Celebrating Hanukkah in the Classroom (and Out)

Hanukkah ActivitiesHanukkah begins at sunset tonight! Before you panic and think you’ve missed this Jewish holiday, calm down and remember that it lasts eight days. I love teaching my students about Hanukkah (or Chanukah, it’s spelled either way) because few of my students are familiar with the traditions of the holiday. Many a time have I been asked if Hanukkah is Kwanzaa (or vice versa) and every time a student does, a little bell dings inside me, signaling that a teaching opportunity has just reared its gorgeous head.

That being said, our school has students from quite a few different faiths, and I try to be sensitive to them all. I don’t want to be inconsiderate of any beliefs, so I try to communicate with any parents (and, in some cases, children) if I think they might be uncomfortable with what I’ll be teaching. I make every effort to teach about Hanukkah (or Christmas or Kwanzaa or Diwali or Ramadan, etc.) from a historical and cultural perspective, neither denigrating nor promoting any people or religion. I’d like to say I’m completely impartial, but I’m human, so I’d say that’s pretty much impossible. I’ll just do my best and I encourage my students to do the same.

That being said, a disclaimer: I grew up celebrating both Christmas and Hanukkah. My mother is Jewish, but my father is not, though no one can tell the story of Judah and the Macabees like he can. Especially if you value entertainment over historical accuracy. If you’d like to know the “official” version, please visit The Story of Chanukah on Chabad.org. Unfortunately (or perhaps, fortunately), my father isn’t available for Hanukkah storytelling, so I have a few books on hand to help me explain the holiday to them.

Hanukkah Books

(There are, of course, lots of story-based books about Hanukkah [Latkes and Applesauce, Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins, Sammy Spider’s First Hanukkah], but the titles I’ve listed above are more of the informational variety.)

In the story of Hanukkah, Judah and the Macabees defeat the Syrian army and defend the Temple in Jerusalem. The oil which Judah used to dedicate the menorah’s altar was only expected to last one day, but by some miracle, it lasted eight–hence the eight days of Hanukkah. Hence, also, the traditional foods of Hanukkah: anything fried in oil. The most famous of Hanukkah food is the potato latke. I have yet to make these with students because, while they could help grate the potato, children and hot oil is a combination which terrifies me. Fortunately, this year I have a parent who is making latkes and bringing them. If you don’t have a helpful parent and don’t have the time to make your own, Trader Joe’s makes frozen ones. Other Hanukkah food options include:

Hanukkah Treats

  • Jelly donuts covered in powdered sugar (no, I’m not kidding)
  • Gelt (those gold foil covered chocolate coins)
  • Sugar cookies in the classic Hanukkah shapes: Stars of David, menorahs, dreidels and candles.

My family has always eaten our latkes with both sour cream and applesauce. I always offer the option to my students. Most of them think it’s gross, but some will take applesauce on their plate. There are other Jewish foods you might want to make with your children or students: rugelach (yum), kugel, blintzes, matzah ball soup or challah. I keep it classic (and simple) with just the latkes.

It occurred to me that it would be easy to make a Star of David using the triangle inset and blue Prismacolors. My class will probably play with the concept this week. I even found a dreidel made out of inset shapes on Pinterest!

Which reminds me! Playing dreidel! For this, I think you’ll need to invest in some wooden or plastic dreidels. There are lots of crafts where you can make your own, but I don’t really recommend that if your goal is to actually play. Split your students into small groups, give each group a box of paperclips and a copy of the rules–which are really pretty simple:

Dreidel Rules.jpg copy

Finally, no Hanukkah celebration is complete without lighting the menorah. It’s the only time I allow fire in the classroom and for safety reasons, I only do it once. Traditionally, the number of candles we light in the menorah corresponds to how far we are into the holiday (plus the shamus, which is what we call the candle used to light the other candles). I explain to the children that we don’t blow out the Hanukkah candles, they’re supposed to burn themselves out, just as the oil in the temple did. However, since we’re at school and I want everyone to be safe, I usually blow them out at after I dismiss them.

I admit that part of my enjoyment in celebrating Hanukkah with my students is that it means celebrating a little bit of my heritage with them. I think they enjoy it. I know I appreciate their expanded worldview!


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