Brian Ash and Yehudi Mercado are Los Angeles-based writers and animators adept at the sort of weird, irreverent humor you'll find on Cartoon Network and at countless Comic-Cons. When confronting the blank page, they seldom need to seek rabbinical advice.
Then Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld approached them with an idea: How about creating a set of Pokémon-like trading cards featuring cartoon characters based on a collection of ancient Hebrew blessings recited by the high priest on Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish year?
"Shmuel sent the blessings and Yehudi and I would just sit there and try to put them through our cartoon brain filters," said Brian, whose credits include serving as a producer and writer on "The Boondocks" on Adult Swim.
The Hebrew prayer expresses the hope that the coming year will bring tangible rewards such as grain and bread, but also more ethereal things like compassion and atonement.
"There's one for fruit and one for fruits, plural," Brian said. "I called Shmuel for rabbinical guidance."
Herzfeld leads Ohev Sholom, a synagogue on 16th Street NW. He is a shameless promoter of his temple and his faith. He has a car wrapped in a matzoh pattern — and a suit to match. The large menorah in front of the synagogue during Hanukkah looks like it's made from gigantic Lego blocks.
Though Yom Kippur strikes many Jews as a somber day, Herzfeld thinks it shouldn't.
"It's the day where the tradition is we're forgiven for our past sins and all given a second opportunity," he said. And the high priest's prayer? "That's the most beautiful prayer, so I said let's turn it into a game."
The rabbi knew exactly where to turn: Brian, a classmate from his Yeshiva high school in the Bronx who used to sit at the back of class drawing caricatures of rabbis. Brian brought in Yehudi and the trio perfected the game.
The concepts of the prayer follow the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet — or alef bet. The game is called AlefBlessed.
"We thought it was really important to bring something that you could literally put next to Pokémon or in any comic book shop and these characters would be as appealing or as fun as any character," Brian said.
"Abundance" is a toothy cornucopia chowing down on a basket of food. "Delight" is an ice cream cone holding more ice cream cones. "A year of affordable prices" ("That's what the prayer says," Herzfeld said) is a samurai wielding scissors to chop a price tag in half.
"Bread" is a ripped bodybuilder made from challah who is lifting a bagel barbell and wearing a shirt that reads "Yeast Mode."
Said Brian: "That's my personal favorite. When we were growing up, my little sister, Evy, was always grossed out by Arnold Schwarzenegger and by the oily bodies of muscle men. 'Their bodies look like challah,' she'd say."
And those inscrutable fruit?
Herzfeld explained that one of the blessings is literal: actual sweet fruits. Brian and Yehudi created a card with a pineapple, strawberry and orange dancing like a trio of Carmen Mirandas. The other blessing means fruitful, as in fertile. That illustration shows a translucent orb creature full of other tiny orb creatures.
The back of each card contains textual references to the blessing in question. Ohev Sholom gives packs of the cards to its young members and sells them online.
"When I printed 50,000, everybody looked at me like I was crazy," Herzfeld said. "We're almost out of them. I'm getting calls from rabbis around the world: 'Please ship me some AlefBlessed cards.' I've been contacted by two Judaica distributors who want to sell it."
Brian has two kids who are 7 and 9.
"Really more than anything I wanted to make a project that my kids could actually look at," he said. "Most of what I do, they're not allowed to see."
Said Herzfeld: "If you come on a Saturday morning, the kids are going crazy with this. I can talk for 20 years to children about the importance of giving the blessing, and five minutes with this is much more effective."
The Hebrew alphabet has 22 letters, but there's a 23rd card: the high priest, or Kohen Gadol. In the world of AlefBlessed, he's as big as the Hulk, dressed in a blue robe cinched with a purple sash, with sunglasses, a beard and what looks like a menorah jet-pack on his back.
"You can see other pictures of the high priest, but this is the only one where he's looking like this," Herzfeld said.
The high priest is based on the late professional wrestler Randy "Macho Man" Savage.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.