Last year around this time an episode from the hit ABC show “Shark Tank” aired where Morri Chowaiki was one of the contestants who brought his own patented Hannukkah Tree Topper—a Star of David “menorahment” that sits atop the family Christmas tree.
The stage was set…the doors flung open… and in walks an unassuming nerdy guy with horn-rimmed glasses, wearing a blue Santa Claus hat, and a smile from ear to ear. He steps up to the carpet and boldly says, “Hello, gefilte Sharks.” For the next 40 minutes, he explains how he is going to “bridge the gap between ho ho ho and dreidel, dreidel, dreidel” by selling Star of David tree toppers to Interfaith families. After four of the Sharks (judges on the show) turned him down, this little dreidel that could was still standing and Daymond John said he wanted to take a gamble on him with $50,000 for 35 percent of the Tree Topper business. The suspense was high, and after some seriously long silence (the way only ABC knows how), Morri replied with a gesture—placing the mistletoe on top of his head and saying “Kiss me.” This was sure to be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
He and his wife Marina were surprised an item like this wasn’t already on the market, with close to 6 million Jewish people living in the USA and interfaith marriages on the rise. According to a national survey, 47 percent of Jewish marriages between 1996 and 2001 were interfaith. The Chowaikis’ mission was simple: “To bring Judaism into Interfaith homes during the holidays like we did in our own house.”
Chowaiki, who has a background in marketing, cites the near 50 percent intermarriage rate of the year 2000 National Jewish Population Study in estimating the potential audience for his topper at “between 500,000 and 1 million households.”
Morri was raised as a Jew and celebrates Chanukah; his wife Marina was raised in an interfaith family that celebrates Christmas. Today, they fill their Rancho Peñasquitos home with the trappings of both holidays. The melding of Christmas and Chanukah—two completely different religious holidays that have nothing to do with one another historically—is common among interfaith couples. The mishmash of dreidels and Santa, latkes and fruitcake, create a rich, if strange, multicultural experience.
In my own house, my mother identified as Christian and my father as Jewish, so we always just celebrated both. I was envied by all the kids at school—double presents! Now as I’m getting older I’m starting to think about what I would want for my own kids. I would have loved having something like this in our home; how special for my mother and father to explain the importance and meanings of both holidays to my sisters and me.
But does mixing the two dilute the meaning and significance of each holiday?
After all, the religious expression of Christmas celebrates the birth of Jesus and Christianity. Chanukah commemorates the Jewish recapture of the Temple in Jerusalem in 164 BCE and the endurance of faith in the face of tyranny.
Nevertheless, many interfaith couples see the mixed celebration of Christmas and Chanukah as an expression of love and respect for their spouse. For the Chowaiki family, a Christmas tree isn’t a Christmas tree without a Star of David on top. “I’ve always loved the spirit of Christmas and thought it was beautiful, not for the birth of Christ, but it’s just a beautiful holiday,” Morri Chowaiki said.
Some experts on interfaith marriages view the mixing as a testament to how much more integrated American society has grown over the past several decades. Families who celebrate both offer a modern view of the nation as a melting pot, they say. “Chrismukkah” has even gone mainstream with a reference in the hit TV show, “The OC,”” where one of the main characters describes it as ‘the greatest superholiday known to mankind drawing on the best that Christianity and Judaism has to offer.”
With the help of Daymond and Shark Branding, Chanukah Tree Topper has successfully licensed its trademark and patent to the Kurt S. Adler Company, the largest licensing and importing wholesaler of holiday goods in the United States. Through the Shark Branding team’s knowledge of digital marketing and search engine optimization, they prepared Morri and Chanukah Tree Topper to take advantage of 7 to 8 million unique viewers upon its Shark Tank episode airing. Taking this hybrid approach allowed Chanukah Tree Topper to optimize both its physical and digital points of sale.
Chanukah Tree Topper is now sold at some of the world’s largest retailers, such as Bed, Bath & Beyond and Toys R Us.
2014 retail sales are projected to grow 150 percent from last year.
The Chanukah Tree Topper has become among the most recognizable brands within the holiday décor category.
“We’ve received tons of positive feedback and hundreds of photos of people’s trees on our Facebook page with their star on top,” Chowaiki said. He added that “for people who want to celebrate Christmas with a tree, stockings, gifts, lights and the like, and have someone Jewish in the home, the tree topper gives those people an opportunity to have their culture represented as well in a beautiful and meaningful way.”
Do I know what’s right or wrong? No. Do I think respect and tolerance for one another are good? Yes. I know there are plenty of mixed feelings on the subject, and I think we all have a right to choose what we put in our homes and teach our children. What feels right to us might not be for our neighbor, but good on you, Morri Chowaiki, for giving us the option.
Tanya Schwied graduated from New York University, studied abroad in Israel, and currently works for the CEO and President of Jewish Federation & Family Services.