Hanukkah Tale Comes Alive for Israeli Children

By Linda Gradstein
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, December 21, 2008

Dressed in a tunic and brandishing a sword, Zohar Baram leaps around the makeshift stage in the re-created Israeli village of Kfar Hashmonaim as dozens of children follow the action.

"I am the old Mattathias, and I have seen a lot in my life," he says in a booming voice. "The Greeks have forbidden us from reading the Torah and observing the Sabbath. . . . We are Jews, and we will always be Jews. Whoever is for God, follow me!"

What follows is a tale of military triumph and a miraculous supply of oil, a story told the world over that gains magic when recounted in the land where it took place. The reenactment of the Hanukkah story, which commemorates the time when a small band of Jews, the Hasmoneans, fought the Greeks for the right to worship in the Temple in Jerusalem, is only part of a visit to Baram's Hasmonean village, which tries to re-create life during that period, more than 2,000 years ago.

At the village, about halfway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, children can participate in several activities appropriate to Hanukkah. In one area they harvest olives from a tree and crush them into oil using an ancient olive press. In another they make mosaics, and in a third they make copies of ancient coins.

Baram says old coins were found here, less than a mile from the traditional site of the grave of the Maccabees, the leaders of the group that eventually won independence from the Greeks. He says understanding the Hanukkah story is one way to deepen Israeli children's Jewish identity.

"Thousands of Israeli children have visited here," he said. "They learn about the Maccabees and understand their nationalism, and their religion becomes stronger."

The Hanukkah story is oft told. After their military victory in 165 B.C., the Jews retook control of the temple, but it had been defiled by idol worship. They wanted to rekindle its eternal flame, but they found only one small flask of consecrated oil. According to legend, that small supply, enough for only one day, lasted for eight, which gave the Jews time to prepare new oil. And which gave the world Hanukkah, meaning "dedication" or "consecration" in Hebrew.

The miracle of the oil has led to the custom of eating foods fried in oil for Hanukkah: In the United States, the most popular is latkes, or potato pancakes; in Israel, there are sufganiyot, or jelly doughnuts (at about 400 calories each!). Recently, some of the more upscale bakeries in Israel have gotten creative, offering such fancy flavors as Bailey's Irish Cream and rum-chocolate-filled. There are even "light" doughnuts, with only 150 calories. From what I can see, they're the same as the others, just a lot smaller.

On a recent day at Kfar Hashmonaim, nearly 100 children from an ultra-Orthodox school in the southern desert town of Yerucham had traveled by bus for more than two hours to visit the village. At the olive press, groups of four or five lined up behind the long pole that turns the grinding stone that crushes the olives. They pushed the pole, crushed the olives and tasted the oil. At the mosaics station, they put colored tiles together to make a design, and at the coins station, they saw how coins were minted and each got one to take home.

Hanukkah comes at the darkest time of the year, and one of the themes of the holiday is bringing light into the darkness. Each night one more candle is lit until, on the last night, there are nine candles: eight for the holiday and the "shamash," the candle used to light all the others. In many homes, including ours, each family member lights his or her own menorah: That means that in our home we have 54 candles blazing on the last night. Others use oil menorahs to more closely re-create the original flame in the temple.

There's also a custom not to work while the candles are burning. In many homes, the children play dreidel, a gambling game with a spinning top. Each side has a Hebrew letter. In most places, the letters spell "A Great Miracle Happened There"; in Israel, they say "A Great Miracle Happened Here." Betting is usually done with chocolate coins wrapped in gold foil.

Part of the holiday is called "pirsumei nisa" or "publicizing the miracle." Many Israelis put their lit menorahs in their windows or even in a special box outside. It's fun to roam the streets of Jerusalem as night falls looking at the menorahs.

Schools in Israel are closed for all eight days of Hanukkah. But unlike most Jewish holidays when observant Jews do not drive, there is no such prohibition during Hanukkah. As such, it's a great time to visit family or go on a little vacation in Israel. Museums have special programs for Hanukkah, and the Society for the Protection of Nature offers overnight camping trips throughout Israel. There's plenty to do, and you have eight days to do it all.

Linda Gradstein is the Israel correspondent for National Public Radio. Zohar Baram of the Hasmonean Village can be reached at 011-972-544-480-463. The village is open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. every day of Hanukkah (celebrated this year from tonight to Dec. 29) and other times by appointment.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company