How the Xmas spirit touched Chanucah
Next week’s festival is about rejecting assimilation. But some worry that seasonal consumerism carries too much sway
THERE IS A short story by Nathan Englander about a Brooklyn Chasid who has a seasonal job for a few weeks every winter — as a department-store Santa. Yitzhak Kringle has qualms about the position, but he needs the money, and his beard fits the bill. One day, a rather sad-looking boy is ushered toward him by the elves. “So, nu?” asks Santa. The boy is persuaded to divulge his shopping list: mountain bike, action figures, computer games. There is something else, but he hesitates. “Come on,” says Santa. “Out with it.” “A menorah,” says the boy. Englander’s tale (we will not give away the ending) plays with the cultural collisions that have become part and parcel of diaspora life around this time of year. Chanucah is a festival with a powerful anti-assimilation theme — the Jewish revolt against the Assyrian occupiers in the 2nd century BCE represents the refusal to surrender to an alien culture.
But modern-day Chanucah is not immune to outside influences. The Chanucah gifts, cards — not to mention the odd Chanucah bush — can turn the festival into a kind of Christmas-lite. True, there are no Maccabee grottos in Brent Cross. But Rabbi Zvi Solomons, of Princes Road Synagogue, Liverpool, has “heard of someone dressing up as Father Chanucah to give out presents”.
Above all, the festival risks getting sucked into the swell of seasonal consumerism, so that the focus is on the gifts children expect to be showered with rather than the message behind the candles burning bright against the winter night.
The rabbis went out of their way to enhance the festival’s spiritual nature, playing down the Maccabees’ military heroism and instead dwelling on the miracle of the one day’s oil in the Temple that lasted for eight. Next week’s haftarah from Zechariah, read on Shabbat Chanucah, contains one of the most famous of prophetic soundbites: “Not by My might, nor by My power, but by My spirit, says the Lord…”
In fact, there is no precedent at all for Chanucah gifts in classical rabbinic sources. “The custom… fairly obviously, has been introduced so that children would not feel upset if they are left out of the giving of presents to their Christian friends, “ writes Rabbi Louis Jacobs in The Jewish Religion: A Companion.
The Talmud refers to dispensing money to the poor to buy candles, and later it became the practice to give children Chanucah gelt. The chocolate coins often handed out also recall a symbol of independence enjoyed by the newly liberated Jews of ancient times — they were able to mint their own coins.
Nowadays, rabbis tend to take a pragmatic view of gift-giving. “It’s not hugely different from the Seder, you do what it takes to get the kids on board,” says Rabbi Reuben Livingstone of Hampstead Garden Suburb Synagogue in London. “It’s tolerable as long as the messages of Chanucah don’t get lost.”
Even the sacred walls of Stamford Hill have been breached. Chaya Spitz, a mother of four who works for the Orthodox charity Interlink, says that some children do get presents. “In a family of four children, the boys might get a train-set to share, the girls a doll or toy pram between them. A grandparent might also give something for the family.”
But she adds: “It is not a must. I don’t think that if kids aren’t given a gift, they’ll feel deprived… When I get an insight into what [non-Jewish] people spend on Christmas, I never fail to be stunned.”
One way to differentiate Chanucah from Christmas, which has become more common in recent years, is to give children a small gift on each of the eight nights. This is what Rabbi Solomons does for his three children. The gifts are inexpensive supermarket knick-knacks, he stresses, but his wife Shira feels that even this goes too far.
Not every child will accept that small is beautiful. “There is so much pressure from all the advertising,” says Suzy Glaskie from Manchester. “I know a lot of mums who try to hold out but it’s difficult.”
But she has done something to arrest the grasp of materialism. Six years ago she and Judith Moryoussef, a fellow parent at North Cheshire Jewish Primary School, launched a charity, the Big Birthday Appeal. They were troubled by the amount of money being spent on birthday presents for children too young to appreciate them. Instead they believed that birthdays could be better used to promote the importance of charity.
So now they market a range of products such as birthday stickers which you can attach to gifts rather than spending money on cards, while the proceeds go to good causes. They even take their message “to have a bit less and give some to others” to kindergartens. “You need to get children very young. If you give them to chance to help children who are less fortunate, they really embrace it,” she says.
As with birthdays, so with Chanucah. “As a child, I still remember each Chanucah present I got because I appreciated it,” says Mrs Glaskie. “Now they are so overwhelmed with presents they have lost the art of appreciating what they are given. You have seven- or eight-year-olds who are being given mobile phones and iPods. Where do you go from there?” she says. “If you spoil children, they are never going to develop into thoughtful, charitable people.”
Last week, thousands were raised for charity at two Big Birthday Appeal Chanucah gift fairs in Manchester. “All the left-over toys go to the children’s hospital to make sure that the kids have toys for Christmas,” says Mrs Glaskie. “We often take children to visit at the hospital. It’s important for them to learn to share with others. They often live in a bubble, it’s not on their radar that not all children are as happy or as lucky as them.”
Meanwhile, at North Cheshire Primary, head teacher Norma Massel endeavours to insert “strong messages about the miracle of Chanucah, Jewish continuity and resisting assimilation” into the Chanucah show she writes every year. “This year, it is about a menorah that goes with a child on the Kindertransport and how it goes through the generations, from the Second World War to the modern day.”
Schools, of course, play an important role in transmitting Jewish values — the word Chanucah is linked to the Hebrew for education, chinuch. But what matters most is the example at home.
“My grandmother told me that what made Chanucah meaningful was playing with a little pile of nuts and a dreidel,” reflects Rabbi Mark Goldsmith of London’s North-Western Reform Synagogue. “This was in the East End [of London]. It was all about playing with friends in the street, even when it was cold, not about a commercial clone of Christmas.
“Last year we recorded a Chanucah podcast at the synagogue and we interviewed parents and children. What I found interesting is that none of the children — who do have quite a lot of possessions and I suspect presents do figure large — mentioned presents as the thing that was important to them at Chanucah. What they spoke about is being with the people they cared about.
“I feel the biggest gift we can give to children is time. We live such pressured lives to give children the possessions we feel they need that we deprive them of time with them. One thing that Jewish ritual can do is to require us to spend time with others.”
One of the synagogue’s activities is a series of candle-lighting ceremonies in congregants’ homes across London open to everyone, with the simple plea to “put in your diary and make sure to be there”.
For Rabbi Solomons, too, the advice to parents is to “make a point of always lighting the candles together as a family”, sing the songs and tell the story of the festival — and only afterwards distribute presents. “Turn the lights off, look at the candles and remind your children that we are still here as Jews because of what the Maccabees did. If the religious side comes first, then you are giving the right message.”