Yes, but preserving identity is key
Rabbi Neal Schuster, senior Jewish educator, KU Hillel, 722 New Hampshire St.:
The plain answer to this question is, yes, Jews, particularly in America, do give gifts for Hanukkah in a way that is similar to Christmas. Yet, if you read any of the countless books on Jewish practice, or examine traditional texts on Hanukkah, you will search in vain to find instructions on the proper giving of gifts for Hanukkah.
It’s just not there, and the reason is because giving gifts for Hanukkah is a recent, mostly American phenomenon, one that owes much to the influence of Christmas. There are valid reasons to regard this practice with cynicism, viewing the adoption of this Christian custom as running exactly counter to the point of Hanukkah, with its emphasis on remaining true to our ways in the face of the appealing customs of the larger culture. We might also point out that the traditional Jewish holiday for giving gifts is Purim, in the spring.
But there are some reasons to view Hanukkah gift-giving in a positive light. Consider the alternative: Without Hanukkah gift-giving, how many Jews would simply join in the spirit of the season by giving Christmas gifts to each other? Thus, Hanukkah gifts serve as an important vehicle for identity-preserving acculturation (as opposed to identity-sacrificing assimilation).
We can also connect Hanukkah gift-giving to the ancient custom of giving Hanukkah “gelt” (money), which likely originated as gifts to the poor so they would be able to light candles to celebrate the festival. In a contemporary echo of this custom, many Jews anonymously “adopt” one or more poor families (Jewish or Christian), buying gifts for them to help add joy to their holiday.
Is it OK for Jews to give gifts for Hanukkah? If we can give while remaining true to our people, our values and our God, then, by all means, give.
— Send email to Neal Schuster at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sure, but focus on holiday’s meaning
Rabbi Moti Rieber, Lawrence Jewish Community Center, 917 Highland Drive:
Of all the holidays on the Jewish calendar, Hanukkah has arguably been the one most affected by life in America. What was once a relatively minor holiday has, in recent years, become a Much Bigger Deal.
Countless American Jewish families have had to explain to their children, “No honey, we don’t celebrate Christmas — no Santa, no tree, no Handel’s “Messiah” — but we have something great also: Hanukkah!” Not always convincing, to parents or children.
It’s worth remembering what Hanukkah celebrates. Many years ago, a small Jewish group defeated a much more powerful army that wanted to outlaw their way of life. When the Jewish victors went to light the menorah (candelabra) in the Holy Temple, there was only enough oil for one day. Miraculously, it lasted for eight.
If the kids like “Star Wars,” they might like the idea of the ragtag group of rebels defeating the Empire. But even then, they’re going to expect presents.
One thing I can tell you doesn’t work is eight presents for eight nights. That kind of thing only plays into the consumerism and greed that (excuse me) has affected Christmas.
Certainly, one night can be dedicated to the latest and greatest toy or game — I’m not suggesting deprivation. But dedicate the other nights to more lasting values: hospitality to friends and neighbors — including the traditional food of fried potato pancakes, or latkes; giving to those less fortunate, called tzedakah; fun family activities, like games (don’t forget the dreidel!), crafts or playing that great new video game — together.
So sure, include the presents, but also remember what makes Hanukkah worth celebrating in the first place: the miracle of God’s help, the wonder that we’re still the Jewish people after all these years and the fact that we live in this amazing and wonderful country.
— Send email to Moti Rieber at email@example.com.