Hands-on holiday story

History: Rabbi Hillel Baron uses costumes and activities to teach about the Jewish holiday.

December 19, 2003|By Rona S. Hirsch | Rona S. Hirsch,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

It could have been a droll lecture on the story of Hanukkah.

But when Rabbi Hillel Baron put on a toga, Roman helmet and shield, children and teachers moved closer as the director of Columbia's Lubavitch Center for Jewish Education brought the story to life.

Baron, who spoke Wednesday to the preschool and kindergarten pupils at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, discussed how Judas Maccabaeus led the successful Jewish revolt in 164 B.C. against the Syrian-Greek regime that governed Israel.

The rabbi then shed his warrior look for priestly garb to describe how the temple in Jerusalem had been defiled and that the high priest found only a jar of sealed olive oil, enough to light the temple menorah for one day.

Wearing a tunic and tall, white hat with a gold band, Baron squeezed large olives in an olive press to demonstrate the tedious process of making olive oil. He then helped children create oil menorahs, also called chanukiahs, out of brick slabs that he smeared with tile adhesive.

"It was fabulous," said Barbara Cohen, assistant principal of Baltimore Hebrew College day school. "The process is hands-on. The explanation is brief and clear, and he gets everyone involved. It's visual, attractive and fun, and it grabs their attention. It's what you want."

For weeks, the rabbi has given Hanukkah presentations to nearly 10 Hebrew schools and Jewish day schools in Howard County and Baltimore. "I prepared 450 menorahs this year," Baron said.

The rabbi also leads an annual children's shofar-making workshop for the High Holidays and a Passover matzo-baking factory at the Lubavitch Center.

"He does programming with our kids every year," said Ilene Dackman-Alon, director of preschool at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation. "It gives the children hands-on experience to learn about their identity."

The focus of Baron's Hanukkah presentation is on the olive oil, which is used by many Jews to light the menorah.

"Hanukkah is much more than a celebration of a military victory," Baron said. "We look at it as a celebration of spirituality. That is represented by the lights of the menorah, the traditional olive oil used and the devotion to God's commandments even under challenging circumstances.

"The thrust of my program is to demonstrate the place of the olive oil in Hanukkah. That's what the whole miracle is about - so that they would have enough time to prepare the traditional pure olive oil as required by the religious laws of the temple."

Although candles are more commonly used, Baron said they do not amply convey the holiday's significance. "The olive oil is central to the theme of Hanukkah because it represents the triumph of spirituality over materialism," Baron said."Oil represents spirituality and wisdom, and that most often comes out of adversity and challenges. When we are challenged or pressed, oftentimes it brings out the best in us."

Hanukkah, which is Hebrew for "dedication" is also called the Festival of Lights. The observance includes the nightly lighting of the menorah, adding a light each night.

The holiday commemorates the victory of the Maccabees (Hebrew for "hammers") over the Syrian-Greeks who sought to assimilate Jews into the Hellenist culture. They cleansed the temple. It was rededicated on the 25th day of the Hebrew month of Kislev. The vial of pure olive oil they found burned for eight days, the time needed to make more oil.

"I love that story," kindergartner Sophie Sall said.

As he began speaking, the rabbi put on his costume: a shield emblazoned with "Judah Maccabee" and a red cape. "That's what Judas and the other Maccabees wore when they needed to scare off the mean soldiers who came to mess up the temple," Baron said.

Once the Maccabees entered the temple, they "took off their soldiers' outfit and got to work," Baron said. "They started cleaning so it should be beautiful."

Baron then put on the priestly clothes, including an apron with bells. "It had bells on the bottom so everyone would know the high priest was coming to light," he said."It was the very first bell-bottoms."

Displaying a crate of handpicked olives, Baron explained why it took days to make new olive oil. "It takes a long time to fill a crate like this," he said. "Each olive grows on the tree by itself, not in bunches like bananas. You don't shake the olive trees because that will break the olives. It takes a lot of work and a lot of pickers. It takes at least 1,000 olives to fill a box."

After the children picked the olives and dropped them into a bucket, Baron turned the press. "You can sometimes hear the olives groaning while they're being squeezed," he said."They're kvetching. That's Yiddish for `complaining.'"

The press produced half a glass of dark olive juice. "We need to let it stay for a while until the oil comes to the top," Baron said. "In the days of the Hanukkah story, they had to let it stay for days until oil came to the top in the barrels."

The children then crafted menorahs to fill with olive oil and cotton wicks, and decorated them with colorful pebbles."Look, I'm finished," said Lance Morris of Ellicott City, who proudly held up his menorah. "Look at mine."

Melanie Gorelik plans to add the menorah to her collection. "I have two menorahs now," she said. "But I am going to use the one I made now."

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