Competing With That Other Holiday

"Instead of one day of presents, we have eight crazy nights," croons Adam Sandler in that humorous holiday tune, "The Chanukah Song." Sandler speaks for many American Jews in feeling a certain pressure and longing for Chanukah to live up to the glitz and excitement associated with Christmas. In keeping up, many Jews feel it is necessary to give and receive a large assortment of holiday gifts.

In our commercialized culture, communicating the true meaning of Chanukah, acknowledging the hoopla surrounding Christmas and preserving a child’s interest in our own holiday can be a challenge for parents. With these goals in mind, three local rabbis shed some light on the Festival of Lights.

While most Jews know that Chanukah is a celebration of the victory of the Maccabees and the rededication of the Jerusalem Temple, many are unaware (or have forgotten) the deeper meaning of this time of the year. Rabbi Elie Stern, outreach director of Westwood Kehilla, explained that Chanukah is a celebration of the Jews’ ability to continue their traditions and not give in to the majority culture.

Stern feels that the influences of our culture have overshadowed this history. "What’s happening in the Western world is a very superficial comparison with Christmas," said the Orthodox rabbi. "Rather than resisting assimilation and highlighting the uniqueness of Judaism, we end up aping the worst of secular culture and bringing it into Chanukah."

To combat this tendency, Stern suggests instilling Jewish pride in children every day of the year, rather than simply reminding them at holiday time. In addition, he feels Jews should stop trying to compete with Christmas. "We’re going in the wrong direction if we feel we have to keep up with the Joneses, but with Chanukah wrapping paper," he said. "It’s a shallow ‘me, too-ism.’ We have our own values, and one is not to be ostentatious and recognize that we’re serving God. It’s God’s miracle, not a one-upmanship."

With these values in mind, Rabbi Sheryl Nosan of Temple Beth Torah, a Reform congregation in Granada Hills, feels that one way to instill these ideas is to monitor family gift-giving traditions. If children expect presents on every single evening of Chanukah, parents can adjust their customs to include donating money to a charity. "Based on the traditional notion of giving gelt, we can build the idea of giving tzedakah at Chanukah time," Nosan said. To keep things light and fun, parents can make a game of choosing the charity. Perhaps each family member can choose a different charity and the family can have a dreidel tournament to determine where the money will go.

Nosan also suggests incorporating different activities into the eight nights to take the focus off of receiving gifts. One night can be "latke night" where the family spends time making potato pancakes together. Another night might include inviting friends over to light the candles in order to share our traditions with others. Parents can find special projects to do with their kids or do something special just for the sake of being together — be it hiking, going to a museum, seeing a play or anything else you can do as a family.

Similarly, Rabbi Tracee Rosen of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino suggests creating actual theme nights throughout Chanukah, including gift night, song night, dreidel night and invite-a-guest night. Rosen suggests parents emphasize that the holiday is a celebration of both giving and receiving. One way to accomplish this is to alternate in the types of activities the family will engage in so that kids will take note of both ends of the spectrum "For example, maybe on the first night, the kids get presents," she said. "Then on the second night you might take used toys to a shelter or toy drive so kids can get a sense of the cyclically of [the holiday traditions]."

Rosen also recommends the book, "A Different Light: The Chanukah Book of Celebration" by Noam Zion and Barbara Spectre (Pitspopany Press, 2000), which details innovative gift ideas for Chanukah. Suggestions include designating nights for homemade gifts, edible gifts, low-cost grab-bag gifts and homemade "coupons," where the giver promises to give his time or services (i.e. baby-sitting, cooking dinner, playing a game, etc.) to another. Whether it is gifts, extravagant decorations, carols taking over the radio airwaves or Santa Claus in the department store, the rabbis agree that Chanukah is not a counterpart to Christmas.

"Christmas will always be brighter and gaudier," Stern said. "We have to remember the value of Judaism and the purity of the small little light that endured all the darkness. That is the message of Chanukah."