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Happy Chanukah: Ditch the Gifts and Get Going!

December 14, 2006 By:
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The Shopper family: (from left) Lisa, Glenn, Molly and Daniel. They've learned to tone down their approach to Chanukah.
The Festival of Lights is rapidly approaching, and that means it's time for many Jewish families to deck their homes with Chanukah-themed dish towels, napkins, candles and tablecloths, all while braving the malls or hopping online to find the latest MP3 player or the hottest video game for the kids.

It's no secret that Chanukah has become part of mainstream American culture and fully aligned with the holiday season: Think Chrismukkah. And as manufacturers and department stores have found more ways to sell products related to the Jewish holiday, the eight days and nights of the festival have managed to take on an increasingly commercial tone.

Yet for some local families, the focus on spending flies in the face of important Jewish values -- like remembering the less fortunate in society -- and obscures the real reason to celebrate the ancient Maccabee victory over the Syrian-Greeks, and the Jewish people's hard-won right to practice Judaism.

"I get my kids things year-round. They have everything they need. I ask them 'Do you really need one more video game?' " said a 54-year-old Dresher resident whose name just so happens to be Lisa Shopper.

"We used to get stuff for everybody. And I would get things and say, 'What am I going to do with this?' " said Shopper, a member of Congregation Beth Or in Maple Glen. "It was really getting to be too much."

So, several years ago, her extended family struck a deal: no more gift exchanges between adults. Instead, they would all make charitable donations in each other's names.

Two years ago, Lisa and Glenn Shopper took it one step further; they decided that instead of receiving gifts, their two children would simply get to pick a charity of their choice. Needless to say, that didn't go over so well.

"It was my idea, not theirs," said Shopper, explaining that taking gifts completely out of the mix seemed to go too far, and that since that time, they've worked to find the right balance. Instead, the kids still receive gifts on some nights, but they also must use the holiday to divvy up part of their allowance to give to charities.

The family's struggle to find that elusive thing called balance during the culturally and religiously perilous month of December is far from a new dilemma. Jews have experienced difficulty finding a sure footing during the holiday season practically since they landed on American shores, according to Rabbi Carol Harris-Shapiro, who teaches contemporary Jewish studies at Gratz College.

In fact, back in the 19th century, many German Jewish immigrants celebrated Christmas as a secular, American holiday, while at the same time paying scant attention to Chanukah, said the rabbi.

But by the 1920s, the Jewish establishment -- made up by then of many Eastern Europeans, who harbored a greater sense of cultural distinctiveness -- railed against the practice and promoted the observance of Chanukah, albeit with a new emphasis on gift-giving as a means of fostering Jewish identity.

That happened to coincide with the advent of the age of mass advertising and consumerism, starting a trend that continues today in the Jewish community, she argued.

In the generations since, many Jewish children -- strickenwith Christmas-envy -- were told that they actually had it better because Chanukah means gifts on eight nights, instead of just one festive day.

"Consumerism is a way for Jews to really feel that they are participating in the holiday season the way that every American is. Going to the mall is a quasi-religious experience," said Harris-Shapiro. "But there has been a backlash. In my own family, we don't send out Chanukah cards; we don't do any of that."

In recent years, there has been more of a push to mix the dreidel-spinning and latke-baking associated with Chanukah with activities revolving around tzedakah and selflessness.

But how do you mesh the explicit connection between giving to the less fortunate or spending more time with family and the story of Chanukah -- with its historic tale of war and triumph despite overwhelming odds?

'The Power of a Few'
"The miracle is about the victory of the few over the many. So when it comes to doing what's right, a few can be powerful," said Rabbi Eric Lazar at Temple Brith Achim in King of Prussia, who admits that he doesn't give Chanukah presents or send cards because Purim -- not Chanukah -- is the rightful gift-giving holiday.

"It's about the power of the few to make a difference," he added.

To that end, the Union for Reform Judaism has promoted an initiative known as "Ner Shel Tzedakah," which sets aside the sixth night of Chanukah to "donate the value of the gifts you would ordinarily exchange (or the gifts themselves) to local or national organizations assisting the poor." Organizers said there was no particular significance to the sixth night.

The movement is also encouraging congregations to use the sixth night to organize programs that call attention to poverty -- in all communities.

To help facilitate those aims, organizers composed a new blessing for recitation on the sixth night:

Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech Haolam, Asher Kidshanu B'Mitzvotav, V'Lamdeinu L'Hadlik Ner Shel Tzedakah or "Blessed are You, Eternal our God, who makes us holy through the performance of mitzvot, and inspires us to light the candle of righteousness."

"It is really a direct reaction to the overcommercialization and overmaterialization of the holiday," said Rabbi Marla Feldman, director of the Commission on Social Action for the Union of Reform Judaism.

A local Jewish organization is also stressing the notion that gifts to family members don't necessarily have to have a monetary value. The nonprofit Moving Traditions, which promotes Jewish identity, organizes monthly programs for girls in grades six through 12.

At the last program, girls were encouraged to give parents and siblings "I owe you" coupons, rather than gifts they probably couldn't afford.

Rachel Feldman, 12, who belongs to Temple Sinai in Dresher, is planning to give her younger sister an "I owe you," allowing her to sleep in Rachel's room several times a month.

"I'm giving her something from the heart," said the preteen, who said that she asked her parents to give more to charity this year -- especially, to the Jewish Relief Agency, which packs boxes of food for the hungry -- and spend less on gifts.

"This is to empower the girls to see how much they themselves have, as well as to provide a little bit of an antidote to the intense commercial madness and heavy- duty advertising" at this time of year, explained Deborah Meyer, the executive director of Moving Traditions. "Chanukah is not just about stuff."

Ilene Wasserman, a 51-year-old mother of two Jewish teenagers, had never heard of the Reform movement's program, but she and her husband, Mark Taylor, who is not Jewish, have always taken a similar approach to Chanukah.

"I almost feel like not leaving my house between Thanksgiving and Christmas. You feel this desperate need to buy, buy, buy," said Wasserman, adding that because of the interfaith dynamics in her household, she and her husband were careful not to turn Chanukah into a Jewish Christmas.

Instead, the holiday revolves around latke parties, volunteering in Center City for an organization that prepares meals for HIV-infected patients, and donating to charitable groups.

"We have talked in our family about the fact that Chanukah is really a minor holiday in the Jewish tradition, but it falls at the time that there is more darkness than light," said Wasserman, a member of Temple Beth Am Israel in Penn Valley. "Chanukah is a time of bringing light in many different ways, and shining light on good things."

Speaking of Chanukah as a minor festival, the notion that Orthodox Jews play down the significance of the festival is, in fact, greatly exaggerated, according to Evan Aidman, a 48-year-old father of three and a member of Congregation Beth Hamedrosh in Wynnewood.

"We don't connect Chanukah to Christmas at all. We don't feel pressure to distribute lots of gifts every night of the holiday. But we do try to make it very festive," said Aidman, whose family attends a Chanukah party almost every night of the holiday.

While they don't shy away from decorating the inside of the house, Aidman said that they opt for crafts the kids make at school, rather than store-bought ones.

"Chanukah is really an anti-assimilationist message," he said. "The Jews rejected assimilation into Greek-Syrian society."

Harris-Shapiro, the Reconstructionist rabbi and Gratz professor, agreed with that assessment, even as she respected those who hope to join in the seasonal spirit and assert their Jewish identity at the same time.

"It's really nice for us to look at people celebrating Christmas from afar and say, 'Gosh, what a beautiful holiday,' " she noted. "But that doesn't make us want to go out and put lights on the house." 

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