Gift of Chanukah


To my husband, Larry, it’s “Project Yankee Doodle,” a circa-1960 rocket launcher made by Remco Toys.

To me, it’s a generic plastic pickup truck.

We’re talking favorite childhood Chanukah presents. And while Larry also recalls a toy robot and battalions of Army men, the truck remains the favorite — and only — Chanukah gift embedded in my memory.

“That’s it? That’s all you remember?” my mother asks.

I nod my head guiltily.

Perhaps I remember it because of the circumstances — a hastily purchased gift, one that I was allowed to select myself at Doden’s Drug Store en route to my grandparents’ house.

Perhaps I remember it because of the context — in 1956, in Davenport, Iowa, girls didn’t play with, let alone own, toy trucks.

As the mother of four boys and the chief shopper, wrapper and often exchanger of almost two-decades worth of Chanukah gifts, I feel my mother’s chagrin.

And, payback being an inevitable part of parenting, I feel my own.

“What’s your all-time favorite Chanukah gift?” I mistakenly ask my sons.

“I remember when I was 5 and got stuck with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles girl action figure, April O’Neal, because all the good ones were sold out,” Zack, 20, says.

“I don’t know,” Jeremy, 15, says.

“I don’t really like Chanukah presents,” Danny, 13, admits.

Only Gabe, 17, who will be visiting his girlfriend in Boston over winter break, responds positively: “My airplane ticket, of course.”

But here’s the up side. Far greater than that little truck — and the furry slippers, scarf and mitten sets, books and phonograph records that I undoubtedly received — was another gift: a love of Chanukah and a love of being Jewish.

“How did you do that?” I ask my mother.

This is important to Larry and me. We want to ensure that we have Jewish grandchildren, although — and I can’t emphasize this strongly enough — not yet.

And this is important to Jewish spiritual leaders and educators across the country and across denominations who seek to discover sure-fire forces that forge strong Jewish identities.

Maybe the answer isn’t Jewish day school, a bar or bat mitzvah, a Jewish summer camp, a Birthright Israel trip or a subscription to Heeb magazine. Maybe the answer is as simple as this: unmemorable Chanukah presents.

Along with a memorable Chanukah.

Growing up in Iowa, even with only three other Jewish kids in my elementary school grade, I never felt left out or less than. I never felt the desire to sit on Santa’s lap in Petersen’s Department Store or have a big flocked and frosted Christmas tree in our living room. And it wasn’t as if — sorry, Mom — Chanukah was a big blow-out in our family.

“Go and make Christmas out of Chanukah,” my mom always said, quoting her friend, Alice Weitzman.

But she did better: she made Chanukah out of Chanukah.

A holiday of joy and warmth. Of chanting the blessings and lighting the “lion” chanukiyah, of eating freshly made latkes with burnt edges that my mother cooked in the electric frying pan, of playing dreidle with my siblings and parents and betting with gold-foil wrapped Chanukah gelt. Of driving across the river to Rock Island, Ill., to celebrate with my grandparents. Of baking poppy seed cookies using my grandmother’s recipe and the dreidel-, Star-of-David- and menorah-shaped cookie cutters.

A holiday that reflected the anti-assimilationist ideals of the Maccabees, that ancient band of guerilla fighters who, unaware of what an identity crisis was, refused to submit to the Syrian Greeks. Who were willing to sacrifice their lives to continue studying Torah, observing Shabbat and circumcising their sons.

But the threat to Judaism, interestingly enough, was internal as well as external. Many Jews of the second century BCE were easily drawn into the dominant Greek culture. Not unlike today, where, according to the National Jewish Population Survey (NJPS) 2000-01, 42 percent of Jews who define their religion as Jewish describe their outlook as secular. And where we have to work hard to remain Jewish in a non-Jewish world.

Chanukah gives us that challenge and opportunity. Especially since younger Jews already tend to express their Jewish identification through the celebration of holidays, according to “The Sovereign Self: Jewish Identity in Post-Modern America” by Steven M. Cohen and Arnold M. Eisen (Indiana University , 2001). And since, according to the NJPS, 72 percent of all Jews already profess to kindling Chanukah lights.

And so this year, emulating my mother, I will once again try to make Chanukah out of Chanukah. I will go through the ordeal of buying, wrapping and perhaps exchanging all those Chanukah gifts, which dollars to donuts — or, more appropriately, gelt to sufganiyot — my kids will soon forget.

And maybe that’s OK.

As Zack says, “Ten years from now will I remember all of the presents I received? No. But will I remember that magical feeling of celebrating Chanukah? Absolutely.”

And, I hope, that magical feeling of being Jewish.

Jane Ulman is a freelance writer in Encino and has four sons.