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Hanukkah Parent School Visits

Originally published on Bible Belt Balabusta, republished with permission.

photo via
Hanukkah parent visit. Goofy hats optional.

All over the country, volunteer parents are visiting their child’s classrooms and representing the entire Jewish people in 15 minutes or less. If this is you, here are some suggestions to make your visit educational, fun and positive.

A Hanukkah Parent visit can change the world. Especially when your kid doesn’t go to a Jewish school, nor to a school with many Jewish kids enrolled. You become the teacher to not only the classroom kids, but their parents?when the kids come home talking about Hanukkah and perhaps clutching a dreidel you distributed?and to the teacher, who may not have been exposed to Jewish traditions.

Hanukkah Parents are usually invited during the Christmas season, which is the only time Hanukkah is on the nonJewish radar, and which may or may not actually coincide with that year’s Hanukkah dates. If your visit can’t occur during the eight days of the festival, no worries: the important thing is that you visit.

In the spirit of “sharing traditions,” Hanukkah Parents usually bring a book to read, a few dreidels and a menorah. But whether you have 10 minutes or 20 or 30, what’s the best way to sum up a holiday and leave the kids with the right impressions?  And what are the right impressions?  It is easier to start with what are not, the big one being that Hanukkah is not the Jewish Christmas.  Hanukkah is not about eight nights of presents, nor about Jewish people teaching kids to gamble with a top, nor about Jewish people loving gold coins so much they turn them into chocolate and eat them.  Hanukkah is a minor Jewish holiday despite the attention it gets due to its proximity with Christmas.  Traditionally, Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot are the Big Three (Shalosh Regalim, the three Pilgrimage Holidays of old), and Shabbat trumps them all.  But Hanukkah is here to stay as the emblemmatic Jewish holiday to most folks. So, let’s make it as meaningful and fun as possible.

And now, a checklist. Think of this as a buffet and take what you like.  Everything depends on the age of the children, the time alloted, and what you, the parent, take a fancy to. After the checklist, look for considerations of each component, some programming suggestions and a few resources.  Please leave a comment and share what has worked (or not!) for you.

Checklist of options:

  1. Date, time and duration of visit approved by teacher
  2. Snacks, if any, approved by teacher
  3. Gifts to classroom or children (optional) approved by teacher
  4. Menorah lighting (and extinguishing?) procedure approved by teacher
  5. Menorah, with candles or oil and foil-covered tray to set it on
  6. Menorah blessings. Even if you know them by heart, the teacher might enjoy seeing them
  7. Book to read or enact, plus optional props
  8. Dreidel with clearly marked letters to demonstrate and let children play with, plus game rules
  9. Small copies of dreidel game rules (if giving dreidels as gifts, include these with each dreidel)
  10. Tokens for dreidel game to demonstrate or leave with classroom (not necessary for kids under three)
  11. Gelt (totally optional). My opinions are below.

Book, Dreidels, Gelt, Props, Terminology, Resources

BOOK: Finding one single book to sum up the whole of Hanukkah to a classroom is not easy.  Despite the abundance of Hanukkah books, few offer a balance of content, brevity, quality of illustration and a word/image ratio to sustain interest of a wriggling audience.

The book should convey the story of Hanukkah, not the story of someone’s bubbe’s latkes or someone’s new menorah or someone’s lost dreidel. A Hanukkah parent visit should get down to the basics, even in a Jewish school (unless the kids are really old, and then why are you visiting if the kids are really old? They do not want to see you).

The basics  include a bloody war. If you skip that part, you skip the whole reason for the miracle of the oil, the light and the name of the holiday, which means “dedication;” as in, the Maccabees dedicated the Temple after rescuing it from the bad guys (Ancient Syrian Greeks).  It is possible to include the war in an age-appropriate way (see props, below), and still downplay the military aspects of the Hanukkah story. Yes, Hanukkah is a minor festival based on a military victory, but the main focus is on the miracle of the oil.

Even if you can’t find the perfect book, you can paraphrase. As always, readers can punctuate stories with questions  to keep kids on their toes (or tushies) anticipating or questioning what might happen next.

DREIDELS: The bigger the better. Big letters are easier to see, and big handles are easier to spin. The letters on a dreidel tell the reason for the holiday: NunGimmelHeyShin stand for the Hebrew phrase Nes Gadol Hayah Sham, which means “a great miracle happened there.” The miracle is that the tiny pot of holy oil for the Temple menorah lasted eight days, which was enough time for the Jews to press more olives and purify new oil. See Resources below for where to buy dreidels. For a copy of the driedel game rules, see here. [Or check out the InterfaithFamily video!]

If you can get an Israeli dreidel, it’s fun to show this and ask what is different. The letters on an Israeli dreidel are NunGimmelHeyPey for Nes Gadol Hayah Po, which means “a great miracle happened HERE.”  You know, like here in Israel.

The easiest place to play dreidel is on a flat tray with raised sides (or a jellyroll pan). A train table is perfect for a small group of kids to practice spinning at the same time. The raised sides prevent the dreidels from skidding to the floor every three seconds.

GELT: Not so much focus on gelt, please. Can we raise a new generation of children who do not automatically  link Jews with gold coins? A child’s association of Jews and money should not start with the Hanukkah Parent Visit, for heaven’s sake.  Hand out dreidels, by all means, but think about skipping the gelt. The dreidel game can be played with any small token, edible or otherwise. Chocolate gelt is a modern American invention, anyway. Use paper clips, buttons, small lego pieces, raisins, pretzel sticks and just about anything small and obtainable in multiples. Avoid nuts (allergies) and watch for choking hazards for young children. Kids three and under don’t even need the game or the tokens; they are completely happy (or incredibly frustrated)  just to practice spinning.

PROPS: Raw materials. Consider bringing olive oil, a jar of olives, and an oil Hanukkah menorah to light. This makes the link between Hanukkah and the original story concrete and immediate. Many regular menorahs can be adapted for oil. It just takes a few drops (use a medicine dropper) and a wick. Get new wicks at a craft store or break a couple of Hanukkah candles to bits, pull out the wick and cut to length.

The pure oil for the Temple menorah came from pressed olives. The olives in the jar you might bring are already soaked in brine. If you can find fresh olives and actually smoosh them with the kids to release oil, more power to you. If you can find a tabletop olive press, let me know immediately and I will buy it! (Been looking for a small press that mimic the ancient stone presses…)

Menorah: Preparing and lighting the menorah. Place candles from right to left. Light candles from left to right. We light the newest candle (the current night) first. For a demonstration, you can pretend it is the 8th and final night of Hanukkah. For a copy of the blessings, see here.

After the menorah is lit, will you blow out the candles to avoid fire hazards? If so, make sure you won’t set off the smoke alarm and that you mention we never blow out Hanukkah candles on the real holiday. It is traditional to sing holiday songs and play dreidel while the candles burn. If you are allowed to keep the candles burning, make sure they are in a safe place that cannot possibly be breached by little hands or unexpected projectiles!

The Holy Temple: Making a semblance of the Temple out of Duplos is optional, but it sure was a hit for me. Especially with the toy pigs and the LED mini-menorah the soldiers could put out and the good guys could re-light. Let your kid help design the layout.

Food: Potato latkes and sufganiyot (jelly doughnuts) are the traditional foods for Hanukkah because they are both fried in oil. If you bring latkes for the kids, I recommend making them small enough to fit into cupcake liners and serving a blob of applesauce in a separate liner. Clean-up is quick.

TERMINOLOGYMenorah vs. Hanukkiah. For school visits, it’s probably best to stick to menorah or you will confuse everyone. If you think it is important to use the proper term, be ready with a 7-branched menorah (the Temple menorah had 7 branches) or at least a picture of the Temple menorah, as well as an ordinary table lamp. “Menorah” is the Hebrew for lamp, which means any ordinary electric lamp is a menorah. Distinguish this from the Temple menorah, which was built according to specifications in Exodus, and whose 7 flames were never allowed to go out. A Hanukkah menorah will always have 9 branches; eight for the eight nights, plus one for the shammash, or helper candle. A Hanukkah menorah is called a hanukkiyah. Plural: hanukkiyot.

More terminology: Hanukkah means dedication. Play that up when you light the menorah and link it with the re-lighting of the Temple menorah.

And by the way, I never mention presents as being a tradition of Hanukkah. Better not to reinforce the notion that Hanukkah is the Jewish Christmas. Hanukkkah is a time for festive foods, friends and family get-togethers, candle-lighting and perhaps making the world brighter by choosing 8 social action gestures. (See Resources.)  If you skip the gelt, skip the presents and talk about doing good deeds for others during the eight nights, you’ve sown some lovely seeds all around you.

RESOURCES: DREIDELS are becoming easier and easier to find. Target packages its own highly colored versions in two sizes. Try and,  if you are buying in bulk, Benny’s Educational Toys. The latter also sells Israeli dreidels. The ideal dreidel from an educational standpoint is the wooden kind with visible letters (painted and/or raised).

MENORAHS are nearly everywhere,  including drug store chains, Target and Make your own out of clay or wood and hex-nuts from the hardware store. Making a menorah with your child can be an annual project, and you end up with a bunch of priceless ritual objects (and a very bright window).

Oil menorahs are harder to find. Try a local or online Judaica store. Oil kits with tiny packets of oil for each night are convenient and tidy, but kids need to see the oil being poured into the cups in order to make the connection with the oil of the Temple menorah. You can always adapt a candle menorah as suggested above.

GELT: If local grocery stores and drug stores don’t carry it, phone a synagogue gift shop or order online from or Benny’s Educational Toys. I prefer gelt with Jewish packaging, not generic American chocolate coins or Pirate loot. The point of gelt is not just that it mimics cash, but that it is a Jewish tradition.  Boy, is gelt a tricky, tricky subject…

Social Action: Many educational sites have recommendations for turning the 8 days and nights of Hanukkah into service projects. COEJL (Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life) has a great lesson plan for families and classrooms here.

Joanna Brichetto

Joanna Brichetto is not a balabusta (Yiddish for female boss of the home), but she plays one on the Internet. Her website, Bible Belt Balabusta, offers up hands-on, Jewy projects for kids, parents and teachers.