This year, instead of a Chanukah carnival, I envisioned something new, or rather, something very, very old. Our synagogue Religious School held a Chanukah “Oil Crush” program. In a nutshell, we made olive oil—shemen zayit—just like the Maccabees, with a commissioned replica of a Hellenistic-era olive crushing installation: crushing wheel, pivot pole (power shaft) and crushing basin. Students from Pre-K to 7th grade took turns pushing the pole to rotate the crushing wheel over fresh olives straight from the tree (ordered from California). A volunteer interpreter, in costume, guided the kids through my posters showing the 5-step progression of olives from tree to Temple, and scooped the mash into various sacks and presses to demonstrate ancient processes. My goal was to give students a hands-on reference point to the “miracle of the oil” and deepen their understanding of a holiday most families observe with chanukiyot that use wax candles.
Seeing the limestone-look crushing installation at work was a dream come true. I got the idea seven years ago, when I saw a similar machine at a local church program. I’ve been researching ancient olive oil production on and off ever since, and looking for any information on how to build working replicas of any of the equipment. Apparently, DIY 2nd century BCE technology is not in hot demand, and apparently, I’ve discovered the one topic YouTube doesn’t cover. (Chabad has an excellent franchised oil workshop, but it uses modern tools like an electric centrifuge). A friend helped me find plans for a portable crushing wheel, and when I showed them to our Director of Lifelong Learning, she jumped right in and commissioned a congregant to build it for us. (I have to say, I am very lucky in the way of supervisors. Sharon supports every idea I’ve ever expressed, and finds a way to fund all the expenses. Thank you.)
The limestone-look crushing installation was the centerpiece of our “Chanukah Oil Crush and Menorah Make ‘n’ Take,” around which Sharon and I created complementary, oil-themed activities. I do love a theme.
Students and families:
- practiced Chanukah blessings and how to light a chanukiyah;
- baked oil-based treats for our “Room in the Inn” (homeless) guest program;
- took a kosher menorah quiz (which included my DIY chanukiyot made from LEGO, a ceramic turkey and a V-8 distributor cap);
- made and ate latkes;
- decorated chanukiyot to take home;
- bobbed for sufganiyot (sufganiyah on a string game);
- bellied up to the olive oil-tasting bar to sample oil varieties from Israel and other countries.
Even our tzedakah project was oil-based: we collected funds to help local seniors with Nashville Electric Service heating bills. All of these stations were staffed by an army of volunteer grandparents, parents and friends of the school.
Did an hour and a half program and 20 lbs of California olives result in first press, shemen katit pure enough for the Temple Menorah? Not even close. But kids got 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 oil feature was not a “demonstration,” it was experimentation.
Reaction from the synagogue community has been overwhelmingly positive. Many folks have reported that it was “so much more than just a carnival.” Since I’m also the Carnival planner and station-creator, I took this compliment with a grain of kosher salt, but I get what they mean. Instead of a crazed race from themed station to themed station, and instead of prizes, kids got an educational program with classrooms traveling together, families joining in, and a wonderful hands-on Maccabee oil experience.
I don’t know how to get the word out to the Jewish Education community at large, but I’d love to share this program and see other folks make of it what they will. Holler if you can help me do this.