The juniors’ class spent the December make-up session gaining new perspective on Hanukkah, its central symbols and mythology, and the ways that members of different Jewish communities celebrate the holiday through cooking and eating. After reviewing the Hebrew letters on the dreidel and their meaning for game-play, and learning the Yiddish commands that the letters signify (for example, nun stands for “nisht,” which means nothing), students played a rousing game of dreidel and enjoyed their gelt winnings. At the game’s end, the class learned about the other holiday meaning often assigned to the letters on the dreidel–the idea that nun, gimel, hey, and shin together stand for the Hebrew phrase “Nes gadol hayah sham” or “a great miracle happened there.” Students discussed the significance of the phrase in relation to the Hanukkah narrative, learning how the story of the oil that miraculously burned for eight days instead of one was added to accounts of the ancient holiday hundreds of years after the Maccabees’ victory. This led into a great conversation about why the story might have been added and how this new information did or didn’t change students’ feelings about the holiday. One student remarked that even though the story of the miracle of the oil probably wasn’t true, it is a part of our tradition and so still an important thing to celebrate.
From here, the class moved downstairs to the kitchen and transitioned to a cooking activity. Learning about how Jewish cuisine has always varied greatly from place to place in line with regional/national variation in food-ways, climate, available ingredients, et cetera, as well as how it has always retained continuities across great distances in the way that it is shaped by kosher laws and holiday traditions, students began to prepare two different kinds of Hanukkah pancakes–latkes and keftes de prasa. Latkes, the Ashkenazi Jewish Hanukkah pancake familiar to students already, were prepared with a classic potato, egg, and onion-based recipe from a cook with roots in Jewish Eastern Europe–where potatoes and onions thrived in the cool climate. Keftes de prasa, Sephardic Jewish Hanukkah pancakes made with leeks, came from a recipe from a cook with roots in Jewish Galicia and the Middle East, where leeks are a popular savory ingredient and the spices–cinnamon, dried chili pepper–that delicately flavor the batter were historically more readily available. Students chopped, grated, measured, mixed and sauteed, and especially enjoyed frying the latkes and keftes in lots of oil to celebrate the miracle of the oil we discussed earlier in class. After diligent work the class sampled their creations, and then tried their luck at some Jewish food trivia, defining “treif,” guessing the most popular Israeli street-foods, et cetera. It was a great end to a really fun, busy lesson!