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To Gift or Not To Gift

To Gift or Not To Gift

A Chanukah debate


When I was growing up, Chanukah celebrations were all about playing dreidel, baking latkes and lighting brightly colored candles. How times have changed! These days, holiday observance requires several jaunts to Toys"R"Us and an entire trunk laden with packages from the mall. Aside from emptying our pocketbooks, this practice makes the holiday feel more like the festival on the secular calendar around this time of year, and less like the Jewish festival of lights.

My Chanukah panic sets in even before the Hebrew month of Kislev arrives. Weeks before the holiday begins, my friends and family are already comparing notes on their fabulous finds. Every year, I have to remind myself not to fall into the trap of out-of-control gift-giving just to keep up with the over-commercialized Goldberg's or to make the holiday fun. Distributing gelt (traditionally, a small amount of money), after all, is more authentic to Chanukah tradition than giving gifts.

All the gift hype surrounding the festival of lights gives me pause to wonder: when exactly did the victory of the Maccabees and the miracle of the oil turn into an excuse for conspicuous consumption?

What children remember most about a holiday celebration are not the giftsChanukah has always posed a particular challenge for Jewish parents because it arrives around the same time as a certain secular holiday that is surrounded by an inordinate amount of music, lights and action. Some feel they need to compensate by a lavish eight night gala of extravagant gift-giving.

But, more often than not, what children remember most about a holiday celebration are not the gifts but the positive memories their parents create. A present is quickly unwrapped and soon forgotten. But the sensation of being in a home filled with guests, joy and the aroma of freshly baked latkes may last forever.

When you consider the meaning of Chanukah, it's about the Jewish struggle to maintain observance within a non-Jewish world. The Maccabees' victory was not just a military triumph but a win over assimilation as they succeeded in preserving the Jewish tradition. Chanukah presents a wonderful opportunity to convey the message of maintaining a strong identity despite outside pressures.

So why not celebrate this holiday by looking at it through the prism of Jewish tradition, rather than comparing it to other festivals?

There are dozens of activities that can enhance your Chanukah celebration while emphasizing that the Jews remained true to their heritage in an era when it was more hip to be Greek.

  • Beautify. In our house, we start creating the Chanukah mood a week or two in advance of the holiday. I get out the Chanukah box filled with homemade decorations featuring menorahs and Maccabees that the children made in previous years, dating all the way back to their preschool careers. We hang them up in our windows and around the candle-lighting area. After all, publicizing the miracle is a big part of celebrating Chanukah.
  • Light. Every child lights their own (often homemade) menorah. We place them in the window for the whole world to observe. Seeing an army of beautiful menorahs lit up against the dark night elicits a sense of pride and is a reminder that we should be a beacon of light to the world.
  • One way to show children the beauty of the holiday is by sharing it with friends and relativesParty. I pull out my phone book and start inviting. One of the best ways to show children the beauty of the holiday is by sharing it with friends and relatives. Some children may find it particularly meaningful if you invite people who would not ordinarily observe the holiday so they will feel an extra responsibility to spread the joy.
  • Cook. We head to the kitchen where we cook potato latkes, and if we are particularly ambitious, sufganiot – donuts – with powdered sugar. (Unseasoned cooks and children may want to use a latke mix and buy their donuts from the local bakery.) In our family, we often make several variations of the latke recipe and then have a taste test. One of my friends holds a latke cook-off among her relatives, with the winner earning the ceremonial latke spatula. In other homes, a variety of deep fried foods are cooked up and consumed, including borekas (phylo dough stuffed with potato or mushroom) or Moroccan sfing (donuts).
  • Play. At my children's Chanukah parties, everyone makes their own menorah out of marshmallows, licorice, chocolate and pretzels. They also play dreidel using pennies as the reward and hold a vigorous game of Greeks vs. Jews dodgeball.
  • Fun. One of my friends holds a "Mystery Maccabee" project in which everyone picks the name of a family members from a hat so that they only need to buy a gift for that person. At their annual Chanukah party, everyone has fun guessing who got whose gift.
  • Teach. In the midst of all the fun and games, many people utilize Chanukah as an opportunity to teach their children to think of others who are less fortunate. One way to do this is by encouraging them to donate one of their gifts or some of their gelt to sick or needy children. Other philanthropic options are donating non-perishable items to a local food pantry or volunteering in a soup kitchen.

At the end of eight days, Chanukah is all about bringing together family, festival and authentically Jewish memories. Not to mention those mouth-watering latkes.

Editor's Note: Upon seeing this article, Deena's sixth grade son, Yehudah Fuksbrumer, decided to write the following rebuttal. Use the comment section below to weigh in with your opinion!

To Gift or not To Gift? - The Rebuttal

By Yehudah Fuksbrumer

There's been some talk over the past few years about making Chanukah more meaningful by not distributing gifts. But I disagree. I believe that parents should buy their children Chanukah presents. Lots of them.

What could make you more proud of being Jewish than getting a lot of Chanukah gifts?Some people think you shouldn't give Chanukah gifts because it ruins the whole point of Chanukah – which is to remember the miracle of how the oil in the Temple stayed lit for eight days even though there was barely enough left for one day. But here are a few reasons why I believe that giving gifts on Chanukah makes the holiday more special.

Chanukah is not just about remembering the Chanukah miracle but about being proud to be Jewish. What could make you more proud of being Jewish than getting a lot of Chanukah gifts? It might even encourage non-Jews to convert to Judaism when they see us getting eight nights worth of gifts!

Chanukah is a happy holiday. We are very happy that the Maccabees defeated the Greeks. But we are even happier when we get gifts.

Then, there's the economy. If everybody runs to the mall and buys a lot of presents, that will boost the economy even more than President Obama's stimulus plan. And in the process, you'll make your child's Chanukah a whole lot better.

Some people have suggested donating gifts to the poor or sick on Chanukah. I agree that that's a nice idea which can be made possible if we get new gifts on Chanukah. Then we can give all of our old toys to the poor without missing any of them.

Finally, Chanukah gifts can actually bring your family closer together. For example, if your Aunt Zelda, who you don't really like, buys you a new cell phone or Blackberry for Chanukah, you might actually start texting or calling her more.

Now that would be a Chanukah miracle!

(Yehudah Fuksbrumer is a sixth grader from New Jersey.)

Deena Yellin is a reporter at a daily newspaper in New Jersey. Her work has been published in The Jerusalem Post, Newsday and The New York Times.
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Nancy Remus LHP, Fl. via December 8, 2010

Dec. 8th LHP Lighthouse A'Glow This evening I was given my first Chanukah Menorah from Rabbi Tzvi and Shana Dechter. As soon as I walked into the house I began assembling it. I said the Blessing, that was on the candle box. I lit the candles. Sorry I missed each day candle lightning. I proudly display my Chanukah Menorah next to my nativity scene. Your web site was informative. Thank you for sharing your faith, so I may be a part of community understanding through God's love. I sincerly hope you come to more public holiday outings. Thank you for the special gift. You touched my heart with joy. God bless you and "Tradition".
Happy Chanukah
Nancy Remus Reply

Anonymous Haslet, TX December 8, 2010

To Gift or to Not Gift How about a balance? When we celebrate Chanukah, we start out focusing on the meaning of it and the miracles. We do not give a gift the first night, we light the menorah, we eat our latkes, roasts, blintzes etc.....and then we play dreidel with lots of candy. My children only get a few small gifts 3-4 nights. I don't like how it has become such a competition with the other secular holiday this time of year. My children's favorite part of Chanukah is lighting the menorah and watching/guessing which candle will go out first/last, the food, the parties and playing dreidel till 10:30pm all 8 nights!! Reply

Fran Toronto, Canada December 8, 2010

Chanukah Gift Giving I really enjoy Chabad's parenting columns and this one was no exception. I also use the website as a resource in my role as a preschool teacher in a multi-faith environment. I myself am a practising Christian and as such I do take exception to Deena's inference that Christmas is a secular holiday. It is in fact the second most important holiday of the Christian year. Christians also have to fight the battle of retaining the religous meaning of our holiday in an increasingly secular world. I was very pleased and inspired by Deena's suggestions on how to divert the focus of the holidays from gift giving to something more meaningful in the long term and I believe that many nominal Christians could take a lesson from Deena on this. But I also agree with Yehudah. Kids love to get presents and they are also symbols of the gifts and miracles given to us by our creator at this special time of year. Reply

Anonymous December 8, 2010

Gifts We can not ignore kids' desires to have fun stuff. It depends on the parents point of view if they can, want, can afford or are willing to fullfill those desires or wishes.

In my opinion, Its ok to act and give 'rewards', guelt, gifts or material stuff to kids when they understand the value and they perform good in their lifes.

Kids are only kids once, give them. Chance to enjoy and make sure to give yourselves to them, that's what they appreciate the most. Reply

Avital Miami, FL December 8, 2010

no gifts necessary! As someone who grew up celebrating a (VERY) secular version of Xmas (I'm now an Orthodox convert), I can say from experience that receiving gifts on holidays does not make them more memorable. In the middle of all the excitement, of COURSE any young child wants presents. But that joy is limited. Children can absorb much more than we give them credit for, and if we saturate their youth with meaning and not momentary thrill of toys, they will remember that for the rest of their lives. Reply

Michael ben Joseph La Porte, Texas December 8, 2010

Chanukah We always play dreidel for Geld. Instead of presents, each night the winner is given a gift, usually Torah related. Reply

Anonymous LA, CA December 8, 2010

Great Articles BS"D

I enjoyed both the article and the clever rebuttal. I think many of the comments are nit picky! I commend you both, mother and son, on shedding light on an important topic. Deena, thank you for the helpful tips for Chanukah. Yehudah, you are a talented writer! I understood that you wrote the rebuttal tongue in cheek and I know that deep down the latkes are your favorite part of the holiday, right? A freilechen Chanukah to all! Reply

Anonymous toronto, ontario/canada December 7, 2010

Wow. The kid has some some good I really confused! Reply

Malka WLaf, IN December 6, 2010

An X on Xmas? I did not miss the meaning/intent of the larger article, but I must admit that I found it a bit difficult to concentrate on the author's point after reading the phrase " ... the festival on the secular calendar around this time of year."

I suppose that the word choice is very slightly different in meaning than "a secular festival," but really! A little respect? Reply

Bill Victor Rockville Centre, ny/usa December 14, 2009

Chanukah andd gifts To :Yehudah:

I enjoyed and appreciate your thoughts in your recent outstanding publication. Reply

Levana Kerrville, TX December 12, 2009

Compromise My husband and I enjoy buying each other Hanukkah gifts, but we keep it very minimal. We have a $20 budget with which to buy eight gifts for the other person. It challenges us to be creative and thoughtful. For eight days, while we celebrate the miracle of the oil and the light, we also honor each other with small but meaningful tokens. In this context, a simple candy bar or a silly air freshener for the car takes on a bigger meaning. If we ever have children, I think we would choose to do this, in lieu of a smörgåsbord of greed and materialism. Reply

Karen Livingston, NJ December 12, 2009

Chanukah Gifts When my children were young, they each had a small gift every night. The total of their gifts over the 8 nights was usually less than $50.

At any rate, they love the holiday and tell me their favorite thing is lighting he menorah and making latkes. I am proud of the fact that they feel this way. Reply

Tone Lechtzier Brothers, OR US December 12, 2009

Gifts Shalom,
one of the greatest gifts bestowed
upon me,was born from the wisdom & experience of my father, Saul. He, and his eight brothers, were defiled by the generosity of my grand father, Abraham. A university education was paid for each, and upon graduation, gelt of $20,000. each.
Fortunes in the early 19th century.
None utilized their degrees, my father confessed he did it for the reward. His brothers, and their families were/are indeed defiled, as pointed out by Saul, and illustrated by them.
Only my father had [ thank G-d ] the wisdom not to defile me. Instead, setting my feet
firmly on G-d's path. This was extremely hard for
him, as he was a very wealthy man.
Toys that children desire, if not given in
moderation, lead to adults that focus on adult toys.
& possessions, rather than G-d. It is a fine line
between giving & spoiling.
Blessings & Happy Chanukah Reply

Sophie Studio City, CA December 11, 2009

I agree but... I'm 43 and like you, the Holidays were more about people than gifts and "having" to give when I was a cild - or a young adult for that matter. However, you must remember that A LOT OF PEOPLE DO NOT HAVE THE FINANCES TO BUY EVEN 1 PRESENT FOR THEIR IMMEDIATE FAMILY MEMBERS RIGHT NOW! So writing an article about going your going all out and buying without looking at the checkbook balance seems somewhat selfish and more about complaining than about a genuine wish for the return of all the things that used to make the holidays and the "festival of lights" special. Reply

Denise Graab Redwood City, CA December 10, 2009

Thank you for your articlel! I came across your article (via Twitter) thereafter, and appreciate the insights you shared.

Thank you! Reply

ChanaLeiba Tarshis New York, NY December 10, 2009

You "Cheapened" The Article By Adding Rebuttal If this child's thoughts are any indication of a yeshiva education, the Jewish people are in bigger trouble than I thought. Adding the rebuttal was poor editorial judgement and is what I refer to with friends as"pathologically
haimish". C'mon Chabad...what were you thinking??? Reply

Mairiam Stockton, CA December 10, 2009

Did the Syrian-Greeks buy gifts? I was so happy to read Deena Yellin's message ...until I got to the part of "fun" and "only need to buy a gift..." Whey would we want to merge with a secular celebration at all? I was not brought up Jewish but grew up with Halloween and Santa Claus and Easter Bunnies. I am now coming to learn about our Jewish tresures that I missed out on as a child. The secular world is like grocery shopping at the Seven-Eleven Quick Mart while the Jewish life is as rich as grocery shopping at the Whole Foods Market....there is no comparison! The child's rebuttal tells a sad tale of how we have traded our crown of glory for bubble gum. Time to side with the Maccabees and let out light shine! Reply

Lilly December 10, 2009

rebuttal the rebuttal made MUCH more sense when I noticed it was a child. Perfect child logic, except for asking for a Blackberry. I'm 30 years old and I don't even have one of those yet. Reply

Michael Atlanta, GA December 10, 2009

The rebuttal was from a child, Malka Malka commented concerning the rebuttal "I'm glad he was never one of my sons' teachers."

Please keep in mind that the rebuttal is from a 6th grader. Taking that into consideration, I would say it was pretty good. I like the approach of the author though. She gave us some "food for thought". Reply

Malka Miami, Florida December 10, 2009

rebuttal? I loved all the points that Deena Yellin made about NOT giving Chanukah gifts, points that I have made very often throughout my life to my children, co-workers, and friends. However, the rebuttal, was quite odd, in my eyes. I'm only hoping it was a joke, the type of joke best left for the festival of Purim, not Chanukah.I'm glad he was never one of my sons' teachers. It would have undone much of the groundwork for a proper Chanukah celebration that I've trying to impart for so many years. Best wishes for a lichtdik (bright) festival of lights (and gelt, not gifts...) Reply

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