When my daughter started public school, I figured I’d be thumb-wrestling all the other stay-at-home moms for the privilege of presenting on Hanukkah in the classroom, but it turns out: I’m it. Each year, I gather up my menorahs, my candles, my dreidels, my gelt and my Trader Joes latkes (shhhh!) and prepare to dazzle the children with the Wonder of Being a Jew.
Last year, something went slightly awry. I received 22 thank-you notes, 20 of which included some version of “Thank you so much for teaching us about the bloody, bloody battle where everyone died.” Hmmm. Thought they seemed a little too alert during that section. The last two hoped Jarrah would be in their class next year because they liked my cooking.
This morning, it was my turn again, and when the kids returned from recess, they found me attempting to stuff candles into a bunch of nuts (the metal, not the edible, kind) on the preschool menorah I cherish from five years ago. I also brought the fancy zebra-wood art menorah my atheist husband gifted me with when we’d only been dating three months. Hmmm. I guess he really wanted some, um, holiday cheer.
“Can you eat that?” one of the girls asked skeptically as I wedged the pink wax into the recalcitrant holes. I get that a lot. If a holiday tradition isn’t about gifts or snacks, they don't see any point to it.
At least I have a bit more good news than for my Passover presentation. “Well, they slathered their doors in bloody, shredded lamb and then a lot of people’s children died screaming in the middle of the night while their mommies and daddies cried and cried. The Jews ran and ran, trying not to be shot or drowned, and then we ate some extremely constipating crackers for about 40 years.” Good times. Jews know how to party. You can imagine the mirth after the Yom Kippur talk. “Wait…you guys celebrate by STARVING?”
The kids were really great. They actually seemed interested when I explained that no, Hanukkah doesn’t gallop around the calendar at whim, but actually falls on the 25th of Kislev every year, no matter what. Sometimes we might be eating turkey at the time, or watching everyone else open their stockings, but by gum, we are consistent.
When I said “Who knows what ‘Nes Gadol Hayah Shum?’ means?” a bunch of hands shot up. “Isaac?” I called out. “Education?” he said.
Alright, alright, you made your point. “Dedication” is not exactly a scintillating translation for the word “Hanukkah.” Why couldn’t it have been “Dazzling Drag Revue and Dessert Buffet?” We’d get more takers.
I read them a book called “The Story of Hanukkah,” which contained this priceless lesson:
“Although the Jews were not trained soldiers, they fought incredibly bravely. They ran out yelling when they saw the king’s army, then ran back and hid behind some rocks until the army left.” I love how apparently the Jewish definition of fighting “incredibly bravely” is going “Nah-Nah Nah NAH Nah” and then running and hiding. Reminds me of my favorite quote from the British novelist E.M. Forster: “I would rather be a coward then brave because people hurt you when you are brave.” Now there’s a boy who’s going to make his mama proud.
The kids were dismayed when I said that the Maccabees sobbed because the temple had been messed up and filled with garbage. They seemed so wounded I wondered if they thought it was kinda like being made to clean their rooms. That was a pain and suffering they could relate to.
Dreidel was a big hit. Everyone got really competitive REALLY fast, and there was a lot of “ANTE UP!” and “SUCKA!” when someone landed on gimel. One boy looked close to tears and told us “I had the entire pot, and suddenly, it was all gone.”
“Well…” I said, and his teacher continued: “…don’t become a gambler!” Hey, we know some valuable stuff. They don’t call us The People of the Book for nothing.
Last year, Jarrah told me she was sad that she didn’t get to celebrate Christmas, and it made her feel very alone because all the other kids did. “Oh, sweetie.” I soothed. “I’m so proud of you. You’ve learned what it means to be a Jew. Yes, it’s sad, and hard, and you will suffer. I’m glad you’re getting the hang of it early.”
I jest, but really, I do feel a lot of warmth and good cheer around Hanukkah. It’s a nice time to spend with family and friends, exchanging gifts, singing and being grateful for the past year.
Oh, who am I kidding. Hanukkah rocks because—like my grandmother always said—for eight days fried food has no calories or cholesterol. Pass the jelly donuts, will ya?