Digging Into Chanukah - 2007

Digging Into Chanukah
Children get their hands dirty learning about the story behind the holiday.
By David Schultz/The Connection
December 4, 2007


Photo by David Schultz/The Connection

Rabbi Newman shows Benjamin Spindler and Grace Mahony how to de-pit olives so they can be made into olive oil.

As the story goes, after the Jews won a triumphant battle against the ruling Syrians in the 2nd century B.C., one of their first priorities was to reclaim and rededicate their desecrated temple.

But the Syrians had used nearly all of the temple’s sanctified oil, which was used to light the holy menorah, and only one day’s worth remained. Yet somehow, the oil lasted for a miraculous eight days, and thus the Jewish holiday of Chanukah began.

Today, Chanukah is one of the most child-friendly Jewish holy days, probably due to the abundance of gifts, chocolate and spinning dreidels that comes with it. But many children have little tangible connection to the story of Chanukah, perhaps learning of it in Hebrew school or hearing about it from their parents but little more.

Mordechai Newman, an orthodox rabbi of Chabad Lubavitch Alexandria/Arlington is out to change that. Every year for the past seven years, he has been going to various Northern Virginia preschools to tell the story of Chanukah in a different way.

Newman, an energetic young rabbi with an outgoing demeanor to go along with his flowing brown beard, not only gives the children the historical details, he actually shows them how to make olive oil.

"The kids love it," Newman said. "It’s very hands-on."

NEWMAN STARTED off this year’s presentation at the Keshet Child Development Center in South Arlington by telling the children about Judah Maccabee, the Jewish warrior who led the rebellion against the Syrians.

"Do you know what a hero is?" Newman asked the captivated children. "Someone who saves people," replied 4-year-old Grace Mahony.

Newman then had the children count from one to eight using their fingers to show them how many more days than expected the oil lasted.

Finally, the fun part arrived – time to take the olives and "smash them," as 5-year-old Benjamin Spindler said. Newman had the children assist in the destoning of the olives, which allowed their hands to become joyfully messy with olive bits.

Newman placed the olives in an old-fashioned olive mill while the children watched as the dark, grape juice-like liquid seeped out. "Say goodbye to the olives," Newman told the children. "Goodbye olives!" they replied.

Newman then poured the olive juice into test tubes which were placed into a centrifuge for a few seconds. To the children’s amazement, olive oil had magically risen above the olive juice to the top of the test tubes.

After this process was finished, Newman poured the freshly-made olive oil into a menorah and had the children light a single wick dipped in the oil, symbolizing the first night of Chanukah.

And of course, there was a lesson to be learned from the exercise. Newman told the preschoolers that the lighting of the candles represented the way they should live their lives.

"Every time you do a good deed," Newman said, "You make the world lighter."

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