Today’s post is from guest writer Joanna Brichetto, Experiential Educator at Nashville’s West End Synagogue, who also runs the website Bible Belt Balabusta. Her Hanukkah program was so cool, so we were THRILLED she wanted to share this post and her amazing pictures here on our blog!
For too many years, miles and multicolored wax candles separate kids from the “miracle of the oil.” Until now.
This year, students at West End Synagogue Religious School in Nashville, got to make olive oil—shemen zayit—like Maccabees: with a life-size, working replica of a Hellenistic-era olive crushing installation, featuring a crushing wheel, pivot pole, and basin. Kids pushed the pole to rotate the “limestone” wheel over fresh olives, and scooped the mash into sacks for pressing. Meanwhile, costumed interpreters showed posters of the five-step oil production process from tree to Temple Menorah.
Underwhelming it was not!
I dreamed of bringing an olive crusher to our school for years, and looked for synagogues doing something similar, but aside from a handful of churches that host all-out Walk Through Bethlehem events, I found nothing. Chabad has an excellent franchised oil workshop, but it uses modern tools like an electric centrifuge, and I was after an experience as historically authentic as possible. I had to have a big wheel. A friend helped me track down plans for a crusher, and once I showed them to Sharon Paz, our Director of Lifelong Learning, she commissioned a congregant to build it for the school. Our 2nd century BCE replica looks remarkably like stone, and to see it is to want to work it. It is simply irresistible, which is an ideal descriptor for any lesson plan.
The crushing installation was the centerpiece of our Hanukkah “Oil Crush” program, around which rotated complementary oil-themed activities created by Sharon and myself. Students and families practiced brachot and how to light a chanukiyah; made oil-based treats for our homeless program; judged a kosher chanukiyah contest; made and ate latkes; decorated chanukiyot to take home; bobbed for sufganiyot; and nibbled at an olive oil-tasting bar. Even our tzedakah project was oil-based: we collected funds to help local seniors with heating bills.
Honestly, we didn’t end up with enough oil for a single “cruse,” much less enough to fill the Temple Menorah, but this very fact gave students a sense that it was no easy feat for Maccabees to make the massive amount of oil—of any quality—needed in a short time. Our program was more “exploration” than”“demonstration,” and we’ll certainly expand it next time. Meanwhile, a room full of families, volunteers, staff and teachers got a greasy, hands-on reference point to Hanukkah oil that no one is likely to forget.
P.S. Our Oil Crush program was funded by the West End Synagogue Religious School Enrichment Fund and the Jewish Federation of Nashville and Middle Tennessee.
Be it brie, mozzarella or feta, I, like just about everyone, love cheese.
There are so many reasons to love cheese, be it grilled between two buttery pieces of toast, cascaded over a ramekin of onion soup, shredded over a bowl of fresh-made pasta — or enjoying some of the Southern specialty known as Pimento Cheese.
But what if I told you that there was yet another reason to love cheese?
One found in the Torah, no less?
Good news, y’all!
The Hebrew word for cheese is g’vinah, and also happens to be my favorite hapax legomena of all time.
A hapax legomenon is a word that occurs only once within a context. Forgive me a second while I go completely “College Classical Civilization major” on you and explain the Greek. ἅπαξ (hapax) means “once” or “one time” and λεγόμενον (legomenon) – “the place something occurs.”
(Thanks for allowing me to geek out!)
Although the word g’vinah is widespread in Modern Hebrew – we only hear the word once in the entire Tanakh: in the book of Job. Job is pretty much a bummer book. A disgruntled Job, frustrated by the loss of just about everything, rattles off a bunch of questions, asking God why God would oppress the people who are loyal to the Almighty.
In Job 10:10, we read Job’s question: “Have you not poured me out as milk, and curdled me like cheese?”
First of all, I am loving the vivid albeit twisted imagery. But more importantly, although this word only occurs once – that doesn’t mean it is insignificant. After all, nothing in the Bible is there without reason, right? Using this image to address Job’s feelings about God shows how fascinating one’s relationship to divine presence can be. If we can have complicated feelings about this relationship, and be allowed to even question the divine, it teaches that all our relationships benefit from creative questioning.
IT’S ALSO THE ONLY TIME THE BIBLE MENTIONS CHEESE. Which is kind of cool, all on its own.
When I’m preparing to travel the South and share Jewish learning with students in even the smallest of towns, I love finding nuggets like these. It’s these fun moments of learning that keep us all interested and engaged in a tradition that always seems to have some new discovery, just waiting for us to find it.
Thanks for letting me get a little cheesy!
In this season of Thanksgivukkah, I’ve started to think a lot about cultural syncretism. I’ve come to the conclusion that, as a Jewish banjo player playing Hebrew prayers, I’m a very good example of cultural syncretism.
Cultural syncretism can be defined as combining aspects of two different and separate cultures, traditions, or belief systems. Some good examples of cultural syncretism in Jewish life would be the Passover seder being based on a royal meal in Ancient Greece, Ashkenazi challah being a Jewish take on German sweet bread, or the convenient similarities between Purim and Mardi Gras.
So how is a Jewish banjo player an ultimate example of this phenomenon? This calls for a brief history lesson:
The banjo began not in backwoods America, but in medieval Africa. During the colonial period, the banjo was brought over to the Americas by enslaved Africans who found similar materials easily available in their new environment. Soon enough, European Americans soon learned about the banjo from the enslaved African Americans, and by the mid-18th century, European Americans were touring around the country playing banjo in rural and urban settings (typically in minstrel fashion, including the infamous blackface). They also merged it with other musical traditions they were familiar with such as Irish, English, and Scottish music. Everyone was doing it!
Although the banjo waned in popularity in the early 20th century, it was re-popularized in the 1940s with the advent of bluegrass music (a combination of jazz and blues), most Jewish players of the banjo didn’t begin to learn it until the folk revival of the 1950s and 60s. And nowadays, these Jewish players also have brought the banjo into many modern Klezmer bands, combining it with our own old-time Eastern European traditions. They’ve also created their own genre – Jewgrass. Check out Lucky Break, Banjo Billy, and The Sinai Mountain Boys!
It’s one of those ideas that it is hard to wrap my head around. When I’m playing Debbie Friedman’s Havdalah on the banjo, using chords and lyrics from the handy Shireinu, I’m not combining just African and Jewish traditions. Instead, I’m really combining African, Jewish, Irish, English, Scottish, American, and Eastern European musical traditions into one.
If that’s not cultural syncretism – I’m not sure what is. Bring it on, Thanksgivukkah!