In Eli Kowalski’s always-active mind, it would somehow be appropriate if one day he could be as popular as the man he was named after.
In a sense people would open their doors and invite him into their homes, and maybe set aside a place at the table for him along with a cup of wine.
Now that would be amazing for the man born Eliyahu Ha Navi.
That was 58 years ago in a small Israeli town near Ramat HaSharon. Some six years later, the family came to the United States, Americanized their son’s name to Eli and settled in Northeast Philadelphia.
He’s lived here since, building a business in children’s and sports publishing, which included a number of children’s books from the Phillie Phanatic, as well as one on the 1960 NFL championship Philadelphia Eagles and another on 75 years of Eagles’ history.
But lately he’s turned in a different direction — back toward his roots.
And with Hanukkah in a Box, which contains a plush Judah Maccabee doll, a plastic dreidel, the colorful 20-page book Maccabee’s Hanukkah Story and even holiday-themed fortune cookies, Kowalski is hoping to keep the tradition alive for future generations.
“Judah Maccabee has been around 5,500 years,” said Kowalski, who became intrigued with the idea a year ago and decided to buy out the company that created the product, then rebrand it as Toy Vey Toys. “He’s not going anywhere and the name’s not going to change.
“Why not have a product in the name of the true spirit of the holiday? That’s what I’m trying to accomplish. I want to do things that unify people.
“I hope we’re building something people can relate to.”
Unlike Mensch on a Bench, the doll resembling a rabbi which became popular after debuting on ABC’s Shark Tank, Kowalski said his creation, Maccabee on a Mantel, has a friendlier face, is cuddlier and is more relatable to children. Throw in his award-winning Chanukah story book, and it’s a dynamic combination.
“We made a paperback version, and it won Creative Child Magazine’s award for 2016 book of the year,” explained Kowalski, who had a New York a cappella group, Shir Soul, record “The Dreidel Song,” which plays when you push Judah’s stomach. “I showed it to several rabbis to get their approval to make sure we’re weren’t slighting anybody.
“I showed it to everyone from Conservative to Chasidic. They all liked the premise and told me the story was correct. You can see our product is colorful and detail oriented. We added the baruchas. And we added a plastic dreidel.”
Targeted for ages 3 to 8, Hanukkah in a Box can be ordered online at toyveytoys.com. But Kowalski has also been able to get it into distribution at Judaica stores, as well as Hallmark, T.J. Maxx, Marshalls, Whole Foods, Amazon.com and Walmart.com.
He’s also hoping by next year, when he puts a hardback edition of the book on the shelves, to saturate the synagogue-gift-shop market — all while spreading the word at schools up the down the region.
“I go on school tours,” Kowalski said. “I like to teach the kids — not only the Jewish kids — about the holidays.
“It’s keeping the Jewish flavor alive. I wanted to come back to my roots. This lets me give back.”
Of course, putting all your latkes in one basket can be kind of risky, since Chanukah only lasts eight days and nights. So, what’s next?
He thought you’d never ask.
Meet Sam the Dancing Matzo Man, a plush toy with his own rap song that will tell the story of Passover. Having worked out a licensing arrangement with Streit’s Matzos, which will promote Sam on their packaging next April, he’s hoping to build upon Judah Maccabee’s acclaim.
Even better, by adding payot and tzitzit to Sam’s appearance, he’s making inroads in the Orthodox community.
“All the religious people loved me,” said Kowalski, who operates out of a warehouse in South Philadelphia not far from his Center City home. “They said, ‘He’s got the payot. We can relate to this.’
“If the religious community can accept it, then Jewish people as a whole should be able to as well. I’m going to bring Sam with me to the schools and teach kids about Passover.
“I’ll get a costume character to dress up as Sam, so kids can get their picture taken with him. That’s the beauty of working with Streit’s. It’s branding for them and identity for me. Sam the Matzo Man is somebody everyone can relate to.”
They can relate to Kowalski, too, especially if they want to talk sports. He helped write the late Chuck Bednarik’s autobiography and has done plenty of work with Tom Burgoyne, better known as the man inside the Phillie Phanatic costume.
He also remains active at Congregation Kesher Israel in Center City, keeping him connected with the same community he hopes will soon become his customers.
“I don’t know how big the market is,” he admitted. “If I could just make a dent that would preserve our culture — that would be something.”
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