When Lisa Cotler was going to school in Cincinnati, December meant Santa Claus and Christmas carols, and getting teased because those things weren’t part of her Jewish family’s holiday traditions.
“I was one of two or three people in my class who were Jewish. We were very singled out and made fun of. They never acknowledged differences in religion,” she said.
So when Cotler’s son’s kindergarten teacher invited Cotler and the other Jewish parent in class to help with a Hanukkah activity, she was thrilled.
“For me, as a mother, it’s wonderful because my mom wasn’t able to have that opportunity and see that because our schools didn’t do that,” she said. “When I walked in there, they were shouting, ‘We’re going to have Hanukkah today, we’re going to have Hanukkah today.’”
Sharon Harris joined Cotler in presenting Hanukkah activities for Eileen Bryson’s kindergarten class at Kaleidoscope School of Arts and Science on Dec. 16.
“Mrs. Bryson always has fun stuff in her class,” Harris said. “There’s always something that’s going on in the classroom. Kids at that age are so much fun because they’re very open to everything and very interested in learning.”
Bryson said she tries to incorporate all the kids’ backgrounds and traditions into class.
“I’ve been doing it for, oh, probably 12 to 15 years, actually. I just feel like it’s really important for children to be exposed to different cultures and different experiences. If people are open to that, I feel like that’s a wonderful tradition, along with everything else. Kids really love it. It makes them open to thinking of different ways of celebrating.”
Her classes have learned about Hanukkah and Kwanza, and she’s invited kids’ relatives from other countries to help with activities, like making a piñata and corn tortillas with a girl’s grandmother from Nicaragua.
“We always have people from different groups in class. We almost always bring them in to talk about what it’s like in their home, in the country they came from or wherever, and usually cook and do something food-related with them,” Bryson said.
On Dec. 16, Bryson read the class a book about a little girl who didn’t have her own hanukiah, also called a menorah, so her grandfather helped her make one out of potatoes. Harris and her daughter, Isabelle, and Cotler and her son, Seth, showed the class their families’ hanukiahs, and talked about what they mean, where the tradition comes from and how they are lit for eight nights.
Bryson said the class had dipped their own candles earlier, so it was a nice tie-in to the Hanukkah event.
Harris and Cotler helped the class make latkes, which are potato pancakes traditionally eaten during Hanukkah.
“We’re going to make lattes?” one student asked.
Bryson said that incorporating food into class is a great way to hold kids’ attention.
“I think anything hands-on, cooking or anything like that, they like it. They just need to be involved one way or another,” she said.
One of Harris’ friends that she met when she spent five years in Israel sent dreidels for Harris to give to the students. She explained what the Hebrew letters painted on each side of the four-sided top meant, and how you play the game. Each player usually has a pile of gelt, which is Yiddish for money, that is actual coins or, more often, coin-shaped chocolates. The kindergartners played with stacks of interlocking building pieces.
Harris explained the game. To start each round, players put a piece of gelt into a central pile. One player spins the dreidel and does whatever is dictated by the letter on which it lands. “Hey,” for instance, means “half,” so the player takes half the pot of gelt. “Nun” means none, so it’s the next person’s turn.
“I think it was really nice. I mean, with 5-year-olds it’s difficult to hold their attention for long periods of times,” Harris said. “I think especially the dreidel game was fun for them. It utilized some of their early math training.”
And it was fun for Isabelle and Seth to share their traditions with their classmates.
“She was just really happy to share with the other kids, and they’re happy to learn,” Harris said. “That’s the thing that’s good about Kaleidoscope, they’re very open to all holidays and customs. Isabelle, for one, likes to learn about all different things. That’s kind of what makes that school special.”
“I think that Seth felt very good about it,” Cotler said. “I don’t want to say he felt special, because I don’t think that was the intention. I think he was able to express to the other children, in 6-year-old terms, why it is that we do what we do.”