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Assimilation & Freedom

Chanukah is historically a minor festival. But it has increased in popular recognition and broader participation because of our greater exposure and integration in Christian countries, given the proximity of Christmas. This creates both problems and opportunities. There is some irony here, given the history of the chag as one which started out as assimilationists pitted against traditionalists, under the original semi-autonomy framework of Alexander's empire. (Many current scholars view it more likely that Antiochus IV was invited in by factions to meddle in what was turning into practically a local civil war).

Here are some thoughts and ideas for discussion:

a hand holding a star of david
  • Freedom, or cherut / חרות in Hebrew, carries responsibility and likely some price, whichever way one chooses in identity/-ties and their expression (just ask mothers with careers).
  • It is not always possible to perfectly "have it all".
  • The more informed one is in weighing alternatives, the better.
  • Where is the balance for you personally between your Jewish identity and integration into the larger society? Where do you actually draw the line and why?
  • One does not necessarily have to compete with Christmas. It's worth remembering that besides Chanukah being full of its own fun and deliciousness, we are really "alufim" [topnotch pros] in the busy calendar department - having a slew of really cool holidays all year.
  • For younger and elementary school ages: What do you like about being Jewish? What does being Jewish mean? What did it mean to the Maccabees? What was Judah fighting for?
  • For mostly any age (elementary and up to adult):
    • What do you think being Hellenized meant and why was that a problem?
    • What do you find most concerning about the approaching holiday season? What makes you most uncomfortable? If you were to write a letter to the editor or were interviewed on a news program, what would you want to bring up?
    • How can we help each other in this group, in our families, and elsewhere with such concerns? What can we each work on or do to lessen such concerns (while still keeping to our own identity, traditions and their Jewish expression).
    • List 10 traits about what is unique, special, positive in being Jewish. The point here being not that we are better, but that we are a valid culture and identity to exist and contribute to this world.

It is a fact that a sizable number of children outside of Israel are growing up in situations where one may be dealing with more than one religious tradition or set of beliefs in the family (parents or relatives). So try to deal with issues like this gently, respectfully and as nonjudgmentally as possible, though openly- because kids may need a few places to get some more clarity or reinforcement and/or to just talk these things through a bit. Again, it is worth being careful not to give an impression of one thing being better than another or some kind of competition, especially given that these holidays simply are not the same at all, and conceptually and thematically do not combine (which is also worth discussion to help delineate that better).

We may do better with an attitude of inclusiveness at whatever level a child or family is starting from than going with any negative approach in educational outreach. But we do need to be clear about what a Jewish person believes and does not believe, and what the basis of each celebration is and is not. What we wish is to educate our children, to make them more informed and to keep it positive in terms of what is - which actually is a lot - so that they appreciate their Jewish inheritance and do not lose out in that regard. Making one holiday somehow more like another has serious limits and mostly misses the point. The effort may be better spent on simply taking a little more time to do our rich holidays better, more thoughtfully and more creatively (while actually keeping them more firmly Jewish).

As to doing our own holidays "better" – if one has never made levivot/latkes (not the pre-made kind) or played all our sevivon/dreidl suggestions, or lit the candles each night – and with individual and/or homemade chanukiot, well now is certainly the time to start! Hey, try oil and wicks for a change, and then you can get into a little science explanation while you're at it, while feeling a bit closer to the historical version of events. Chanukah is a very sensory holiday - full of lights, smells, tastes, motion, music - creating warm feelings and building important memories and attachments. We should be utilizing that as fully as possible. There are also loads of simply wonderful Chanukah books for children now of the highest caliber, which kids can bring in to be read together or taken from the library. Humor also helps and is another big part of our "heritage" after all – see for example "The Great Latke-Hamantash Debate" (a tradition which started in the University of Chicago!) in our "Let's Get Busy" section.

We also live in the internet age – with quite a number of busy Jews and communities contributing terrific material - we have easy access to a goodly variety of excellent songs (no small improvement), skits, short entertaining video presentations for kids (adults too for that matter), lectures and all manner of quality, creative things these days that educators, parents and youth leaders years ago were so sorely lacking.

In short, there's a lot of great Jewish Cool out there now for us to harness. You may also find some of the thoughts and ideas below helpful. And of course see our other sections for more home and school suggestions.

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"I Need A Miracle Every Day"

an ancient oil lamp Why do we need such stories as the miracle of the oil?

[gratefully borrowing the lyric from the Grateful Dead]

Nisim/miracles are all around us…

  • What is a miracle [nes]?
  • How many miracles can you find in every day?
  • Can you think of some miracles you've heard in the news or in your family or from people you know?
  • Apparently we did not always have the miracle of the oil story - it developed somewhat later. Why then do we need such stories? Why do people need miracles?
  • Miracles have a connection to hope, and we've had a tough history. And beaten the odds enough times to still be a Jewish people. Knowing that history, one might call it a pretty major miracle. Does a miracle involve simple faith in God, or could we look at it a bit differently, like a partnership- of God-given tools and talents that, for our part, we need to recognize and use (even "against the odds")? Does that classify as a miracle too?
  • What does it mean to "fight against the odds", especially overwhelming ones, like the Maccabees? (After all, if you give it even the slightest thought, who in their right mind could think they could take on the Greek empire?) When should you do so and when maybe shouldn't you, and how? When does pikuach nefesh become a factor?
    *(Pikuach nefesh means saving of a life, and is an overriding precept in Judaism, which if your class is fairly older, could bring up the debacle of martyrdom – in some senses the polar opposite of a miracle – like in situations like Hannah and her sons. One might contrast that with the example of Marrano Jews practicing in secret, for example. Or another different scenario like Warsaw Ghetto heroics. Which is right, if at all, and when?).
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Israel & Identity

a woman's face painted as the flag of Israel

The Maccabees fighting, let alone winning back the Temple and then a fairly autonomous state from the Greeks, is truly an amazing feat. The same could be said of the establishment of the modern state of Israel. Which was the next time – about two thousand years later - that a Jewish state even again existed.

In the intervening years we had to evolve a more "portable" Jewish identity. You might want to discuss what that means. As well as when we've been perhaps more successful and less successful at maintaining that identity. Here in Israel we have it "easier" in some ways, because Judaism is all around us - culturally, religiously, historically, archeologically, philosophically... And we speak Ivrit/Hebrew, a Jewish language, which is infused with all those aspects, of course - and how a culture and people, in effect, "thinks". That is a powerful "identity glue", even with the large secular portion of our population, and a helpful integration vehicle for the many Jews who return to live here from disparate cultures. One question is what can be harnessed from the Israeli experience in the more "portable identity" today.

We encourage you to discuss that miracle of Israel, what it means to have an Israel and why. How does Israel figure into Jewish identity elsewhere these days? How hard it is for Israel to exist in this world and why it is so necessary (you can also use the opportunity to discuss various peace options if so inclined). Chanukah is really a time to take a second look at the "wow" of this part of our history and heritage, to appreciate Israel's existence and foster more interest, ties and interchange between our communities – even on a very basic level with young children.

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And God Said "Let There Be Light"

Let there be light vayehi or - Let there be light

 …right in the beginning of Genesis. And here we have Chag Ha-Urim! - this chag all about light, about rededicating ourselves, removing impurities so-to-speak, recreating anew and making sure to shine light outwards to every passer-by.

A light in the long wintry darkness…
Light has its own purity, light can be warm, light can be harsh, light can give hope, light can remind, light can inform…

  • Ask your class what they think our Chanukah lights are "saying".
    What are we trying to proclaim to that passer-by on the street?
  • What sort of troubling issues in the world (or in your area) do we need to shine a light on these days and address?
  • More generally, what might light represent, literally and/or symbolically? Perhaps each student could write a few short lines, poem or Haiku to answer this, to then present to each other and to post up for others to see. You could add some simple art as well, all connected to light and/or our chanukiot. (See also "Let's Get Busy" as some peulot/activities dovetail well to this).
  • You could also have your children approach others with this question, making a video of such "reporter interviews". Or "share a little light" and post the question on the synagogue/school Facebook page and watch what kinds of answers come in :) . Then discuss those in class too.

Light And Dark: It is tempting to limit the possible concepts here only to light and darkness as equating to good and evil, being informed versus being ignorant, presence versus absence, etc. Those are certain useful and valid analogies. But we'd like to throw in another perspective too:

  • Light and darkness need each other. You wouldn't see the light without the darkness, right?
  • Some dark "positives": We close our eyes to sleep (and it works better in the dark) - we literally need that in our daily cycle. Dark is also like cuddled up under your blanket- a quiet, calm and comforting necessary absence and break sometimes. Think up some more together.
  • It can be argued perhaps that even in a celebration ostensibly about lights, we should appreciate that everything is best in balance. For a notable related example: In a rebellion, war or fight for freedom, one needs to also know when to stop or shift gears, so as to move on thoughtfully to the next step, or to take a different tack when the present one is no longer working or appropriate… and also so as not to lose sight of the original goals (a task that the resultant Hasmonean dynasty actually failed at in numerous ways). After all, one does not wish to lose the very freedoms that one sought and worked so hard to bring about, nor to lose one's very identity in the process. Too much fire for too long can end up just mindlessly consuming everything in its path, out of control, right?
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Green Chanukah

We're pleased to notice that this concept is gaining attention. Of course all this talk about oil maybe starts to "weigh heavily" on us too. More seriously, surely our ancestors had to carefully conserve resources and creatively recycle through a long revolt and in other historically hard times. And maybe that miracle of one day's oil lasting eight days is trying to tell us something no less pertinent today - because times are hard for our environment and so many living things now. Chanukah can also mean shining a light on how we take care of our world and all of God's creations.

think green Look at this season as an opportunity to think green

Discuss what you can do to make a Green Chanukah, and maybe carry it further through the year. Chanukah is also a reminder of beating great odds, and we think that surely applies to working for the environment too, and incremental "wins" that we have in fact seen. You might also discuss some examples of that- how many things have changed in our attitudes and "for granted's" already through just a couple decades, what species (although still pitifully too few) have in fact been saved, some better regulations…both so as to give hope to continuing "against the odds" and to remember and evaluate just how much more needs doing.

In terms of being more seasonally-specific perhaps:

  • What kind of things might be more environmental concerns in winter and what can we do about them?
  • This can also mean brainstorming about something as simple as decoration and gift-giving, from a perspective of what is environmentally friendlier - resulting in an alternative kind of gift , a more clever artistic idea through "repurposing", doing some sort of "service gift" instead of something material...
  • Basically look at this season as an opportunity, and think recycling, conserving, trash reduction, re-use, creativity… :) . These days such attitudes and approaches are increasingly the "in" thing, so you can rightly boast about the cool idea, project and results and thus spread the word!
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Be A Chet-nik

Chanukah bops around the secular calendar a bit, which may be somewhat frustrating living in the Western world's seasonal celebrations. Let's see if we can work with that a little though. Explain that Chanukah in part arose as a delayed "Sukkot Sheni" (aka a "second Sukkot" - we actually have some more traditions of "sheni" holidays scattered here and there). The reason for this is that Sukkot was put off due to repression and military factors at that time. Back in those days, Sukkot was very Temple-centered and a national holiday of more major importance in the Jewish calendar [see our Sukkot packet]. The resulting situation with that initial Chanukah produced kind of a double thanksgiving if you think about it (originally even with the four species included!).

Depending on when the actual Chanukah falls in a given year, why not either create a "Chanuka Sheni" mission by your class or family or combine this suggestion with your actual Chanukah? Let us presume that gift-giving occurs in your local tradition. You would also do eight days of "giving back" - in thankfulness and as part of our Jewish concept of tikun olam ["fixing the world"].

pay it forward

The numerical value of the letter chet ח is eight, thus you all pledge to "be a chet-nik". In this instance, think along the lines of exercising our capacity for "random acts of kindness" in the "pay it forward" vein. As chet-niks, we'd commit ourselves to do at least one such act each day. Of course being purposely alert to opportunities already is a positive change of mindset that helps this along :) .

Discuss what these concepts - "random acts of kindness" and "pay it forward" – actually mean, and why these are also important parts of tikun olam. Perhaps also show one of the related YouTube videos circulating around- just search under "Pay It Forward" (by the way, they are using these already in grade school classes in Israel).

Here's one graphic teaching approach you can add in: Draw an 8 on the board. Now draw the 8 on its side and ask the students what it looks like- it happens to be both the symbol for infinity as well as looking like a bow (like what you would put on a gift). While these symbols are not Jewish in origin, the concepts are – that of eight, of customarily giving some tzedaka out of one's Chanukah money/gelt, of gemilut chasadim/acts-of-kindness, of "giving back" to community, and that all these things can ripple out with infinite possible positive results where one least expects it.

To demonstrate the idea with Hebrew symbols as well, try this idea too:

Chet ח equals eight, like in eight days.

Letters evolved from pictograms, and the pictogram that eventually became yod י was a hand, with even the modern Hebrew word for hand being yad.

We lend a hand to helping the world and each other in various ways, right?

Chet ח + yod י spells chai חי , meaning "life" in Hebrew=> eight days of very conscious rededication to lending a hand helps affirm life :) .

Just like Chanukah lights are but a reminder in the darkness and a rededication of ourselves that should not stop after eight days, so the same with random acts of kindness. We "ignite" or "spark" ourselves to be better and better, and to pass that on, like the little lone shamash, lighting one candle at a time until there are a whole bunch of candles spreading light everywhere around us, the light overflowing into the street for passers-by as well to pick up the beauty of those lights and their message and pass it forward too.

*For younger children, you might also include a start-off with something along these lines:

  • What is a gift [matana]?
  • How do we feel when we get gifts?
  • How do we feel when we give gifts?
  • Can a gift be an act? Like what?
  • Share an experience of being helped or treated kindly and how it made you feel, and also one of helping or being kind to someone and how that made you feel.

*One other side-point we feel worth mentioning:
In some families, the way they deal with some excessiveness of seasonal gift-giving is a spin on the traditional tzedaka portion of Chanuka gelt, creating another "teaching moment", if you will. The family tradition being that besides whatever gift-giving arrangements you typically do (e.g. small token gifts over eight days, one larger one, each person assigned one other person to buy of make a gift (or "service") for- like names pulled out of a hat…), each person also donates (or buys) something to give to a place of need, so a child might choose a toy to give, etc. It should be a meaningful giving, something happily done and given from the heart with real caring and thought, just as you would for someone you know.

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Moral Quandaries

What does religious freedom really mean?

As discussed above, freedom has a price and requires weighing and serious decisions sometimes. Also one person's freedom may be felt to infringe on another's in certain ways and times- it is not always such an easy black and white situation. While living in this modern and more integrated world is not exactly the same as in the time of the Maccabees, nonetheless how we choose in our identity and beliefs, as well as what may constitute a constraint, again all comes into play (just look at the news, societal interactions, etc. today). Here are some potential dilemmas you might discuss involving personal religious freedoms:

  • If a school or institution has a time of public prayer, how does one feel about that and what would one do and/or what kind of stance would one take? If an amendment passed requiring school prayer and or Bible study, do you feel this crosses a line, and what would you do in such a case?
  • In Israel, religious affiliation is written on one's identity card. A citizen is also required to have a marriage or divorce by religious jurisdiction, and in the case of Jews, only Orthodox versions are currently recognized here (although outside arrangements that then come to Israel are recognized). The same is true of conversion. The idea being that it should be a level of Jewishness that is recognized by all streams, thus the more restrictive standard. There are also problematic issues regarding women (it has been in our news especially the past few years), like where they sit on buses in certain areas, regarding prayer at the Western Wall, pictures of women on public advertisements, etc. Should such things as described here be required (like so as to not offend some streams), or are some (or all of them) also a valid issue of religious freedom?
  • What does "separation of church and state" mean? Is this really the case in America (or whichever your country) and to what extent? Is that a good thing? Should this apply more in Israel too or just differently? or is it somehow a special case?
  • Is there an issue of religious freedom involved in public displays on religious holidays, where tax money is spent for them? And what is the best solution?
  • In some countries/areas/communities wearing certain garments or symbols are religiously dictated and enforced. In other places, these same things are being legislated against. How do you feel about such matters? How would you react if one of these enforcements one way or another came to your area and affected you?
  • Is there such a thing as one way that is right for everyone? Which ethical concepts do you feel do need to apply to everyone no matter what their religion, for example? On the other side of this question, how might you convince someone that only one way is not right for everyone, and that tolerance of difference is necessary in our society?
    For that matter, take a look at the word "tolerance". Sometimes the language we choose also has implicit messages we might stop to consider. What is the distinction between "tolerating" something different and "appreciating" something different and its contribution? Or a "tolerant" society versus an "inclusive" society?
  • Give your group a few minutes to jot down some notes to discuss along these lines:
    "Here are some examples of religious belief that I think are more important (or central). These are worth taking a real stand and action on": [give 3-5 examples]