As a Jewish parent, I tend to feel a bit gleeful in late November. No need to brave lengthy lines. No need to explain to disappointed children why chopping down a tree isn’t an eco-friendly option. Here — at last — is the upside to my childhood envy of Yuletide merriment.
Ho. Ho. Ho. (Ha! Ha!)
Yet, at just about this moment every year, I stop laughing. If my goal is to celebrate the simple, unadorned holiday of Chanukahs past, could it be that somewhere along my 10-year path of parenthood I’ve faltered? Two kids. Eight days. Sixteen presents. I know we’re not alone in this custom of delivering a wrapped surprise each night while the candles burn brightly. One close friend, who is a mother of six, shops for 48 gifts each year.
Don’t misunderstand: I’m not a Jewish Scrooge, intent on eliminating gifts. Also, to be clear, my family participates in all aspects of the holiday, celebrating light amid the darkness; rejoicing in (or at least singing about) the unlikely victory of the tiny band of Maccabees; devouring hot sufganiot, sizzling latkes, waxy chocolate coin after coin. But when Talia, 10, and her brother Joel, who is 8, begin a Chanukah morning with a discussion about gifts (as in, “is tonight a ‘good present’ night?”), I can’t help but grimace.
Last year, wondering if I could shift the emphasis slightly, we adopted a special new tradition for Night Seven, The Sibling Exchange. The rules were simple: Each child was expected to prepare or purchase a small gift for the other, in lieu of a gift from the parents. Talia, who tends to be thoughtful in these matters, and also has a higher allowance (when we remember to dole it out, which isn’t often), immediately sent away for several of Joel’s then most-coveted toys, Schleich miniature animals. Joel needed more guidance, but was eventually persuaded to buy a minty lip balm and a piece of Bazooka gum for his sister. We will be honoring this Night Seven ritual again this year — even as it kindles anxiety as well as appreciation.
It makes me wonder how other families manage. Barbara Nusbaum, a Manhattan-based psychologist whose practice often focuses on money and parenting, and is the mother of a second-grade girl, says that her family tries to devote one night of Chanukah to “giving to others through an activity.” This year, the family will light candles with an older congregant from their synagogue, The Society for the Advancement of Judaism. Nusbaum also reserves one night for a fun experience in lieu of a material gift. This year, for a third Chanukah, the family will ride a carriage through a moonlit Central Park.
Rabbi Karen Reiss Medwed, a Jewish educator who recently moved to Atlanta, says that her family aims to employ the “get one, give one rule.” For each new toy her children receive, they designate a gently used toy to give to children in need. The rabbi, like several other parents, also plans a Chanukah night of tzedakah, when the family chooses a charity for their pooled donations.
From Shawna Lafer Grossman, I learn that charity can begin at home – or in a New Jersey bagel store. Grossman, a guidance counselor and mother of three, noticed a tear in the eye of another woman on line at Livingston Bagel last month. “I knew she had been through hell,” reports Grossman, who learned that the other woman, Missy Kornbluth, a resident of Oceanside, Long Island, had lost her home in Hurricane Sandy. Grossman and her family — with the help of more than 30 other friends — collected a carload of Chanukah gifts for the Oceanside community.
It is possible, I understand, to err on the side of asceticism. Karen Gurwitz, a friend and life coach, who is also a Manhattan mother of three, says that she has been determined to retain the traditional spirit of Chanukah. But Gurwitz, who was raised in Canada by Israeli parents, also notes that she has experienced a backlash to her no-gifts policy. While her oldest child accepts the status quo, her middle child begs for presents, and her youngest, since he was 2 years old, has been asking other elevator passengers whether they are lucky enough to celebrate Christmas.
While Gurwitz is rethinking her present policy, I’m looking forward to Night Seven. Joel, however, maintains Great Expectations for the eighth night (something of Xbox Kinect magnitude, he’s thinking). I roll my eyes, and my husband Jeremy remarks: “There’s a little too much Christmas spirit here.”
Elicia Brown’s column appears the second week of the month. E-mail: email@example.com.