Hanukkah Goes to Public School


Answering the age old question, Can you spin a dreidel on matzah?

This week I went to my son’s kindergarten class to talk about Hanukkah.  My husband and I read a story, showed the children a manorah, introduced the Hebrew letters on the dreidel and the talked about olives and olive oil.   It was all over in a short and sweet 20 minutes!

While preparing for our 20 minutes in the Kindergarten spotlight, I did some research and wrote a piece for the Washington Jewish Week.  Following are some resources and my article in case you are planning a similar presentation.

  •  The True Meaning of Hanukkah, by Hilary Lelia Krieger ran in the New York Times on December 7th, and grapples with the topic of Hanukkah in school and the public sphere.
  • This was an interesting piece about in the Forward with a great title For the Separation of Manorah and State, by Eliahu Federman.
  • This video, This is How the Technion Students light the Manora is wonderful and would be so fun to show to a group of students to introduce the manorah using balloons, lots of dominoes and so much more.
  • Finally, my article on preparing for my Hanukkah parent visit is reprinted below.

Hanukkah Goes to School, (this piece originally ran last week in the Washington Jewish Week on 12/6/2012)

This morning my son’s kindergarten teacher invited me to talk to his class about Hanukkah. I said yes and upon returning home immediately ordered enough plastic dreidels and gelt to hand out to his whole class.  I knew I could not say no to the teacher, but talking to the class where my son is the only Jewish child is not going be easy.

It’s not that I am unqualified to do a Hanukkah presentation to kindergarteners. I am very Jewish identified and know the Hanukkah story well. I might stumble over pronouncing “King Antiochus” but who wouldn’t. Plus, it’s kindergarten so we won’t get into that level of detail anyway.  There are plenty of excellent guides online for parents and teachers. So what could be the problem?

One reason the presentation will be tricky for me is it brings up some uncomfortable memories.  Like my son who attends a rural public school, I went to an elementary school that also had very few Jewish students.  I can remember wanting to disappear into my chair when my second grade teacher asked me to tell the class about Hanukkah. I was shy and my overarching goal in school was blending in. The last thing I would have wanted was to have my parents show up to do a Hanukkah presentation.

But parenting has already taught me in a thousand different ways that my children are not copies of me. They are growing up with a whole different set of experiences and my little kindergartener is looking forwards to handing out dreidels and showing off his knowledge of Hebrew letters.  He is proud of being Jewish and has already begun talking about Hanukkah in school. He has no sense that he should feel shy about being different and I know better than to introduce the concept.

Another reason talking to his class seems tricky for me is that in my ideal world the public schools would not talk about any religious holidays at all. Schools would stick to talking about the winter season, the upcoming winter solstice and how the animals are managing the cold. They would leave Santa, latkes, Kwanzaa, elves and all the rest to the parents. The reality is there will be plenty of Christmas inspired activities at school in the coming weeks.  In fact, the school plans to show the full length movie, “The Polar Express”, about a boy who learns to believe in Santa Claus.  While my son may love the film, I think he could wind up feeling pretty left out and confused.

Just today my son came home from school with a pressing question. “Mom, I need the truth.  Santa is not real, right? Because everyone says he is. Why are they saying that?”  I hesitated a bit and then told him the truth.  I told him he was big enough to keep it a secret, because lots of his friends will believe in Santa for a very long time. I am not sure if that was the right call, but there was no avoiding the direct question. So given the Christmas themed projects and talk that is already underway, it seems appropriate to balance it out with a little talk on Hanukkah.  Since Judaism is both a religion and a culture, I can stick to sharing cultural parts of the holiday and not pile on more religion. This still rings a little of the rationalization, “if you can’t beat them, join them”, but I think the pros of presenting outweigh the cons.

For one thing, my son is proud and happy to share his Jewish knowledge with the class.  He needs me to match his pride and leave my mishagash (Yiddish for craziness) at the door. Despite the complexities, I am starting to look forward to my chance to share Hanukkah with more confidence than I could have possibly mustered in the second grade.  I realize it also comes with the responsibility of offering some children their very first exposure to anything Jewish.

I am planning to show the Hebrew letters on the dreidels and explain that children around the world learn many different alphabets and languages. I will read a story and hand out the dreidels and gelt.   We will talk about the need to celebrate light during the darkest season.

I sincerely hope that a spin of the dreidel and a taste of sweet Hanukkah gelt will create a lasting positive association with Jewish people for his classmates.  I hope it will encourage other parents and students to share parts of their cultural identities. And finally, I really, really hope none of the children ask if Santa is coming to our house.

Some More Resources

There are many well written guides online about how to teach about Hanukkah to young children and about navigating Christmas.   Here is a sample:

Anti-Defamation League’s The December Dilemma: December Holiday Guidelines for Public Schools

Sustaining the Light: Social Justice Program Guide for Chanukah, Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism,

One Comment:

  1. Today in class we talked about Chanukkah. We focused on the two miracles of the holiday- that the light of the menorah lasted for eight days when there was only enough for one day and how the small Maccabee army was able to defeat King Antiochus and the Greek army. The kids then headed over to music where they reviewed the Chanukkah blessings and sang some fun Chanukkah songs. In Hebrew, the class learned the letters nun and final nun. I sent home a sheet for your children to practice reading 2-3 times this week for 10-15 minutes each time. Finally, we ended the day with an art project. Each kid either chose to make a mosaic menorah or dreidel.

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