Chanukah is a holiday about the Jewish past and preserving the Jewish future.
But is it – or rather, should it be – a holiday of presents?
For rabbis, inclined to stress the spiritual over the material, that’s a matter of some debate.
“People say stop all this gift giving,” Rabbi Stephen Wylen of Temple Beth Tikvah in Wayne said. “It seems to me, we live in a pretty rich country. And if people want to use some of their excess income on giving gifts to their loved ones, what the heck? Go right ahead! When my kids were little, I always bought them presents for Chanukah. It was a nice thing to do. Let them enjoy it.”
Now, however, “a couple of my kids live in Israel, where the whole present thing is not so big,” he says.
Years ago, Wylen served as a rabbi in Huntington, West Virginia. “We were pretty poor then. I didn’t have a big salary, and we were raising four children. My wife and I decided that year we would just buy for each other practical gifts we needed for the house anyway. My big present for her that year was a DustBuster, that little hand-held vacuum cleaner.
“On the first night of Chanukah, the television station came over to my house for a live broadcast. So after we lit the candles, I gave the gift to my wife, but she didn’t open it on camera. Afterwards, the whole town called to ask: ‘What did he give you?'”
Rabbi Debra Orenstein of Congregation B’nai Israel in Emerson said that “gift giving can be a very spiritual opportunity, when you think about what the other person prizes and loves.
“I have some customs from my own growing up that I carried on and passed on to my kids. We do give eight presents. When I was growing up, the first few nights were things you were going to get anyway – like socks and barrettes – wrapped in a beautiful present. It was the joy of sharing, wrapping, and opening.”
Rabbi Ruth Zlotnick of Temple Beth Or in Washington Township said that in her family, “we don’t make a big deal about giving lots of gifts – but we do make sure that one night is a night of giving books. It’s still books, not ebooks. And one night we empty our tzedakah boxes that we fill before Shabbat dinner each week. We count the change, and usually by that time there’s a special tzedakah project in the synagogue that goes to Israel.” This year, her Temple Beth Or is raising funds to equip Israeli fire fighters.
“People just have to develop some kind of restraint,” Rabbi Lawrence Zierler of the Jewish Center of Teaneck said. “It’s just a question of proportion, the same way no one has to show up for Black Friday if they don’t want to. You can give gifts to your children in other ways, spread throughout the year.”
When his kids were young, they received “smaller gifts” on Chanukah.
“I have to admit the truth,” Zierler said. “When I was growing up in Ontario, we decked our halls with streamers of dreidels. We were living in a non-Jewish neighborhood. We need to somehow deal with something that was compensatory. On Christmas morning, I used to wake up with non-Jewish neighbors and even opened up presents with them.
“Look what happened. I became a rabbi.”