Bright lights, big gifts
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Bright lights, big gifts

There’s an art to giving, and receiving, Chanukah gifts

When Dr. Hinda Dubin was a child, her parents gave her little mesh bags of Chanukah gelt as holiday gifts. On her husband’s side, his mother loved the holiday, the gift-giving part especially. Like the gelt, the gifts were small — a book, a puzzle — but each was perfectly hand-wrapped and with a personal note.

"There was so much love," says Dubin, a psychiatrist.

But gift-giving can be a landmine. The difference between expectations and reality can be wide and deep. Chanukah is a particular challenge. There are eight nights of potential gifts, and parents can be hard-pressed to satisfy their kids.

But maybe, says Dubin, they shouldn’t even try.

Dubin is director of psychotherapy education at the University of Maryland/Sheppard Pratt psychiatry training program. Teaching psychotherapy is her profession. As an amateur giftologist, though, Dubin is of the opinion that there is no such thing as a "perfect" gift. Nor should the holiday be about "competitive gift-giving," she says.

She believes that Chanukah gifts should be about the giving and not the item itself. The gift could be hand-made. It should be something that shows the giver has thought about what the recipient likes.

But whatever the gift, it’s an extra, a "bonus" to the holiday, and "it’s nice to have a consistent family tradition," says Dubin, whether that’s one gift for the entire holiday or one gift every night.

Moreover, Dubin does not object to a "big" (read: expensive) gift for a child. But "if it’s way out-of-line with what their peers are getting, that’s not good," she says. "Kids like to be in the same league as their peers."

There is one Chanukah gift Dubin does suggest: taking one day of the holiday to do something charitable as a family. It could be helping in a soup kitchen, or volunteering for a community project, or you-name-it.

Again, like the Chanukah gift, the event itself isn’t as important as the doing. "It creates wonderful memories," she says of such family activities, "and it sets patterns for life."

More than 10 years ago, Amy Schunick started The Toy Closet, a project of Jewish Family Services, an agency of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore. The project collects new toys, games, school supplies, household items and clothes that are distributed to clients of JFS. It began, says Schunick, a JFS social worker, with one family.

It was Chanukah and the family wanted to donate a bag of toys to JFS. "They came around and said, ‘Who wants to take responsibility to get these to a family in need?’" remembers Schunick, who volunteered for the task.

Now, more than 100 families donate items, which are collected year-round. Schunick says that, increasingly, they are young families who see the Toy Closet as both an opportunity for tzedakah and a learning experience for their own children.

"They ask to be ‘paired’ with families whose children are of similar ages as their kids, even the same gender," says Schunick. "They take their kids with them when they shop for the items that they donate to us. There’s a recognition that it’s not just about receiving but about giving, too."

Schunick has her own thoughts about Chanukah gifts and, interestingly, they tend to agree with Dubin’s. It’s not the number of gifts, or big versus small. Those are individual family decisions. Rather, she says, "it’s the absence of meaning that is the downside of Chanukah gifts."

But "meaning" is elusive. It’s not easy to accomplish, although Schunick has ideas about how to do that.

"Chanukah gifts aren’t only about receiving — parents give, kids receive. You are setting the foundation for the rest of kids’ lives," she says. "There’s nothing wrong with giving them a Playstation, if that’s what they want. But there has to be more — working at a soup kitchen, doing a family activity."

At Chanukah, Schunick also believes, it is important from a child’s perspective to receive a gift or gifts, however small, especially if all their friends get them.

"Kids talk, they compare. If a kid goes to school and everyone asks, ‘What did you get?’ and the answer is ‘nothing,’ they can feel left out," she says.

Dr. Sheldon Weinstock knows the feeling. A psychologist in private practice, Weinstock grew up in a town with few Jews. His elementary school had 10 Jews, including himself.

"After the Christmas holiday, we’d come back and write an essay on what you got for Christmas," Weinstock remembers. "This was back in the time when Chanukah wasn’t a big gift holiday. You were lucky to get Chanukah gelt. It made you feel different, not that you didn’t already know you were different" from your classmates.

Weinstock says research has been done on gift-giving. Not surprisingly, it shows that getting gifts makes people happy, and "that’s a good thing," he says.

From a psychological standpoint, getting a gift is a "validation" of who you are, a tidbit that applies to both children and adults, he explains.

How parents handle gift-giving is important. "If the child looks around and everyone else is getting a gift, the danger is that there will be a feeling of ‘what am I — chopped liver?’" says Weinstock, echoing Schunick.

If money is an issue, a hand-made gift will do just fine. Otherwise, if the parents are not giving gifts for religious or ethical reasons, they need to explain that to the child.

"Chanukah is a fun holiday," says Weinstock. "And part of that fun is giving gifts to children and seeing their eyes light up."

Baltimore Jewish Times

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