In the middle of the school day on Feb. 3, students at Bruriah Girls High in Elizabeth deserted their classrooms and flooded into the gym.
Bunting fluttered overhead, and everywhere one looked there were booths offering all kinds of games and contests and an array of foods, from cholent and kugel to waffles with chocolate sauce.
Students called out like boardwalk barkers inviting passers-by to test their knowledge of Hebrew — which the girls learn from their first year at the schools of the venerable Orthodox Jewish Educational Center network — as well as Russian, Spanish, French, and German, which are offered from ninth grade, and Yiddish, an elective available in the senior year.
This was Bruriah’s first language fair. The teachers challenged the students in each of their classes to come up with word games and contests, a chance to write letters or count, and foods associated with the languages they are learning.
Assistant principal Shlomis Peikes organized the event at the behest of principal Marcy Stern.
“When Mrs. Stern suggested that we have a language festival, we thought at first about having displays featuring some aspect of the cultures of the different countries,” said Peikes. “But how long does anyone want to read a passage of text or listen for — two minutes? So we decided to do it this way instead.”
Mushroom-shaped gumballs were offered at a Russian booth, with a maze featuring questions about Russian geography, history, and culture. Eleventh-grader Shevi Gold of Passaic explained that mushroom-picking is a popular activity in Russia.
“We have a girl in our class who is fluent in Russian,” she said. “She told us children there grow up knowing which mushrooms are safe and which ones aren’t.”
Shevi’s great-grandparents came from Russia, and she said she remembers her grandmother speaking Russian. She isn’t quite up to conversational level yet, she said, but she is enjoying the feeling of recapturing something from her family’s roots.
At another Russian section, the students were playing a version of “Operation,” Yiddish style. Cholent and kugel were being served at a table, with a traditional Shabbat dinner setting and two servers wearing streimels, the fur hats favored by some fervently Orthodox movements. At a Hebrew booth there were baby clothes to assemble, all labeled appropriately.
At one of the Spanish booths, girls made jewelry, choosing their bead colors by name. At another, students played a kind of spin-the-wheel vocabulary game featured on a SMARTBoard, drawing off rainbow-bright computerized images assembled by tech-savvy teacher Claudia Tabor.
She was assisted at the booth by 11th-grader Brit Yitzhak, who said something echoing comments by students all around the room — that their regular classes are also built around games and play — even if not quite at the level of those at the fair. “We have fun,” she said.
“I think that is how lessons should be,” said “Senora” Tabor as she turned to “spin” her virtual wheel again. “They learn much more if they’re having fun.”