Modern twists on wedding gifts

With the average age of brides in California just north of 28 and older than 30 for grooms, many affianced couples already have all the basics: the toaster and towels, linens and wine glasses. Sure, you could always give cash, but why not gift a statement piece, something that will forever recall that special day?

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Teaching the value of giving in the season of getting

The gift-giving tradition that these days is so strongly connected with Chanukah can be a mixed blessing. Often, preceding the joy of hitting the right note with a gift are days fraught with the pressure to find it. There’s also the question of how much to spend, and what kinds of values gift-giving can teach our kids. 
Are Jews competing with the overkill of Christmas? Are we making our winter holiday too commercial? And, should kids really be making lists of what they want? 
Phyllis Folb, an educational consultant, believes it’s possible to both reject and embrace the material expectations attached to the annual holiday.  
A mother of two and grandmother of four, Folb loves the feeling of finding the right gift for a family member. But her family has always made clear that the holiday is about more than the perfect present. 
“It’s not the gift, it’s the giving,” Folb said in a phone interview. 
Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom said his family has always used Chanukah as an occasion to donate to others who are less fortunate. 
“We took the toys [our kids] don’t play with, and the jackets they don’t wear” and gave them away, Feinstein said in a phone interview, recalling Chanukahs when his now-adult children were young.
He described Chanukah as a time for a “real sharing of self, rather than a sharing of stuff.”
The holiday has not always been about expecting parents to deliver the goods to their children. Religious studies professor Dianne Ashton’s 2013 book, “Hanukkah in America: A History,” tells how Chanukah customs evolved in the 1950s. Where Purim was once the Jewish gift-giving holiday, Chanukah used to be restricted to the exchange of gelt.
In the aftermath of the Holocaust, however, Jewish child psychologists encouraged parents to buy gifts for their children to allow them to feel more assimilated among their Christian peers — ironic considering that Chanukah is a holiday that commemorates a revolt against assimilation.
The attachment to Chanukah gift-giving took off to the extent that today, when the Christmas shelves of stores like Target and Walmart are filled with the likes of Grand Theft Auto, iPads and more, many parents find it hard to manage their children’s desires. 
Family therapist Bette Alkazian advises parents not to put too much pressure on themselves: Children are difficult to please, and gift-giving is a challenging task to master. 
“It’s very hard, and it’s very stressful. I think a lot of parents stress about it a great deal. And we don’t please our kids, or we’ll buy them something we think they’ll love, and they’re like, ‘Oh [whatever],’ ” Alkazian said. “We’re always [feeling like we’re] failing our children as parents. Probably [the holidays magnify these feelings], but I think a lot of parents probably feel that way every day.”
Alkazian, who has three children, calls her method “Balanced Parenting.” Her advice to parents may resonate even beyond the holidays: “Just do the best you can, and don’t take anything personally.”
Wendy Mogel, a clinical psychologist and author of the books “The Blessing of a Skinned Knee” and “The Blessing of a B-Minus,” believes children today are smarter and savvier than ever when it comes to manipulating their parents into buying them products. They’ve learned from advertisers and marketers that intentionally equip child-viewers on how to push parents toward specific purchases: This isn’t news to anyone familiar with the terms “pester power” and “nag factor,” Mogel said in an interview.
“ ‘Pester power’ and the ‘nag factor’ are giving kids a script in television commercials to talk their parents into buying them things they don’t need or necessarily want, so they learn how to say … ‘If you buy me a Hawaiian Ice Barbie or the Barbie Primp and Polish Styling set, it will allow me to cook and stimulate my creative imagination,’ and then the parents are totally helpless,” Mogel said.
“The advertisers and the manufacturers … know what parents care about.”
This type of advertising is illegal in some countries. Advertising aimed at children under 12 has been illegal in Sweden since 1991, for instance, according to
Christmas-envy in Jewish families is also part of the problem, Mogel said.
“The big dilemma is that parents are so eager for their kids to be happy, and the kids are so articulate, and they are such good little attorneys, that it’s very hard for parents to say no, especially with all the glitz of Christmas and allure of Christmas.”
One solution is to not give any gifts at all. That’s the suggestion offered up by Ori Zadok, early childhood center director at the Woodland Hills synagogue Kol Tikvah. He said there is no rule that children need gifts during the holidays.
“It’s a sweet gesture to give your child a gift, but it’s not essential for their development. They’ll grow up just fine [even] if they don’t get gifts,” he said. 
“One of the biggest problems … in terms of gift-giving,” Zadok said, “is the ungrateful child. The getting of a gift and saying, ‘No, I wanted something else.’ What do you do as a parent? Say, ‘OK, I’ll cave in and get you that next time,’ or, ‘This is what you got and be grateful for it’?” Zadok said.
The lesson is that gratitude is more than something one feels, it is something one shows — and gratitude can be taught, Alkazian said.
“Let’s say we are doing a night of Chanukah at Grandma’s house — even if you don’t like your present or even if you hate it, you need to say, ‘Thank you, I love it,’ and be a gracious receiver, because somebody thought of you and took time to buy you a present and … you need to be gracious regardless of what you think about the gift,” Alkazian said. 
And what about families where the parents hope to receive something in return? What are best practices in those cases? 
Alkazian says parents should tell their children what their expectations are because they can’t reasonably expect their children, especially if they are young, to magically know to buy something for their parents. 
“Whatever the expectation is should be expressed in advance, explicitly: ‘I don’t expect you to spend your money on me, but I would love something handmade,’ or, ‘It would mean the world to me to get a note from you on Chanukah,’ or … ‘Will you draw me a picture for my Chanukah present this year?’ ” Alkazian said. 
“Obviously, [the children’s] ages are going to determine what we say and how we say it.” 
New York Times columnist Ron Lieber’s upcoming book, “The Opposite of Spoiled,” argues parents need to be frank with their children about their financial limits, and that this can solve some issues. Parents trying to raise grounded children should set limits on what they will or will not buy for their children, but the limits, Lieber said in an interview, are “artificial” if the children don’t understand the family’s financial situation. 
“The kids are often faced with limits that go unexplained or are lacking in logic, and the kids’ job in part is to figure out how the world works and how this particular mysterious force known as money kind of operates within it. The whole question of what you get and what you can ask for and what isn’t appropriate to get or give or ask for during the holidays is not a small part of this larger conversation of where the limits ought to exist,” Lieber said. “That’s the framework where the gift-giving happens during the holiday.”
Lieber said he believes in the value of gift-giving: “The science on this is pretty clear now — people really get more long-term happiness from giving something to someone else than they do off the short-term dopamine hit of getting to rip open the present,” he said. “Teaching kids to give is a great thing to do.”

Chanukah Gift Guide

Jonathan Adler Dachshund Menorah   Calling all dog lovers! The Dachshund Menorah designed by Jonathan Adler is not your standard chanukiyah. Made in Peru, this fair-trade sculpted menorah is made of high-fired stoneware and features a white matte glaze. The Dachshund Menorah is pottery at its finest and makes the ideal gift for the Festival of Lights. $120.

Growbottles  Winner of the Eco Choice Award, Potting Shed Creations’ Growbottles add a touch of spring during any season — rain or shine. Basil, chives, mint, oregano or parsley easily grow when potted in these recycled and repurposed wine bottles. And, they create a unique display of freshness in any household or office. The Growbottles kit includes everything you need to make your plants flourish: seeds, pebbles, grow bottle and cork coaster. Replant kits available. $35.

Matisyahu’s “Miracle” EP  Matisyahu has done it again with the release of his Chanukah anthem “Miracle.” The EP includes a track with his band Dub Trio, guest vocals by rapper Shyne, a remix by University of Colorado at Boulder freshman Miniweapon as well as a beatboxing and acoustic version. $7.

Laura Cowan’s Smart Dreidel  Forgot what the letters on your dreidel stand for? Have no fear because the Smart Dreidel by Laura Cowan teaches you how to play the dreidel game. The text on the dreidel is uniquely designed in acrylic and anodized aluminum, incorporating Cowan’s signature use of discs and cones. $80.

Cookie Monster Nosh Bib  Let your child indulge in a snack with his or her favorite monster — Cookie Monster! Designed by Rabbi’s Daughters for a Shalom Sesame collection, the cotton bib features yellow trim with a Velcro closure and an adorable picture of Cookie Monster snacking on rugelach. $18.,

“I’ve Never Met an Idiot on the River” by Henry Winkler  Actor Henry Winkler, best-known as the Fonz on “Happy Days,” shares all he’s learned while fly-fishing, which is more than just catching fish. Compiling humorous anecdotes and heartfelt observations from his annual trips to Montana and Idaho, Winkler recounts how his experiences on the river have shaped his perspective on life. $21.95.

Modern Bite Chanukkah Gift Boxes  Chef Daniel Shapiro taps his passion for baking to come up with the Modern Bite Chanukkah Gift Boxes. Baked to order, the boxed gift set includes natural sugar cookies with colorful icing that are pleasing to both the eye and stomach. Packed with a keepsake stationery box made of 100 percent post-consumer recycled materials, the cookies are ideal for satisfying a sweet tooth. $30.

Marla Studio’s Beauty, Kindness, Compassion Necklace  What do beauty, kindness and compassion all have in common? Not only are they three of the many things Jews thank God for, but they are the three words that are engraved in Hebrew on designer Marla Studio’s brass pendant. An English translation is featured on the back, so even non-Hebrew readers can enjoy the striking message. $88.

“The Brisket Book:  A Love Story With Recipes”  There’s no longer a need for frantically searching for the best brisket recipes. Stephanie Pierson, author, food writer and brisket lover, has written a cookbook filled with only the best brisket recipes, accompanied by illustrations, poems, cartoons and musings. “The Brisket Book” has a recipe for everyone, and it’ll turn you into the star of any potluck. $30.

Chewish Treats  Who says dogs can’t get gifts on the holidays? Chewish Treats come straight from the doggy deli to your home. Allow your dog to indulge in these pooch-pleasing cookies that are topped with a yogurt-based icing. Made with only the highest-quality ingredients, these treats are sure to satisfy any kosher canine. $8.

Jewish Blessing Flags  If you’re looking for a decorative piece that has some Jewish value, these Jewish Blessing Flags are a must. Based on Tibetan prayer flags, each design is distinct in color and represents one of seven values in Jewish tradition: love, compassion, lovingkindness, peace, healing, respect and justice. The flags are suitable for the home, synagogue, classroom or sukkah. $20.


Chanukah Gift Guide 2008

Here’s some ideas for gifts that will continue to inspire long after the chanukiah has been put away. Bling that bridges faith and fashion, a DVD from a local yoga instructor and a Western Wall locket from an Agoura Hills jewelry designer are a few ideas from Southern California and beyond that can make shopping for family and friends easier.

Los Angeles designer Ellen Hart offers an alternative to the tired “status bag” with CareerBags (” target=”_blank”> or at Royal Dutchess in Studio City).

Stella Rubinshteyn has created a treasure trove of mommy must-haves with Tivoli Couture (” target=”_blank”>

Jewtina ($20-$25, ” target=”_blank”> takes the animals of Chinese astrology and replaces them with New York deli favorites. Born in the Year of the Dog? Fuhgeddaboudit. Now you’re the Year of the Blintz. T-shirts ($18-$20), infant onesies ($20) and other Jewish Zodiac products make this a fun, personal gift for family and friends.

Rock Your Religion (” target=”_blank”>, also available at Best Buy and, which is compatible with both PC and Mac, can hold a 16-gigabyte SD card and features an on-board chromatic guitar/bass tuner.

If you are hoping to give (or get) inspiration this holiday, look toward the wisdom of Abby Lentz, who imparts hope and spirit with her “Heavyweight Yoga” DVD ($25, ” target=”_blank”>, a yoga DVD focused on health and recovery of body, mind and spirit created by Hillary Rubin, who was diagnosed with MS in 1996 and teaches at L.A.‘s City Yoga.

The Wish Locket by Agoura Hills-based Monica Nabati goes the distance from fashionable to meaningful by providing you with a Kotel you can keep close to your heart, among other designs ($56, plus $8 for additional engraving). Simply write out your hopes, dreams or prayers, fold the paper and insert it into the locket. Available at ” target=”_blank”> The Seinfeld Edition gives players a chance to relive their favorite “Seinfeld” moments from each of the show’s nine seasons. Kids can school their elders on everything cool with the Disney Channel Edition, featuring clips and trivia from “Hannah Montana,” “High School Musical,” “The Suite Life of Zack and Cody,” “Wendy Wu” and more. Given ($30, ” target=”_blank”> Produced by the American Jewish Historical Society, the set bats .1000 with photos and facts of baseball’s greatest Jewish players. It also includes a special tribute to the 75th anniversary of Hank Greenberg’s rookie season. Once you’re on base, hit a home run with Bergino’s Judaica collection baseballs ($20-$25,

A Funny Present Happened Here

Lighten up your Chanukah without striking a match. Yes, we fought, we won, we ate — but we can also laugh. While gift-buying is sometimes lumped in the same category as root canals and traffic on the 101, the humorous books, music and DVDs below will make the whole process a lot more fun.

Even better, every item below is available via the Internet. So stay home, put your feet up, crack open some foil-wrapped gelt and get ready for myriad thank-yous from your friends and family, who are so glad you didn’t give them socks — again.

Nap time is Shluffy Girl’s favorite time of the day…. Unfortunately, Shluffy Girl’s love for sleep sometimes gets her into trouble.” While most of us have been there, done that, there are lessons to be learned from Shluffy Girl, the newest character in Anne-Marie Asner’s Yiddish-titled Matzah Ball Books series (Gingerbread houses might be nice — but nothing beats a gingerbread menorah. The Popcorn Factory’s (Make 2006 go by just a bit funnier with “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Presents America”: The Calendar — now with August (Warner Books, $11.95). Based on the book of the same name, the desk calendar comes with instructions on how to assemble the darn thing (it’s really difficult).

Keep an eye out for the nods to the MOTs, such as on Rosh Hashanah, where the Timeline of Democracy notes that in 1,300 B.C.E., God gives the Ten Commandments — “and nothing bad ever happens to the Jews again.”

You think your family is bad this time of year? What about Holistic New Age Aunt, Uncle Speedo and Child Who Was in a National TV Commercial? All the freaky relations are gathered together in Justin Racz’s new book, “50 Relatives Worse Than Yours” (Bloomsbury, $14.95).

Each relative comes with a profile, gift idea, motto, home, benefits and drawbacks. But even if you can’t relate, literally and figuratively, to Uncle Speedo, fear not — Jewish Mother is at No. 23 (and there is room in the back to add in other odd branches of your family tree).

While it’s Chanukah at your house, it can be “Springtime for Hitler,” as the musical film version of the musical stage version of the nonmusical film, “The Producers,” releases its soundtrack (Sony, $18.98). Nathan Lane, Matthew Broderick, Gary Beech and Wisteria Lane’s favorite pharmacist, Roger Bart, reprise their roles in Mel Brooks’ Tony Award-winning show. The veterans are joined in absurdity by Will Ferrell and Uma Thurman, who actually sings. No, really.

What if you hit your head and woke up in Menorahville — where everything is bought and sold in gelt, every female is Jewish and single and almost no guy wants to get married? OK, Los Angeles right now isn’t too far off, but this stuff is fiction.

Author Laurie Graff takes us to the crazy world of dating in “Eight Dates of Hanukkah,” one of the three stories in “Scenes From a Holiday” (Red Dress Ink, $12.95). When singles events planner (and slight commitmentphobe) Nikki Heller lands in a “Chanukoma,” it may take more than a miracle to help her find her way out of an endless cycle of the Festival of Lights.

Forget The Wiggles. If you’re getting songs stuck in your head, they might as well be Jewish ones from “OyBaby 2” (

Happy Birthday, Me!

In a few weeks I’ll turn 33 and, sadly, I realize I’m long past being anything “for my age.” I’m no longer cute for my age, talented for my age, a good reader for my age. All qualifications and special considerations have long passed. There’s nothing I can get away with now because, “After all, your honor, he’s only 33.”

I should know better by now. I’m mature, experienced, a grown-up.

You’d think that being so mature and grown up, I’d have a healthy attitude toward my birthday and the presents I may receive. You obviously don’t know me well.

So let’s talk about presents.

Turning 33 reminds me that I’m no closer to being married than I was when I was turning 32 (or 22 — or 12, for that matter). In lieu of working on myself and what I’m lacking personally, I’m focusing instead on what I’m lacking materially. It’s a great system.

My father asked me for a list of what I’d like from my family for my birthday this year. Though this isn’t as fun as letting them figure something out, I’ve learned my lesson from past birthdays: Gift-giving is not their forte.

One year, my father gave me a box of 500 very nice, custom-printed, raised-lettered business cards, printed on heavy ivory stock with my name, address and phone number. It would have been a lovely, lovely gift — had I not been 7 years old at the time. I don’t know what he thought I would do with them. (“Yes, please announce me to the queen. And fetch me a snifter of your finest chocolate milk.”) I did give some of them out to kids at school, which actually proved very helpful. Now the children knew where to come to beat me up before school started, in case they wanted to get an early jump on their day.

Most of the remaining cards went into plastic bins or fish bowls, trying to win a free lunch, dance lesson or Hawaiian vacation from a local merchant. None was ever randomly drawn. It wasn’t a total loss though; in fact the cards proved quite prophetic. I still have no job title or work address. Thanks, dad.

My sister wasn’t much better. One year, in a grab bag of other little gifts, she gave me a very nicely wrapped condom.

I’m going to give you, Dear Reader, a moment to let that sink in: Sister … condom. Greek tragedies have been written about less. If Freud were alive today, I believe he would say, “Eewwww!”

It’s customary, of course, to write a thank-you note when receiving such a personal gift, but telling my sister, “Thanks, I’ll think of you when I’m using it,” didn’t seem quite appropriate.

My therapy is ongoing and intensive, thanks for asking.

Of course, there’s a substantial likelihood that, as with most things, I’m overreacting.

I’m not a heartless idiot. I realize that nobody has to give me a gift. I get it: Material things don’t matter. I should be grateful that anybody thinks enough of me to buy me anything at all. It’s a blessing to have a family, to have such tiny problems, and besides, there are starving children in Africa who would love to have a condom or business cards.

Though misguided in their execution, I do try to remember that there had to be a loving intention behind these gifts. They weren’t thoughtless. Maybe my sister wanted me to be protected and safe and to know that she cares about my health and recognizes that I’m not a kid anymore. Maybe my father wanted to connect with me, see a glimpse of the junior businessman who might one day take over the company that he took over from his father. Those business cards, though impractical on one level, were the most practical on another: wallet-sized evidence that I am my father’s son, that I have an identity, his last name and a home.

And my grandmother, whom I love dearly, must have had good intentions when she gave me a Valentine’s gift one year. Blissfully unaware of what people who are not severely medicated actually wear in public, she gave me a T-shirt she had had custom-made at the mall. Decorated with red felt hearts ironed on all over, and in the middle, big felt block letters spelled, “I Love Keith!” Even if I had any self-love, I don’t think I’d announce it like this.

She tried to convince me that people would see it and think, “There’s a boy whose grandmother loves him.” I took a random survey of imaginary people and the overwhelming response actually was, “There’s a boy who lost a bet. Let’s go to the address on this business card and beat him up.”

J. Keith van Straaten is a writer and performer who currently hosts “What’s My Line? — Live on Stage” every Wednesday in Los Angeles. For more information, visit