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Poor Heshvan! The eighth month of the Jewish calendar is the only one not to have a holiday or other momentous event, so it's also known as Marheshvan, whose first syllable means "bitter."
Now that we are in the middle of that "lonely" month, it's a good time to study the Jewish calendar - at least the half of it covered by this clever and entertaining piece of children's software.
The developers of the disk, which does not have to be installed, considerately allow you to choose between modern Sephardi- or Ashkenazi-accented Hebrew; there is also an option of hearing a traditional musical background as you learn and play and set the volume. You can flip manually from one screen to another (there are scores of these) as well, or have the slide show move automatically forward.
The material is divided into learning sections covering five Hebrew months and seven holidays, festivals and fast days. Click Play for 10 games - three of them accessible only if you get a good score in three multiple choice quizzes based on the study material, plus a Printing Press. Each of the Jewish months is presented with a calendar showing the various holidays and other events; the text can appear either in Hebrew or in English (but unfortunately, the calendars can't be printed out).
The differences between Israeli and Diaspora tradition and custom are also noted: Shmini Atzeret and Simhat Torah are held on the same day in Israel but separately abroad, and Israeli spinning tops are marked "a great miracle happened here" rather than the "there" in the rest of the world. There are also many photos of Israeli landscapes and people, plus an explanation that Israel is the focus for prayer for rain and Tu Bishvat tree planting. Many interesting facts about holidays, festivals and fasts are given, with some interactive spots such as a ram's horn, which can be clicked to hear the three types of Rosh Hashana shofar blasts.
Most of the games, which are challenging enough to be replayed, are innovative. For Yom Kippur, you must pile good deeds marked with numbers on one side of a balance scale to overcome the number of numbered sins you have accumulated. In another game, move the boxed names of holidays from one vertical rod to two others, making the minimum number of moves until they stand in the chronological order of observance without a larger box over a smaller one.
Tashlich, the traditional casting of sins into the water on Rosh Hashana, is turned into a game where you have to shoot black balls at floating fish and avoid the mines. One of my favorites was the challenge of dragging pieces of a succa, each miniaturized and angled, to properly form a three-dimensional booth, including the leafy boughs and decorations; if you succeed, you are treated to a virtual tour of its interior.
One of the two Hanukka games presents 88 holiday objects on the screen; working against time, you must find the last jar of oil in the Temple; at a higher level, you must locate the one perfect, sealed jar of oil among 330 broken ones. Another game rapidly presents produce; you get five points for clicking on those that require a blessing over fruit and lose five points if you click one for which Boreh Pri Ha'adama is recited. This is not as simple as it seems, as bananas, strawberries, pineapples and watermelon are halachically considered vegetables.
The Printing Press is a very useful bonus for printing out dozens of colorful, holiday-themed designs for cards and banners, as well as black-and-white designs that children can later color by hand.
Although the English-language program is clearly meant for older Diaspora children (as well as new immigrant English-speaking children in Israel), it could easily be converted to an all-Hebrew narration for Israeli pre-school through second-grade kids - not only secular ones who know little more about Hanukka than doughnuts, but also young children from observant homes.