maxx meme to teachable moment


((JR)) — For years, the Hanukkah llama has been a corny cliche that skeptics of the big-box Hanukkah industrial complex love to hate.

What does a South American animal have to do with a holiday commemorating a Jewish miracle in the Middle East? Is a not-quite rhyme enough to justify “Happy Llamakah” sweaters and socks? Just why are the aisles of TJ Maxx and other stores hawking holiday merchandise filled with Hanukkah llama items, alongside “Oy to the World” dish towels and gnomes decked out in blue and white?

“Llamas are particularly adorable, and they’re easy to dress up in Hanukkah fashion, whether it’s sweaters or scarves, or kippot,” offered Rabbi Yael Buechler, a designer of Jewish holiday merchandise and a keen observer of the Jewish marketplace,  as a reason for the enduring and befuddling mashup. “And they also have wide backs, so that serves as great storage space for dreidels, hanukkiot.”

In 2020, the trend expanded to include a picture book about a family of llamas celebrating Hanukkah written by a Jewish children’s book author. And now, for the first time, a professional Jewish educator has given the Hanukkah llama a deeply Jewish backstory, in an effort to endow a kitschy character with substance.

“I think a lot about what engages learners and how we engage learners,” said Sara Beth Berman, the author of a 32-page miniature book released last month by Hachette Press. “And so taking a piece of the zeitgeist and attaching it to a story that is meaningful, I think is great.”

Berman was recruited to add a story to a toy that lacked one. The team at Running Press Minis, a division of Hachette Book Group, was gearing up to create the company’s first Hanukkah product in more than two decades.

Running Press puts out tiny “kits” — a toy and a companion text — that make for ideal gifts. The company has put out multiple Christmas kits, and even a “holiday armadillo,” a reference to the “Friends” episode where Ross Geller is dismayed not to find Hanukkah costumes to make the holiday more interesting for his son, who is mesmerized by Christmas. But since “The Little Book of Hanukkah” in 2000, which predated the toy pairing, Running Press hadn’t tackled Hanukkah.

The company knew it wanted to produce a tiny llama with an accompanying book, but it didn’t have an author lined up. Jordana Hawkins, Running Press’ licensing manager, was friendly with Berman’s husband, knew her reputation as an educator and reached out.

“I wanted a Jewish writer to write it and she has a really great sense of humor,” Hawkins told (JR). “She has a really great style and she’s a great writer. And I thought she would be a great fit for it.”

The book is a modern retelling of the Hanukkah story, with Lex Lexabee, the “llama constabulary” of Jerusalem who is acquainted with Mattathias and his sons, including Judah Maccabee, the hero of the Hanukkah story. Lex wears sunglasses, a menorah throw blanket, a blue winter hat, and a scarf with yellow pompoms. Judah Maccabee is the leader of the “Holy Llamas of Jerusalem” — a city that, in this version of the story — is surrounded by snow-capped mountaintops. The story begins in 168 B.C.E., when the Syrian Goat Greeks, led by the mountain goat version of King Antiochus, take over the holy llamas’ place of worship, the Holy Temple of Jerusalem.

Berman, the director of youth and family education at New York’s Temple Shaaray Tefila, was determined to pack seriousness into a 32-page, 3-inch book meant as a gag gift. She was particularly determined to show readers how Jews count time, by introducing, from the very beginning of the book, the years in BCE, and not the Christian BC.

“In Jewish academia, calling it ‘Before the Common Era’ and ‘Common Era’ is the way,” Berman explained. “But most of the people who are like, ‘Oh look, a Hanukkah llama’ — the vast majority of the population isn’t familiar with how academics talk about how our calendar works. So I was really nerdily excited to get that in the book.”

Berman also uses the actual story to explain the “shamash,” the word used for the “helper” candle of the menorah, when Lex officially becomes Lex Lexabee as he turns into Judah Maccabee’s “number one support llama” during the fight to take back the Temple.

The book includes Hanukkah songs and activities, but no blessings. And the accompanying figurine plays one of those songs aloud to what the company says is “a toe-tapping beat.”

“I want people to experience Judaism through joy when they can,” Berman said. “The more joy the merrier. I want Jewish people to feel seen and if this is a small way that people manage their feelings around the holiday season, I’m glad to be a positive part of it.”

For Buechler, just knowing that a seasoned Jewish educator had a hand in the kind of product she might otherwise shake her head about is exciting.

“What we’re seeing here is a Jewish educator authoring a book and a mainstream Hanukkah toy. And that’s significant, because it marks a new model for Hanukkah merchandise,” Buechler said. “This is a new path towards bringing modern merchandise that is well-educated into the Hanukkah market.”