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FRONTAL FREE: The Chanukah History Mystery

Dave Smolar is co-founder of Kikayon Productions, creating turn-key solutions for Jewish education. Our “TORAH TIME LIVE!” Parashah Play series is now for sale! From Creation to Mt. Sinai, click on “Our Store” for more!

So I was looking for a fun, open-ended, creative approach to teaching my Hebrew school 5th graders about Chanukah this year. I just needed a sign of what to do or where to start, something to fall in my lap. Wouldn’t you know it, but our synagogue is giving away books from the library. Every day when I drop off my boy for daycare, I glance at the rack, looking for free literary gold.

And there it was. Professor Lawrence H. Schiffman’s From Text to Tradition: a History of Second Temple and Rabbinic Judaism, one of my favorite books from my Jewish History studies in college. I like the book because it’s so easy to find what you need, everything and anything about Jewish life under and Jewish revolts against the Greeks and the Romans, replete with charts and maps and honesty. That’s right: honesty. It’s a book that tries very quickly to demonstrate to the reader how the period of Hellenization in ancient Israel was real. Without the Talmudic story of the 8-day miracle, and without the apocryphal Maccabee books – and without using a dreidel or a latke or even the contrast with Christmas as a talking point – the book can teach the honesty, the reality of the story of Chanukah, even to the 10 year old minds of a twice a week, 5th grade Hebrew school class.

But they need something tangible to make the reality happen. Sympathy, if not empathy, is not innate in a child and must be learned over time. When they hit the decade point, they have the tools to begin to feel things and understand things about the world around them, if only from their own perspective. You need to get an object and put it in their hands, then ask them to relate it to their own lives, or at least have them prove to themselves they can relate.

The mystery of Chanukah to which I refer comes from all directions. How do you get kids today to relate to events from 2100 years ago? How do they reconcile their past experiences with the holiday? How do they dig out from under the media blitzes that hit them from all sides every year just past Thanksgiving?

So I create my own mystery. For them.

One day in December, I brought out a big world map, threw it on the table, had them gather round, and told them about ancient Israel from Babylon to Greece, then the dissection of the Greek empire following the death of Alexander. They had in hand from Professor Schiffman the lists of Greek emperors, Ptolemies and Seleucids, that followed Alexander so they could see the links from what they’d learned in grade school history class to the Chanukah story. I worked them up and ran out of time.

The next time around, I handed them some old Israeli coins I’d found. I didn’t really look at them before handing them out. I just placed one in front of each pair of students and told them to identify the value, the monetary unit, the year, and any symbols on the front of the coin. They’d never heard of any of the units, which gave me a chance to talk about the Israeli economy. They used their gematria skills to decipher the year. And we examined all the different symbols – animals [a lion], foods [pomegranates], and flora [wheat and olive branches] – used to establish Jewish connections from Torah to the land of Israel.

And then I enticed them by creating the mystery of the last and grandest of the coins. They couldn’t figure out what was on the front of the coin. There was a tree, or a plant, or something like that. There were very ancient letters. But one student recognized that the whole decoration was made to look like it had been…stamped there. They now realized that the front of this modern coin had a replica of an ancient Jewish coin. I found them a chart of ancient Hebrew on my phone which we used to try to decipher the strange lettering.

Before the next class, I did some online research. Would you believe that this coin – a 50 shekel bronze piece minted in the mid-80s by Israel, only 2 years before the state’s economy was revamped and the coin itself demonetized – this nearly worthless coin had on it a depiction of a Jewish coin minted during the 4th year of the first revolt against Rome, the year that Rome starved, raided, pillaged, and destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem, carrying off the golden menorah? With this coin, the class felt a tangible connection to the history of Jewish rebellion in the ancient world, even putting the triumph of the Maccabees against the later tragic loss and exile at the hands of the Roman Empire.

With two more classes to go, I brought in heavy decorative foil and some thin wooden 3” discs I’d found at a crafts store for them to make their own coins. They knew I’d planned the art project as a way of celebrating the coin studies we’d done. But when I showed up with shiny gold, bronze, pink, and electric blue foil, they thought it was pretty wild. The foil sheets had adhesive backing, like contact shelf paper, so I cut out foil discs which they stuck on both sides of the coins and, using pencil tips, dug into them their pre-drawn designs. Of course, I made sure the designs included something written in ancient Hebrew lettering and some Jewish cultural objects. Some drew menorahs…some drew pickles. Shiny, blue pickles.

Suffice it to say that the mystery of Chanukah for me entails the annual attempt to engross my class with both the historical context of the holiday and the modern-day cultural celebrations. In the end, they wrote a play, on their own, which I rehearsed with them for them to perform last night at the synagogue’s latke party. They took the Chanukah story – including the rebellion, the Seleucid motives, and the Talmudic miracle of the oil – and used it as an archetype which they transported to a not-too-distant-future dystopian Tokyo setting, albeit with a Greek king trying to invade. It was a little scattered, very funny, and for me, a completely satisfying confirmation that they’d fully absorbed and retained the material.

With an old college text [now available almost entirely online for free], some random coins collected over my lifetime, and a piece of foil, these kids are ready for the holiday. Little do they know that our talks about the ancient menorah, the Roman diaspora, and the Arch of Titus will also serve as a segue into our spring semester talks on the history of, and the true reasons for, the founding of the modern state of Israel. Of course, I’ve no idea what my source of inspiration will be to start things off, what tangible object I’ll put in their hands to get them talking about their own experiences. But I’m not worried: I’ll know it when I see it.

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