So many of us get the call his time of year: “Can you come explain Hanukkah to our students?”
I got the call when our younger daughter was in 5th grade. And the request was to explain Hanukkah as part of Christmas Around the World Day – to all five of the 5th grade classes.
Of course, I’d be glad to, I said to the teacher. And then, to myself, “Oh [bleep]. How can I keep their attention?”
Also, how could I explain in a respectful – and brief – way that:
- Hanukkah isn’t the Jewish Christmas; it’s a minor holiday and a fluke of the calendar that they both are usually in December.
- Gift giving wasn’t traditionally part of Hanukkah, but has grown to be more common in the U.S.
Once I realized that I could do that fairly quickly, I loaded up a laundry basket with our three menorahs, partially used boxes of Hanukkah candles, all the plastic and wooden dreidels we had, blue and silver ribbons, and leftover gelt.
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What is Hanukkah?
The challenging part was how to make Hanukkah come alive in the hour we had together.
Some of the obvious choices were out: No frying up latkes. No serving doughnuts. And no fire – so no lighting candles.
After giving a short overview, I invited questions – and the hands kept flying up to ask more. (Whew!)
- What are Hanukkah decorations? You don’t have a Christmas tree? Not at all?
- What about Hanukkah candles? Are they like Kwanzaa candles? How do you light them?
- What’s the appropriate greeting? (i.e., Happy Hanukkah vs. Merry Christmas)
- Do kids get Hanukkah gifts? “My friend gets presents all eight nights. I want to be Jewish!” Oh dear. Another area to tread gently in responding.
- Is it Hanukkah, Chanukah, Hannukah, Chanuka – what’s with all those spellings? Ah, the concept of transliteration.
How to Play Dreidel
For me, the best part was inviting the kids to get hands on. And for 5th graders, spinning dreidels was a natural fit.
The students pushed their desks against the walls and broke up into small groups on the floor. Armed with dreidels, walnuts in shells, and cheat sheets with the Hebrew letters, they learned blisteringly fast whether they’d gotten a nun, gimel, hey, or a shin.
And no one had to teach them about dreidel competitions. Have dreidel. Will spin.
I admit. If I’d had our new “Celebrate Hanukkah: How to Light Up Your Holiday” e-guide, I would have had way less prep to do. Because every year, I have to revisit – now which way do you load the candles? And which way do you start lighting them?
If you get the call this year, with Thanksgiving and Hanukkah converging, you might want to study up a little about this rarity. I can pretty much guarantee some wide eyes if you tell them that it won’t happen again for over 70,000 years!