Chanukah in Swedish

In just a few days, Chanukah, the Jewish festival of lights, will start. I wrote this piece sometime in 2004 but since its that time again I thought I would put it up now. A few things have changed since I wrote it. My son is no longer in 1st grade but in his last year of school before going on to college next fall. We eventually did do a presentation of Passover when he was in 4th or 5th grade, which was a big success. The Swedish Church has now been separated from the state and is trying to figure out how to survive in this very secular country. In the spring, Bevin will have a course called “Religion”. We’ll see just how multi-cultural the class will be. Maybe Bevin will have to give a talk about his religion once again.

Moving from the United States to a land like Sweden is often fraught with surprises. Of course one expects to find differences – the language for instance, or foods like Falukorv and Tunbrödsrullar, and Lutfisk. Clothing and shoe sizes are different and so are the measuring cups. Remember the metric system that the states spent 30 years trying to introduce and failed? Well it’s here, in use every day. And don’t forget the price of gasoline – 4 dollars a gallon! And how about liqueur stores open on Saturday night so you can buy a last minute bottle of wine for the dinner party you just got invited too? Well, forget it! But overall, there are a lot of similarities too. Cars drive on the right side of the road. Traffic lights are red, yellow, and green. The Big Macs taste the same. So do the Kellogg’s Corn Flakes. TV shows from the States are all in English as long as they are for people over the age of 7 or 8. You can watch British Masterpiece Theater programs (often before they arrive in the States) though they are not called Masterpiece Theater here. The clothes people wear are often produced in the Far East and lots of the toys are made in China. Barbie is easily available and so are potato chips and microwave popcorn. Its when you find differences in areas you didn’t expect that you get surprised.

For instance – Sweden is a country with a State Church and a State Religion! Coming from the States where separation of Church and State is simply taken for granted, the fact that I had to specifically ask not to be included as a member of Svenska kyrkan came as a big surprise to me. When my son started first grade in the local Swedish school near us I discovered that Joseph, Mary, Jesus, and Christmas in general was on the curriculum. The teacher read the class all about the journey to Bethlehem and Jesus’ birth. The kids were encouraged to draw pictures of the wise men and the crib etc. No big deal really, if it wasn’t for the fact that my son and I are Jewish. I found that what bothered me was not the fact that the teacher was teaching the Christian Religion but rather the one-sidedness of it. While my son’s school is a large inner city school and not a suburban school with a high immigrant population mix, his class is absolutely not all “pure Swedish” and she definitely was not teaching a course in Comparative Religions. I decided it was my job to balance out the information the children were receiving in their classroom. I approached his teacher and explained that since we were Jewish, we celebrated another holiday, called Chanukah, in December instead of Christmas. I asked her if we could come in and give a presentation of that holiday to the class. She was totally in favor of it and we decided on a day and a time.

I prepared carefully. I wrote a short 10-15 minute presentation of the holiday in my best Swedish and for safety’s sake had an American friend who edits magazines here in Swedish go over it for me. Good thing too. My written Swedish left a lot to be desired and definitely needed the help. Most of my son’s classmates are used to my “charming” Swedish but I wasn’t about to give a formal presentation, in front of their teacher, using my “interesting” way of speaking. I wrote out the blessings over candles in Hebrew, English and Swedish. I also prepared a page with all the Hebrew characters that are on the Dreidal, or top, that we play with at Chanukah and an explanation of what they mean. When the day came, I arrived at the classroom with my speech, a small Menorah with candles, 5 Dreidels with 5 explanation sheets (good for a class of 25 kids), a picture book about Chanukah in English (always good to have visual speaker support), a big box of raisins, and enough pepperkakor (gingerbread cookies) in the shapes of Menorahs, Dreidels, and Jewish stars for the entire class.

The teacher, Elizabeth, offered me “The Green Chair” which is where anyone sits who has something to say to the class. She introduced me (though the kids already all know me) and Bevin and I began. We told the story. Then we lit the candles, saying the prayers in both Hebrew and Swedish. We then divided the class into groups of 5 and passed out the Dreidels and raisins (each kid getting the same number of raisins to start with). They had lots of fun learning the Hebrew letters and winning raisins. Last but not least they each got a cookie. The class was a major success and Bevin felt very proud sharing a bit of his life with his classmates.

This coming spring, when the teacher covers Easter, we will do the same thing with Passover.

I think it’s a good thing to expose the children to the idea that the world is multi-cultural and you don’t necessarily have to go very far to find it. Sometimes you can find it right in your own classroom.

One Response to “Chanukah in Swedish”

  • Alison Says:

    This looks like the way all the schools here did it when we were young – Christmas pageants, Christmas artwork, Christmas carols, Christmas parties. It was just assumed then that everybody celebrated Christmas.

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