By Deborah Wood, Ph.D.
In elementary school about 20% of my classmates were Jewish. We quickly learned who the other Jewish students were since all of us had to make up missed assignments following an absence for a holiday. From about 1st grade through 4th grade, one of our mothers would come to school to demonstrate making latkes for Hanukah.
Since ours was a minority religious group, it was nice to know there were other homes that had similar traditions, holiday observances, and ethnic foods. While our Christian classmates knowingly sang about Old St. Nick and enthusiastically colored pictures of Christmas trees and ornaments, we unindoctrinated Jewish students pieced together who and what these were from what we learned from television, stores, and our friends in the neighborhood. Although religion wasn’t “taught” at public school, we knew that what our families practiced and celebrated was not the norm, nor were our traditions so earnestly honored at school with songs, crafts, and school-wide decorations.
One of the many advantages of homeschooling two of my grandchildren, besides reducing their exposure to coronavirus contagion at school, is that 100% of our student body shares the same religion. The primary faculty – myself and Grammy – are also Jewish.
High Holy Days
Jewish New Year and Yom Kippur were seamlessly incorporated into our homeschooling activities for September. Parents did not have to write notes to the teacher about excusing the students from class nor homework assignments that would have conflicted with participating in observing the holidays. Instead, the holidays were honored with apple picking, since the apple is a traditional food for a sweet new year, and we baked challah (braided egg bread) in a circle, as has been done for countless generations, to represent the year coming back around to the beginning.
Right after the High Holy Days comes the harvest holiday of Sukkot. We happily carried out a tradition my own grandmother had enjoyed growing up in Russia, and had passed on to her children in the U.S. We hollowed out chicken eggs and decorated them to look like birds. (We washed the eggs first as a precaution against salmonella.) Grammy helped the children hang the birds at her synagogue’s sukkah – a temporary outdoor booth used for holiday meals.
Holiday traditions are easily worked into the required subjects of a homeschool curriculum – social studies, art, health, language arts, math, science, music, and PE. There’s no need to take a day off from schooling to express our culture and practice our religion.
Heroes in History
Our country’s beginnings are rooted in the quest for religious freedom. In some of our discussions for American History I make sure to emphasize this point. There is no “right” religion. There is no national religion. Both the fifth grader and the second grader are getting some perspective of the Native Americans who were here when the Europeans came, and of the Africans and who were enslaved here for generations.
We relate these ideas to Jewish history – more than once, Jews had to practice their religion in secret for fear of death. The story of Hanukah tells us how the Maccabees fought off the army of the Greek emperor Antiochus, who wanted the Jews to worship Zeus. The victorious Maccabees and their warriors rebuilt and rededicated the temple that the Greek soldiers had defiled. The story of Moses and Passover is about gaining freedom from slavery. His mother, sister, and brother played key roles in putting Moses in position to lead the Jews out of Egypt.
Our country is still grappling with inequities and reparations going back generations. The students are getting the idea that a hero is someone who helps to attain people’s freedom.
This is the week of Hanukah, a minor festival on the Jewish calendar, but one packed with traditions and fun. I am looking forward to an immersive experience that gratifies the students with knowledge, fulfillment, and pride.
It is traditional to give presents, which means we’ll be crafting and baking. Handmade cards can go with the presents. We’ll see if we can work in candle-making, too!
There are songs to sing in Hebrew (the language of prayers and modern-day Israel), Yiddish (the conversational language used by our ancestors in Eastern Europe), and English. One of my favorites is a fill-in version of “I Have a Little Dreidl” in which we think of materials other than clay that the dreidl could be made of, and add a rhyme. Here’s a sample:
I have a little dreidl, I made it out of plastic
And if it lands on gimmel, then I will feel fantastic!
Standard Hanukah foods are potato pancakes (latkes) and jelly doughnuts. The former is more traditional in my family, originating from our centuries in Eastern Europe, and the latter is more common in Israel. Both foods are fried in oil which represents the oil the Maccabees needed to relight the eternal flame in the temple.
Candles are lit each evening accompanied by the singing of a prayer. We add one candle each time we do this until all 8 plus the shamash (“candle helper”) are ablaze on the final evening.
Homeschooling during Hanukah allows us glorious freedom to practice our religion.
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