Kids learn about olive oil, Hannukah

Tues., Dec. 4, 2007



BRIDGEPORT — Judah Maccabee may have been able to defeat a Syrian army, but was hard-pressed when it came to finding enough oil to purify a desecrated temple.

Not a problem shared by Lubavitch Rabbi Shlame Landa, who, portraying Maccabee, recently had 3-year-olds from the B'nai Israel Early Childhood Center help him make olive oil, one of the symbols at the heart of the Jewish observance of Hanukkah. The exercise took place during a program last week at the Jewish Center for Community Services on Park Avenue.

After selecting the mushiest Black Mission olives from a basket, the preschoolers watched Landa squeeze the juice, then give it a spin in a centrifuge.

The distilled olive oil that rose to the top of the thin, narrow tubes were used — with the help of cotton wicks — to light a menorah, or eight-branched candelabrum that is central to Hanukkah, an eight-day Jewish festival that starts at sundown today.

"It brings the holiday to life" for the youngsters, Landa said. "Judaism is something to experience. They won't forget lighting the menorah or making their own olive oil."

More than 150 children attended the workshop over a two-day span.

Landa said it is the first of several activities that he and his wife, Miriam, hope to offer the community. The couple, from Brooklyn, N.Y., is moving to Fairfield with their 2-month-old daughter, Mushky, in two weeks and plan to establish Chabad of Fairfield. His branch of Judaism seeks to make the religion more accessible.

"It's important that religion is fun. It strengthens their desire to participate and be part of it," said Landa, adjusting the straps of his "Maccabee" helmet.

The Maccabees were a small Judean army that in 167 B.C. managed a successful revolt against the Seleucid empire.

Hanukkah, also known as the Festival of Lights, celebrates not only the miraculous ability of a small vile of olive oil to last for eight days, but also the survival of the Jewish people nearly 2,000 years ago.

Most of the Maccabee helpers in Landa's audience had no problem marching like soldiers.

Some of the tykes even guessed that olives grow on trees.

A few thought the centrifuge used to distill the oil seemed a lot like their mom's washing machines.

All could count to eight — not once, but several times — as they waited for the juice from the olives to start pouring from the wooden press.

"Remember, Maccabees never give up," Landa said when it seemed the juice would never appear.

"Oh, here it comes," said Alexa Cohen, one of the B'nai Israel teachers. Other teachers included Bobbie Gross, Jill Ellen and Elicia Kusnitz.

The pint-sized volunteers — whether they pressed, poured or counted — got sticker badges making them honorary Maccabees and thin slabs of beeswax that they quickly rolled into candles.

"I thought it was wonderful," said Gross, one of the B'nai Israel teachers. "They really enjoyed it. It was a good thing to do."