Helping children explore the story of Chanukkah is a challenge. While often taught to young Jewish children focusing on the miracle of the oil, the tale is frequently turned upside down in high school or later, at programs called, for example, “The Real Story of Chanukkah.” This model requires unlearning, and thus it does not necessarily promote long-term connection to the Chanukkah story. Instead, Chanukkah—or any other topic—should be taught in a way that is genuine, age-appropriate, and does not involve any sort of educational trickery.
As the Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati fellow for the summer of 2014 at Goldman Union Camp Institute (GUCI), I tried to answer this challenge. During second session, our educational theme was miracles, and for an all-camp experiential lesson on Chanukkah, I aimed to help our campers uncover the following big idea as an enduring understanding: The multiple interpretations of miraculous events in Jewish stories give us space meaningfully to define miracles in various ways.
The lesson centered on the commandment of pirsumei nisa (publicizing the miracle), which is supposed to be performed during Chanukkah. The essential question behind this commandment is, “What exactly is the miracle we are meant to publicize?” After all, many interpretations of the Channukah story exist, each with a different bent on what is the most important part. Depending on how one construes the story, one comes up with a different answer to the question.
Campers became “investigative journalists,” trying to determine the true miracle of Chanukkah. They interviewed four different personalities, each representing a different side of the Chanukkah story: Judah Maccabee, who said the miracle was how his family led the military victory; Marcus Jastrow, whose opinion that God led the military miracle is preserved in his lyrics to “Rock of Ages;” Rava, one of the Talmudic personalities who is involved in the discussion of the miracle of the oil; and Aharon Ze’ev, the secular Zionist who wrote “Anu Nos’im Lapidim,” an anthem that rejects the supernatural miracle entirely. By processing these positions on Chanukkah, as presented by individual people, campers encountered the idea that many interpretations of the story exist—without having to accept one as true.
Each camper then drew a picture of what he or she thought the most important scene from the story was, and he or she wrote a headline that united all four interpretations of Chanukkah. Headlines included, “Chanukkah: Miracle or Not?” or, “What’s the Real Miracle?” This was evidence that, at the very least, campers successfully grasped the idea that questioning interpretations of Jewish stories, particularly those dealing with miracles, is permissible and even expected. The program left campers with questions, rather than answers.
In the following days, campers studied other miraculous stories from Jewish tradition, including the flood and the rainbow, the splitting of the sea, the fall of the walls of Jericho, and the exploits of Elijah and Elisha. Campers were able to consider these narratives with multifaceted approaches, having already found space to question and interpret the miracle of Chanukkah in more than one way. By appreciating the many avenues to meaning within Jewish tradition, GUCI campers could form lasting connections to the Jewish people’s shared stories.
Sam Pollak is a Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati fellow who served as the Judaic Studies Director at Goldman Union Camp Institute (GUCI) this past summer.