Help Students See Hanukkah in a New Light

Imagine our students knowing that Hanukkah is simply about candles, dreidels, and gifts.

Now imagine them understanding that Hanukkah is also a time for increasing light in the world.

Which learning might give them a deeper and more lasting connection to Judaism?  

“We consistently … focus an enormous amount of energy imparting bits of information and creating hands-on, experiential, fun learning projects,” writes Nachama Moskowitz in the introduction to The Ultimate Jewish Teacher’s Handbook. For Rosh Hashanah, for example, activities often include making apple print Rosh Hashanah cards or honey pots or sampling various types of apples. Such activities, however, only  “encourage the teaching of surface knowledge – a mile wide and an inch deep.”

Of course, there’s a place for crafts in the classroom, but consider focusing on the big ideas of the holidays to make best use of your limited time and attention spans to create rich learning.

Here are two ways to explore this big idea of Hanukkah:

Spreading Light

One beautiful idea about Hanukkah is that during the darkest time of the year we bring in light, explains Batsheva Frankel in The Jewish Educator's Companion. She writes that the menorah's lights symbolize miracles, but they were miracles that required the partnership of human faith and effort with the Divine. Give students the experience of making candles together for their own menorahs, along with extra candles to hand out to others (perhaps in a public place), with kind notes attached. In this way, students can help bring light in the darkness. After handing out candles with their notes, students can gather to reflect on the experience while enjoying jelly doughnuts.

Creating Light

Use art as a lens to examine the big idea, and think of the word "art" expansively: painting, drawing, drama, music, storytelling, poetry — all of it. This example comes from Make, Create, Celebrate: Jewish Holidays Through Art:

1. Look at the painting by Yoram Raanan. Ask students: What do you see? What colors does the artist use to create light? What do you think? What do you wonder?

This See/Think/Wonder Routine is based upon Harvard University’s Project Zero. Elizabeth Diament, the Senior Educator at the National Gallery of Art and consultant for Make, Create, Celebrate, has written that, “Thinking routines have the capacity to activate student’s deep thinking by privileging their own ideas as a valuable source of information, getting them personally involved, and using questions to drive learning and uncover complexity.” 

Here are some more questions you can explore using this painting:
• Do you see a menorah? How many menorahs? Is it one or many? Why would the artist want to show one? Why many?

• Do you see shadows? Light? From which direction is the light coming? Or is it coming from within? What does light have to do with Hanukah, both literally and symbolically?

• What colors do you see in the menorah painting? How would you describe them? Do the colors make you think of any feelings? Do those feelings connect to Hanukkah in some way?

2. Give students the opportunity to create their own art, such as scratch art, to show them how they can spread light or goodness in the world. Here's how: Using oil pastels or markers, have students fill in a blank paper with different colors or in a pattern. Then, using a black oil pastel (NOT a marker), cover the entire square with black. Finally, using a fine-point tool (toothpick, or plastic fork or knife), have students scratch the drawing into the black pastel. When they scratch out the black, the colors beneath should shine through.

Ask them their reaction to seeing the vibrant colors emerge from under the blackness.