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Bees Add Buzz to Rosh Hashana Lesson

Youngsters at Temple Beth Shalom see firsthand how the holiday's traditional honey comes to table.

For many, Times Square is the place to be on New Year’s Eve. But at Temple Beth Shalom the other day, several score children learned the bee, too, has a place in welcoming in a new year.

Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, will be celebrated for two days, beginning Sunday evening this year, and as always honey will be a central part of the observance. “Honey is a traditional Rosh Hashana food,” Rabbi Eytan Hammerman of Temple Beth Shalom, located in Mahopac, points out. “Our wish is that the coming year not just be a happy year, but a sweet year. And there’s nothing sweeter than honey.”   

Hammerman regularly looks for imaginative ways to instill in the religious school’s students not only the rich traditions of the Jewish calendar but also the experiences associated with them. So, he asked a beekeeper to discuss the origins of that syrupy staple of the Rosh Hashana table.

For the better part of an hour last Wednesday, some 60 youngsters sat in rapt attention as Mike Bruen and a supporting cast of thousands spelled out the bee’s role in turning yesterday’s flower nectar into this Sunday’s dressing on traditional apple slices.

A third-generation beekeeper, Bruen owns White Oak Apiary in Brewster where, among other things, he conducts classes on the inner workings of an apiary, or “bee farm.” At Temple Beth Shalom, the centerpiece of his talk was a plexiglass-enclosed beehive, where thousands of its inhabitants surrounded their queen.

The students, from homes on both sides of the Punam/Westchester border, sat clustered in arcs before Bruen. Ranging from 6 to 12 in age (and far beyond that in curiosity), they first listened politely, then questioned energetically. “They could have probably asked questions for two hours,” Hammerman said.

Q. Where does honey come from?

A. “From the nectar of flowers,” Bruen tells them. Bees collect the sugar-rich nectar and bring it back to the hive. Working as a group, they process and store it in the honeycomb, which is left unsealed. To prevent fermentation, worker bees fan their wings to encourage evaporation. That reduces the nectar’s high water content and, as a result, increases its sugar concentration. Later, a beekeeper harvests the honey. "When all the honey falls out," Bruen said, "we bottle it."

Q. Do bees sleeps?

A. “They do take catnaps, inside the honeycomb.”

Q. How many eggs does a queen bee lay?

A. “Three-thousand or more in a day.”

Q. What happens when the queen bee dies?

A. “It’s called rehiving. They [the worker bees] are going to take the old queen with them and move to a new hive.” As the queen’s pheromones falter with age, other bees move to replace her, creating a new queen from a worker egg.

Q. Are there any king bees?

A. “Right here,” Bruen says in a c’est moi moment, before truthfully answering, “No.”

And on it went until Hammerman was forced to call a halt. The rabbi was pleased with his young students’ enthusiastic participation. “My favorite part,” he said, “was the sheer quantity of the questions.”

In his quest to “make life as interactive and experiential as possible” for the students, Hammerman has also led the building of a matzoh oven in a corner of the parking lot. “We’ve made our own matzoh for Passover in our own oven,” he said.

In addition, Hammerman recalled, “we marched and lit up the night on Chanukah.”

“What I really try to do is make our educational experience as memory-filled as possible,” he said.

Q. Why?

A. “So the kids will get closer to their tradition and their heritage.”

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