Chanukah lights burn bright at Berkeley workshop

Yehuda Maccabee enters the courtyard fresh from battle, his helmet and sword shining in the midday sun. Surrounded by a curious crowd of children, he places handfuls of ripe, black olives into an old wooden press. The oil that he produces, and there won't be much, will be enough to light a chanukiah for eight days.

This scene, recalling the Jerusalem of more than 2,000 years ago, actually took place at the Berkeley Richmond Jewish Community Center's Chanukah Fair on Sunday.

Yehuda Maccabee, aka Rabbi Yehuda Ferris, director of the Berkeley Chabad House, led a series of hands-on workshops. Children learned how to make olive oil, roll candles from beeswax and form dreidels out of clay. They also listened to Chanukah stories and sang songs inside Ferris' Chanukah Dreidel House, a 12-foot high dreidel-shaped clubhouse. And they ate latkes.

For the past three years, Ferris and his wife, Miriam, have been taking their Chanukah show on the road to teach East Bay children about the history and traditions behind the holiday. "It's taking Judaism out of the mystique of the gift shops, the packages, the commercialism and bringing it into the realm of their own world," Ferris said as he adjusted his toga. "They can say `I was inside a dreidel' and look at Judaism from the inside out."

Miriam Ferris views the Chanukah workshop as an antidote to the "December Dilemma," a response to a time when most kids are standing in line to meet Santa Claus.

"When [tradition] is taken from the concept to the physical, when children are actually doing — these are the kinds of things that make an impression on children," she said. "They come away with a stronger sense of who they are at a time when there's a lot of competition from the commercial realm."

Rabbi Ferris' main modus operandi is to dupe children into thinking they're being entertained when in fact they're actually learning the history of Chanukah. It would be enough, perhaps, to simply describe the way Jews, in the era of Alexander the Great, made oil for their menorot. But Ferris actually demonstrates the process, using locally grown olives from Arcadia.

Of course, not everything can be done exactly the way it was in ancient times — for example, Ferris uses a centrifuge to separate the oil from the olive juice– but the kids forgive these slight historical inaccuracies and relish the opportunity to watch test tubes spin around at mach speed.

"Cool," was 9-year-old Zack Davis' succinct response to the rabbi's enthusiastic demonstration. "I've never seen olives being pressed."

The workshops also present children with an opportunity to get messy.

Benjamin Dorfman, age 6, pulverized a large hunk of rust-colored clay into something resembling a dreidel.

"It's fun because you get to shape a lot," he reported. "Also, you get lots of treats and you get to eat latkes."

In a small number of cases, the bells and whistles just weren't loud enough to get children involved. That's when Ferris employed one of the most ancient coaxing techniques: bribery.

"Everyone into the Dreidel House for story time," Ferris would announce. Seeing few children remaining outside, he added, "There's gelt inside." It worked.

Parents seem to approve of Ferris' methods. "There's no doubt [Ferris] talks to them," said Berkeley resident Robbi Simons, who attended the Chanukah Fair with 5-year-old daughter Renee. "How many rabbis would dress up as Yehuda Maccabee?"

Ferris is willing to go as far as it takes to do what he calls "spreading the light. People are burrowing inwards, and pretty soon, God forbid, the traditions will disappear."

Israeli Ayelet Hochman, age 11, has spent the last three years living in San Francisco. Even amid the festive atmosphere of the Chanukah fair she expressed a longing for spending this time of year back home.

"In Israel, there are huge parties everywhere and every window has a light," Hochman explained. "Here, you don't see many menorahs in windows."

Which is precisely why Ferris said Chabad celebrates Chanukah so visibly.

"The reason Chabad has a menorah on its front lawn is to bring Jews out of the closet," Ferris said. "If you have something good, you have to share it."