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The Classroom is a Community.

Over the years, parents are always shocked when they hear me say that we have kids in our classrooms for less than two average work weeks (80 hours).

Unless your child is immersed in Jewish Day School, which quite frankly is not even an option where I live, that’s the deal.

So every minute in the classroom is precious. And every minute, it is tougher to keep our students’ attention as they are pulled in a zillion different directions.  Soccer. Swimming. Dance. Baseball. Marching Band.

You know the drill.

So how do we keep kids motivated to learn Hebrew and Jewish studies? How do we make our students feel connected to what we are teaching them?  It’s not always easy, especially when its 75 degrees outside and they seem physically and intellectually drained from the previous six hours in school.

But there’s no need to raise the white flag.  Religious school students are far more likely to become engaged if you keep a few core principles in mind:

1. Immediately establish that the Classroom is a Community. I have had tremendous success in motivating students by treating them respectfully and by genuinely caring about who they are in their entirety.  I tell them that being with them and teaching them is the best part of my day.  I also let them know that inspiring them to love Jewish learning is the best job in the entire universe.

And then I prove this to them by showing them. We must get to know our students and let our students get to know us.  It is incumbent upon us to build connections between people and create environments that allow for our students to know and respect their peers; we must build community. It is then that we know that God is present. Kehillot Kedushot are purposely and lovingly built. (See Martin Buber’s “I and Thou.”)

2. Remember “Relevance” and “Relatability.” And I say this not only because I happen to love alliteration. We all make snap judgments about people and kids are obviously no exception. Teachers who quickly set a tone that their lessons are relevant to life today are setting themselves up for a successful school year.

Don’t arbitrarily toss out references to the Jonas Brothers or the Red Sox just to prove you know who they are. But in a discussion about worshipping false gods, bringing up our celebrity-obsessed world is extremely relevant. Connecting Jewish lessons to contemporary pop culture – in the appropriate context – will separate you from the stereotype of the so-called “boring teacher.”  But of course, only share examples of what you truly know. Kids can always smell a faker.

3. Engage different learning styles in each lesson plan. Sometimes it’s difficult to fit in activities for all the learning styles, but if plans are always aimed at visual or audio learners, then you’ll lose the kids who are kinesthetic learners and/or experiential learners. While planning lessons, it’s crucial to consider multiple learning styles/intelligences, and make sure you hit all the learning styles over two class periods.

Students can and do learn in more than one way. In fact, students actually learn better if they process the material in several different ways. (See Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligence theory).

4. Bump up the praise — and ditch the High Five! Positive reinforcement is an invaluable classroom and parenting skill. But be sure to use specific praise.  “Good job” just doesn’t cut it.  And my least favorite “communication tool,” the HIGH FIVE, needs to be retired.

Instead, choose direct communication that shows our kids that we are truly listening to what they are offering. We need to push students to develop their ideas:

“Ira, I really like that you are thinking about how a new immigrant who wants to feel as though they belong in the “Golden Medina”  might change their outward appearance….Now please give us an example of such a change.”

In educational circles, there are now lots of debates about rewards.  Most educators believe that rewards don’t really work for all students, and if they do seem to work, it’s fleeting.

In a well-functioning classroom community, we should set community goals that foster cooperative learning and effort.  Kids experience that they are part of something bigger than themselves, offering a greater sense of belonging.  This is big-picture “Am Yisrael” stuff.  Judaism is relevant because each student is a vital link in the chain.

5. Forget about bribery. I do appreciate an intermittent hafta-ah katanah (small surprise) for the whole class, but constantly giving out candy turns kids into lab rats. It creates the expectation that every time kids breathe, they will get a reward.

Bribes, sugary or not, melt away motivation.  Constantly answering the question “What do we get if we do…” eats away at motivation.  Kids no longer want to be successful; they want a treat.

Creating an environment in which kids are not competing against one another, but are striving for their personal best, will propel even the most reserved kid to jump head first into the learning.

6. Classroom discipline should NOT be punitive. Sure, there will be times when your students won’t deserve any praise, let alone candy. When it comes time to reprimand, classroom discipline is most successful when students are guided and directed, rather than scolded.

Establish a code of conduct, a “covenant,” with your students at the beginning of the year. Set expectations for communal behavior and reinforce a classroom culture where students are lauded for respecting your shared goals and each other.  When the time inevitably comes that a student misbehaves, firmly explain to him or her why their actions violate the class covenant and ask how they intend to get back on course.

Positive peer pressure alone can often sway students to behave like mensches.

7. You are NOT teaching Bible trivia. Of course, facts are important. But just memorizing the names of the first few kings of Israel only provides the answers to future crossword puzzles. We can’t stop there. It is crucial that students develop an enduring understanding of the material we present them.

For example, what is the historical context in which the monarchy came into existence?  How have Kings Saul, David and Solomon shaped our history?  And for that matter, why don’t the Jewish people have a king or queen anymore?

8. Create a strong Classroom-Home Connection. While we are motivating our students, we need to also focus our attention on motivating families.  As in all learning environments, parents are our partners in Jewish education, too.  Without the support of families, our goals and objectives become nearly impossible.

If children feel that their parents are ambivalent about Judaism in general, and Jewish education is viewed as a non-priority to be shifted around like the little squares in one of those sliding tile puzzle games, then we are toast.

Let’s face it: There are lots of Jewish parents out there who send their kids to us to be educated, but who, for a variety of reasons, are not so connected to Yiddishkeit themselves. Parents need to see the relevance in their own lives and pass on that love of Jewish learning to their kids.  We can help parents achieve this through both formal and informal Jewish family education efforts.

Family Education makes a lasting impact in the everyday classroom!

Yes, even with this model, we might feel resistance from our students to be motivated to learn Jewishly.  And conversely, occasionally we witness children who soak up “the Jewish” like sponges, even though their parents are not overtly interested and connected themselves.

Bottom line: As education directors and teachers, we need to be an endless source of motivation, energy and ideas for inspiring our communities to become lifelong Jewish learners!

(Fellow educators: What tips do you have for keeping students engaged in the classroom and for motivating parents to extend our lesson plans into the home?)


(I recently stumbled across this 11-year-old essay that my husband, Darren, wrote about the inevitable clash between recreation and mourning whenever Holocaust memorials are located in city centers or tourist areas. As we observe Yom HaShoah this month, the themes visited below still strongly resonate here — and are applicable to any public memorial site.)

The New England Holocaust Memorial in downtown Boston.

The Holocaust Picnic — By Darren Garnick
(Originally published in The Boston Jewish Advocate, April 1999)

While concentration camp survivors recently marched to the New England Holocaust Memorial, they interrupted a birthday picnic.

The dozen or so little girls camped out on a blanket must have been surprised to see a parade trudge by them, some of the visitors wearing yellow stickers saying “JUDE.” No doubt, Boston Mayor Tom Menino and Gov. Paul Cellucci were not recognized by the party – just two more serious grown-ups walking toward the glass towers looking really, really sad.

The young mother in charge of the girls had staked out a prime piece of real estate. Nice grass. A wall of finely pruned shrubbery to give the kids some boundaries. It’s the perfect place to blow out the candles, sing “Happy Birthday,” and open presents.

And that’s what they did. Overwhelmed by the mass of people, the girls stopped screaming and playing tag moments before the Mourner’s Kaddish. They meant no disrespect. At six or seven years old, they’re at the lucky age when Nazis and genocide and torture don’t exist.

The mother, too, meant no harm. She’s just oblivious. To her, this was “Holocaust Park,” just an alternative picnicking option to Boston Common or the Arboretum. But “oblivious” wasn’t the adjective that immediately popped in my head. I was thinking: “How can this woman be so stupid?

Then my brain shifted to Eastern Europe. Last summer, my wife Stacy and I traveled to my grandmother’s ancestral hometown of Bialystock, Poland. We were visiting the memorial to the Bialystock Ghetto Uprising, a modest sculpture on the site of several mass graves. The ghetto is now a park. The graves themselves are fenced off, but it is a place where Poles walk their dogs and lounge on benches.

Some boys were kicking around a soccer ball, which strayed away and landed at my feet. They smiled at me. I smiled at them and kicked the ball back. I remember appreciating the moment as a fun cross-cultural exchange, the same amusement I might get from “participating” in a game in a village in Mexico or Thailand. For a few seconds, I forgot where I was.

If, at the scene of the Holocaust, I had trouble focusing on what happened there, why should I be surprised that a woman in Boston is not making a connection? McDonald’s is across the street. The jugglers and magicians at Faneuil Hall are a few steps away. The benefits of having a Holocaust memorial in a heavily traveled tourist spot are obvious: People who never think about genocide are encouraged to confront humanity’s evil. Perhaps that is worth stomaching a few insensitively placed shopping bags or reckless skateboarders.

To the woman who planned her daughter’s birthday party at the Holocaust memorial, the meaning of Auschwitz is not obvious. The meaning of Nuremberg is not obvious. She needs to be either reminded or informed for the first time before she enters the park. So do a lot of us.

It would be helpful if signs were posted on both sides of the memorial outlining expected public behavior: “The 11 million victims of the Nazi genocide were denied a proper burial. You are standing in their cemetery. Please act accordingly. Please respect their memory by not smoking, eating, drinking, running or cycling on memorial grounds. Thank you for your cooperation.”

We cannot force respect at the New England Holocaust Memorial.

But we should at least be demanding it.

Bringing Moses into the classroom as a guest speaker is a fun Hebrew School lesson relevant all year long

Bringing Moses into the Hebrew School classroom is a fun lesson relevant all year long

The Passover Haggadah tells us to think of the Exodus story “as if we all came out of Egypt.” The bitter herbs and the parsley dipped in salt water are supposed to be reminders of the tears of slavery.

It’s “We,” and “Us,” not “They” and “Them.”

Encouraging our children to forge an emotional connection to the Jewish past and the Jewish future is one of our primary goals as teachers and parents. That’s why I’ve found the Moses press conference to be one of the most engaging Hebrew School exercises over the years.

Look at the kids’ beaming faces in the group photo above.  They were some of my fifth graders at Boston’s Temple Israel, where I taught for six years in the 1990s. These kids — who incidentally are now having their own kids — acted like a movie star had walked into the room. They all wanted their photos taken with Moses and asked him ethical and theological questions that made me proud to be their teacher.

The Moses press conference is actually a lesson that is spread over several classes and involves a home study component. First, students are told that they are about to become Biblical-era journalists and that they need to know as much as possible about the Book of Exodus. They form their own media organizations — such as the Canaan Register-Times, the Sinai Enquirer or in a nod to modern times, — and research the background of the Ten Commandments and why it took so long to get to the Promised Land.

Feeding their curiosity is a press release teasing the upcoming appearance of the one and only Moses!


“In an unprecedented example of Biblical time travel, Moses is scheduled to meet with young reporters at Temple Israel for an informal press conference on Sunday, November 3.

Moses, a bearded prophet best known for leading the Jewish people out of Egypt after 400 un-fun years of slavery, will be in Boston on vacation. Besides Temple Israel, he has planned to take trips to Faneuil Hall, Bunker Hill Monument and the Swan Boats.

Among the questions he will be happy to discuss are:

• How did you do that trick with the Red Sea?
• Did it take long to write down everything in the Five Books of Moses?
• Why don’t you have a last name?

Of course, Moses also will be delighted to talk about the Ten Plagues, the Passover Seder, the fight he had with the Egyptian taskmaster, what it was like to look at the Promised Land but never get there, and any other incident in the Book of Exodus.”

(Click here to download full sample press releases used at Temple Israel and Congregation Shalom, two of the synagogues that Moses has visited in Massachusetts.)

Moses can be anyone from the community willing to put in the effort and kavanah. I’ve hosted seven press conferences over the years and have had college professors, parents and even my husband (pictured here) play the role. Of course, I advise that you politely ask your Moses to brush up on his Bible, too.  It gets embarrassing when the students have to correct the Prophet.

Also make sure that Moses talks in the first person plural, mentioning how “we” were freed after 400 years of slavery and how “our” feet got muddy walking on the Red Sea floor. This is definitely not meant to be a lecture, but an interactive exercise reinforcing our collectively shared experience with each other!

Students will take notes during the press conference and write up their reports in their respective media publications. As a trickle-down bonus, this lesson also incorporates creative writing, geography, anthropology, public speaking skills and critical thinking in addition to sparking meaningful discussions about Jewish values, spirituality, culture and identity.

The Moses Press Conference is a great way to engage Hebrew School students to think about Jewish values in a fun way

You can adapt this exercise to include additional Biblical characters to the mix. Perhaps inviting Miriam for a woman’s perspective about desert hikes or Pharaoh’s psychologist to analyze why he felt compelled to enslave others.

But it is important to note that this is NOT a Passover play. The costumes are cute and the role-playing is fun, but there is a serious exchange of ideas. If you pick your Moses well, he should push the kids to explore deeper issues.

I don’t claim authorship of this idea — I know numerous educators who have implemented variations of the same theme. Personally, I’ve mostly tried this lesson with fourth and fifth graders, but it certainly can be adapted for older students, who could tackle it at a more sophisticated level.

And the beauty of inviting Moses to the classroom is that you can keep inviting him back. Naturally, he’s very central to many of our sacred texts and cuts across many curricula. It would make sense to have Moses drop in on classes focused on Jewish history, Torah, Jewish Holidays, Prophets and Israel.

You could hold your press conference especially for Shavuot, our celebration of receiving the 10 Commandments on Mt. Sinai.

One last thing: You also don’t need to limit your pool of potential prophets to men.  Via the magic of Photoshop, here is my best effort at channeling my inner Moses!

Stacy Garnick was up for the role of Moses in the "Ten Commandments," but was narrowly beat out for the part by Charlton Heston

Homer and Bart at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

The Simpsons are very popular in Israel. During my first visit in the early 1990s, I saw the whole mishpacha on Ben Yehuda Street in Jerusalem. Much to my surprise, the giant cartoon mascots were promoting frozen TV dinners.

My husband also has a small collection of Hebrew Simpsons gum and candy bar wrappers.

But this Sunday will be the first time that Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa and Maggie will be flying El Al on the small screen.

I can only assume they’ll be traveling on Israel’s national airline, but only a few details have leaked out about the Jerusalem-themed episode — including comedian Sacha Baron Cohen (not to be confused with Sasha Cohen) being Bart and Homer’s tour guide.

As you may have noticed from my blog’s occasional silly diversions, I believe that American pop culture can often provide Jewish teaching moments in the classroom. Of course, with the Simpsons, the level of irreverence will determine how age appropriate the lessons can be.

According to the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz, the episode will be called “The Greatest Story Ever D’ohed,” and will have Homer come down with a case of “Jerusalem Syndrome,” the psychological state where one believes he or she is a Biblical personality or prophet.

Simpsons producer Al Jean warns that “people from all three religions will be equally offended.”

I’m honestly not a huge fan of the show, but my radar will be up and running when it airs the day before Pesach.

I wonder if Bart and Homer will see any flying chairs.

The Simpsons’ Israel episode airs at 8 p.m. Sunday, March 28 on FOX. Please let me know what you think of the show!

How many audience members knew that Ben Stiller's nonsensical alien Oscars speech contained part of the Hebrew prayer for wine?

Ben Stiller, who played a rabbi in “Keeping the Faith,” is no stranger to Jewish humor.

At last night’s Academy Awards, he slipped in an inside joke that I wonder how many people noticed. Presenting the honors for Best Makeup, Stiller was flamboyantly dressed as a Na’vi alien from the blockbuster movie “Avatar.”

His presentation speech in the Na’vi language was actually a string of jibberish, tongue clicks and familiar phrases blurted out in a funny accent. Anyone unfamiliar with Hebrew would not recognize two of those phrases: “Pesach,” and “Boray Pah-Ree HaGaffen.”

The guttural letter Chet at the end of “Pesach” definitely sounds like it is from another planet. Just not the Alpha Centauri moon of Pandora. (I had to look that up. I haven’t yet seen “Avatar,” but I want to).

What do you think? Is sneaking in the last part of the prayer for wine into the Avatar speech a gesture of Jewish pride? Or does it mock Judaism — or the Na’vi culture for that matter — by inferring that all foreign languages are just jibberish?

I don’t profess to intimately know Ben Stiller’s soul, but I think he meant well.

In fact, given that Avatar takes place in the year 2154, I see it as a positive development that Passover is getting some extraterrestrial airplay. We Jewish educators are obsessed with Jewish continuity, after all.

And although Judaism does not encourage proselytizing, the religion is very welcoming to all who want to learn Torah. No matter what planet you come from.

The menorah safety railing at the Hoover Dam

As the 3-D glasses in my blog masthead will attest, I can’t help but look at the world through Jewish eyes 24/7.

This is a snapshot my husband took of the stylish safety railing that keeps pedestrians safe at the Hoover Dam.  He immediately thought of a menorah and so did I.  Although, depending on where you crop the picture, there could be too many or two few candleholders.

This is not one of those ambiguous Rorschach tests where someone sees the Virgin Mary in a parking lot oil slick or Hello Kitty in a piece of burnt toast. The candelabra is obviously there.

I often think of Stars of David when I see Sheriff’s badges and Jewish stars frequently pop out when I stare at tile floors and the tops of diner salt-and-pepper shakers.

Does this ever happen to you?  Where are some of the unlikeliest spots you see Jewish stars or dreidels or Hebrew letters?  Come to think of it, has ANYONE noticed that the Microsoft Office icons for Word, Excel and PowerPoint look like letters from the Hebrew Aleph-Bet?

Are the Microsoft icons for Office, Word, PowerPoint and Excel meant to resemble Hebrew letters?

Don’t worry, I’m not going to go all Bible Code on you. I’m not sure what it means, but the “P” symbol for PowerPoint is the Hebrew Koof, the “W” Word symbol is a Shin, and the Excel “X” is the spitting image of an Aleph. I’ve fired off an email to Microsoft to see if there is any official comment on this.

In the meantime, what are some of your real-life Jewish Rorschach images you see in the patterns of everyday objects?

UPDATE (2/19/10): Microsoft calls Hebrew letter shapes “coincidental”

Here’s the official scoop from Microsoft spokesperson Tara Mulcahy:

“The Office 2008 for Mac icons are an evolution from the icons in Office 2004 for Mac, and represent the brand guidelines developed for the suite – Approachable, Energetic, Exacting and Elegant. Any resemblance to another icon or symbol is purely coincidental.”

I agree the icons are indeed elegant, but intentional or not, they ARE Hebrew letters!

After discovering this outrageously inappropriate Anne Frank dot-to-dot puzzle and a full kids’ activity page of Holocaust word searches and games, I sent the link to a few respected educational institutions for their perspective.

As I mentioned in my post, “Holocaust Education is NOT Supposed to Be Fun,” if you have to make Holocaust lessons entertaining for children, maybe they just aren’t ready to handle the subject.

So what age is the best age to start teaching the Shoah?  A couple of experts weigh in below:

ANTONY POLONSKY, Professor of Holocaust Studies, Brandeis University:

“I am not in favour of this material being given to primary school children, so I think it should probably be in secondary school. The general context is also necessary. I have found Americans (not only children) woefully ignorant of the elementary facts of European history.”

“At Brandeis, a student said to me after a lecture, ‘You were talking about the Second World War; when was the First World War?'”

NELLY SILAGY BENEDEK, Director of Education, The Jewish Museum (New York):

“From my experience, the best age to introduce students to the topic of the Holocaust is in high school. Even then, I wouldn’t expose them to the most graphic images. The Holocaust is a topic for mature audiences, and teachers should tread cautiously.”

“On the other hand, it is important for the Holocaust to be part of a study of 20th century world history. There are ways of talking about World War II to elementary and middle school students without speaking about the particulars of the Holocaust and emphasizing its graphic and disturbing events. For example, fifth grade students might learn about the how Jews were forced to flee Europe and about immigration to the United States during that time. They can learn about the challenges and hardships Jews faced as immigrants.”

YAEL WEINSTOCK, International School for Holocaust Studies, Yad Vashem (Israel):

“These are fascinating images that you bring to your blog. While I cannot speak from a personal perspective, as I represent Yad Vashem, I appreciate your engaging with such materials and questioning their use in the classroom and with young children.”

“As for educational suggestions, I can share with you the very well thought-out approach that Yad Vashem takes. We feel that outside of Israel (where the Holocaust is present starting at a very young age just by growing up in a Jewish country), children should not begin learning about the Holocaust until about 3rd or 4th grade.”

“Yad Vashem has published three books that are brilliantly written to introduce the topic of the Holocaust without difficult photographs or too much information at once. The first is called “I Wanted to Fly Like a Butterfly” and tells the personal story of a Holocaust survivor, but in a way that a child could understand. We do not believe in lying or making up parts of the story. Tell the truth, but perhaps not the entire truth when the child is young. It is a spiralic approach, so that with each year, a student is introduced to more and more about the subject.”

MICHAL STERNIN, International School for Holocaust Studies, Yad Vashem (Israel):

“First of all, I would like to express my appreciation to your dedication to the subject of Holocaust education. Thank you for drawing our attention to the children’s activities.”

“The most important thing to understand is that learning about the Holocaust should take place in a frame of an educational process. The educators should be constantly focused on the value of the activity they construct for the children and ask themselves what exactly is being achieved by performing each and every task they give.”

“The materials presented to children should be appropriate to their mental and cognitive skills. We think that the subject can be taught to younger children, and in our site, you can find ideas of how to do that.”

Here are some links to lesson plans:
Until Then, I Had Only Read About These Things in Books” (Grades 5-6)
I Wanted to Fly Like a Butterfly” (Grades 3-5)

“Thanks again for approaching us, we would be happy to continue the dialogue with you.”

The New York Times recently dove into the world of religious fight clubs

Wow. The New York Times just ran a riveting story on the growing use of kickboxing and violent cage fighting (as opposed to the gentle kind) to lure young men into church. One Tennessee church called “Xtreme Ministries” follows up Bible class with lessons how to beat the crap out of each other.

The school’s slogan: “Where Feet, Fist and Faith Collide!”

The Times says the fights are “part of a larger and more longstanding effort on the part of some ministers who fear that their churches have become too feminized, promoting kindness and compassion at the expense of strength and responsibility.”

For the record, I believe that Hebrew Schools and all religious education programs should just stick to the kindness and compassion stuff.

You can read the full martial arts story here.

If you need to use coloring books to keep kids' attention while teaching about the Holocaust, then maybe the kids aren't ready to handle it.

Nothing surprises me anymore. I recently stumbled across this Anne Frank dot-to-dot on my local newspaper’s education page. Aside from the fact that it is a ludicrously designed dot-to-dot — I mean, why not just draw more of her face and body and leave nothing to connect — this is not the best way to introduce the Holocaust to children.

I have no doubt that the Universal Press Syndicate’s Mini Page has the best of intentions to share Anne’s life story. However, to toss it in the mix with peanut butter pudding recipes, word searches and other activity book games and puzzles only trivializes the tragedy.

Perhaps the most outrageous part of this “Fun Page,” is the Holocaust Word Search. Hey kids, can you find the phrases FINAL SOLUTION, GENOCIDE and DEATHCAMP? Are you kidding me?

Holocaust education is not supposed to be fun. If you have to placate kids with coloring books and puzzles, they are probably too young to learn about it in the first place.

What do you think? When and how should kids first be introduced to the Shoah? And are dot-to-dots and word searches offensive in this context or am I the one who is off-base here?

Happiness is a Dreidel Sippy Cup!

We all know that Chanukah is NOT the Jewish Christmas, it’s NOT about stimulating the economy, and it’s NOT even about gorging on fried food. It’s all about religious freedom and how this freedom ironically empowers us to also abandon our religion and culture if we so choose.

But it’s also a heckuva lot of fun, and eight days give us eight times more opportunities for learning, laughter and light!

Associated Press writer Lisa Shapiro Flam recently explored how more Jewish families are breaking up Chanukah into theme nights (Game Night, Tzedakah Night, Environmentalism Night) after lighting the candles. I think this is a phenomenal way to create and foster new family memories — while diluting our “gimme, gimme” culture of consumerism.

I’m not against presents, mind you. I fondly recall receiving “Anabelle,” a red-yarn-haired doll that doubled as a pajama bag — given to me by my Uncle Harry and Aunt Myrna.  I also still cherish a decorative tile of a slender young girl that my mother said reminded her of me. But wonderful shared experiences will last longer than any gifts.

So, in the spirit of Chanukah, I asked friends and family to share their favorite holiday traditions. The best of the best are included below, along with a few Google-mined gems and some bonus original thoughts!

The Asparagus-Tomato Menorah by Jennifer Traig

Isn’t this asparagus menorah platter simply gorgeous? It’s from crafts guru Jennifer Traig’s hilarious book of Jewish projects, Judaikitsch. This concept is easily replicable with other pictures and vegetables. Carrot stick dreidels are just delish…. How about Stars of David from pickle spears!

In Israel, jelly donuts have been mixed with peanut butter, halavah and even vodka. Russian olim don’t fool around with Manischewitz wine pastries. And in Chelmsford, Mass., teacher Margi Loyer delights crowds with her Rainbow Latkes. Forget about chintzy food coloring. Margi uses the full color spectrum of vegetables to get her latkes to be luminous. Her recipe is here.

Wrapping up, Laurie Tischler Mindlin from the Merrimack Valley Jewish Federation proposes a “Maalox & TUMS Night” for those of us who have problems limiting ourselves to just one platter of latkes per sitting.

Judah Maccabee Potato Head: Can you find the mistake in this picture? (Source: New Hampshire Magazine)

CHANUKAH IDEA #2 — POP CULTURE FEST: I confess that I wish the Charlie Brown specials had a Lubavitcher Rabbi to balance out the Born Again Christian messages of Linus. But for now, the best cartoon we have is the Rugrats. Those kids seem a little bratty to me, but my sister-in-law, Kelly Garnick, swears by the pro-Jewish content in the Rugrats Chanukah special.

Personally, I believe the earthy messages of “It’s a Wonderful Life” transcend all religions. If it snows this week, try running downtown in an exasperated, drunken manner and yell out holiday greetings to buildings and town landmarks. “HAPPY CHANUKAH, CREDIT UNION!  HAPPY CHANUKAH, YA OLD HARDWARE STORE!”

Yes, the celebrity-laden Adam Sandler Chanukah song is priceless, but for a more subdued dinner soundtrack go with “Hanukkah Blessings” by the Barenaked Ladies. Or really stir things up in the living room by participating in the latest Chanukah dance craze. The AMAZING thing about this YouTube “Flash Mob” dance is that it is sponsored by an Israeli Aliyah advocacy group. Their marketing has come a long way from Jaffa oranges and cute chicks in Kibbutz hats…


Julia Greenstein's Gingerbread Sukkah: Why not a Temple Mount?

My friend Deborah Solomon tells me she just bought one of those gingerbread house kits for the first time and that she plans to decorate it with Jewish icons. How about some gingerbread Maccabees and some gingerbread Assyrians battling it out on a gingerbread Temple Mount adorned with gingerbread statues of Greek gods?

The scene might be a little more complicated than the Manger, but there will still be a role for gumdrops and NECCO wafers.


Jackson Pollock in Action

Rhode Island’s Alisa Kotler-Berkowitz knows how to keep preschoolers busy. She unrolls a huge strip of paper and has the kids spin their paint-dripped dreidels on the canvas until there’s a print worthy of hanging at the Smithsonian.

Make sure you spread lots of newspaper on the floor for this one. The kinetic energy of dreidels creates lots of splatter action.

Also, Alisa advises that you either give the kids candy cigarettes or skip the tobacco products altogether.  In this regard, Jackson Pollock was not the ideal role model.

CHANUKAH IDEA #5 — INVITE THE NEIGHBORS: It’s almost selfish to keep those delicious latkes to ourselves. Pick a night to have “Show & Tell” with your neighbors or your children’s non-Jewish friends. New Hampshire’s Stacy Milbouer has discovered that her son Sam’s Christmas-celebrating friends love the opportunity to experience a hardcore cross-holiday immersion.

“These kids look forward to Chanukah at our house so much, that if I try to skip a year, their parents call and tell me their kids are heartbroken,” Stacy says. “So on each of our eight crazy nights, with the exception of the last which is reserved for family only, we have a new friend over. They always watch Sam light the candles and I give them copies of the prayers in English and phonetic Hebrew so they can follow along. I also give them the words to ‘Chanukah, Oh Chanukah!‘ and we all clap and sing along after the candles are lit.”

“And we have enough yarmulkes for everybody,” she adds. “Then each kid gets his or her own dreidel, or in years past we’ve made them, and gelt and we play. Sometimes we give them all a little gift, but it’s always something we can play together that night. We eat jelly donuts and that’s it for the friends. They love, love, love the holiday and now it’s become a tradition for them!”

New Hampshire’s Eileen Shapiro Hirsch has a family tradition that the delightful creature above would find totally en-DEER-ing. To be honest, this Magen David Deer has absolutely nothing to do with this post, but I love this picture and wanted to fit it in somehow.

Back to Eileen…. For the past seven or eight years, the Hirsch, Eisenhandlers and Weintraub families have gotten together one evening and their kids have linked together a large paper chains made from blue and white construction paper.  Every year, it has grown larger and larger and is now too big to fit in an oversize garbage bag. And, of course, it would take longer and longer for the kids to hang it in the house of the host family.  The New Hampshire trio took a break last year, but plan to bring out the chain again for 2009.

Go for it, Eileen!  I would love to see this paper chain continue to expand for generations till it spills out the windows and wraps around the block.  You could call it the Chain of Jewish Continuity and note how each link is symbolically fragile and must be maintained for strength.  And how the Jewish community is only as strong as its weakest link.

And if you get tired of manufactured symbolism, then you could also shoot for a noble secular goal.  HELLO, Guinness Book of World Records!

Pocket-sized Menorah for Chanukah revelers-on-the-go

CHANUKAH IDEA #7 — MENORAHS GONE WILD: The variety and imaginative scope of today’s Menorah market continues to astound me. The portable matchbox menorah above, which eliminates ALL excuses for not lighting the Chanukah candles, is brilliant.

If you want to give off a pro-recycling vibe, there’s also the trendy used bicycle chain Menorah and even a plumbing pipe Menorah.

But if you are really daring, you’ll try my Olfactory Overdose Menorah, which is comprised of 9 large Yankee Candles — scents are your choice, of course. Just like the Jelly Belly jelly bean flavor mixes, every untried combo has potential risks and benefits.

Have the children choose their Tzedakah cause so they feel a stronger connection to the Mitzvah!

CHANUKAH IDEA #8 — TZEDAKAH NIGHT: Your mailbox is likely stuffed with solicitations from charities, so you likely don’t need any suggestions from me about where to send your money. A great educational exercise would be to set aside the same amount of money for each child and have them pick one of five or six pre-selected causes. Or if their Tikkun Olam issue isn’t on the list, you can always research charities on the Internet together.

Some worthy tzedakah causes to get you started:

MAZON, the ongoing Jewish battle against hunger.

Heifer International gives kids a fun way to send cows, goats and chickens to impoverished villages around the world.

Jewish Foundation for the Righteous, a way to say thanks to Righteous Gentiles who risked their lives to save Jews from the Holocaust.

MooreMart is a civilian-based effort to send care packages, school supplies and sports equipment to American soldiers bonding with children in Iraq, Afghanistan and Kosovo.

Friends of the IDF gives Israeli soldiers a pizza, soft drinks, coffee, Bamba, and just a sense that strangers care about them and their mission.

88 Bikes spreads happiness one kid at a time, one bike at a time, to orphanages around the world.

Also, have your children make their own colorful Tzedakah boxes and make this a lesson that lasts all year round.


Ah, Yes, we finally get to the subject of the blog headline tease… And given that this is a family-friendly operation, you will not be reading about what Judah Maccabee did when he Let the Lights Go Out.

Our “Naked Time” story comes courtesy of Colorado’s most vivacious Jewish folksinger, Rachel Cole (you MUST hear her version of Lo Yisa Goy):

“When my kids were really little, they loved to run around naked (as most little kids like to do).  Well, we used to have ‘naked time’ in the house right before bath time, where the kids would run and dance around free from the encumberment of those pesky clothes we made them wear.

“So one time, I’m pretty sure the kids were around three and four, we were visiting my parents over the holidays and the whole family was there (aunts, cousins, etc.) and it was time to light the Chanukah candles.  And we told the kids specifically that after we lit the candles, it was bath time and then straight to bed.  So we lit the candles, said the prayers, and afterwards my aunt asked the kids, “Now, what is it time for?”

She expected to hear a joyful yell of “PRESENTS!”  Instead, what the family got to hear was my three-year-old son jubilantly exclaim, “NAKED TIME!!!!” and proceed to start yanking off his shirt. We stopped him, quickly, and he was placated with a present or two, and thankfully that night’s naked time was confined to the upstairs bathroom….but that’s definitely my all-time favorite Chanukah story!”

Rachel has a knack for appreciating the spontaneous joy in life and our youngest kids tend to express it best — regardless of what they are wearing. If your kids are still in the phase of loving a cardboard box and wrapping paper as much as the gift inside, hold on to that moment. It won’t last forever.

CHAG SAMAYACH, EVERYBODY!   Anybody try any of these before?  What are some of YOUR ideas to jazz up the Festival of Lights?

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This blog is dedicated to preventing another generation from dreading Hebrew School. I seek to exchange stories, ideas and tips with other parents, teachers and everyone who shares my love for Jewish history, culture, spirituality, arts, and Israeli produce. Care for a pomelo, anyone?

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