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Some want gifts to be less a part of Hanukkah

Rabbis say adopting Christmas customs contradicts essence of 'Festival of Lights'

Friday, November 29, 2002

By Jeffrey Cohan, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

It's a familiar lament this time of year.

The emphasis on gift-giving and the excesses of merchandising debase the holiday.

Consumerism trumps spiritualism. Shopping supplants praying.

Sharon and Charlie Saul gather with their children in their Squirrel Hill home. From left are Sharon; Ilana, 17; Eli, 9; Dovie, 16; Chaya, 11; Michal, 21; Dani 13, and Charlie. The menorah in the foregound was made by Dani.The family will give gifts only on the holiday's fifth night. (Steve Mellon. Post-Gazette)

We're talking about Hanukkah, of course.

The Jewish "Festival of Lights," set to begin its eight-day run at sundown tonight, has been an occasion for decades to exchange presents, mimicking Christmas.

But while priests and ministers may deplore the commercialism of the Christian holiday, some rabbis see an extra reason to bemoan what's happened to Hanukkah.

That's because the Jewish festival celebrates an ancient resistance to the forces of assimilation, while the gift-giving reflects a modern submission to the pull of American culture.

In the view of some rabbis, injecting the Christmas custom of exchanging presents into the Jewish observance of Hanukkah contradicts the very essence of the holiday.

"Gift-giving is really the undoing of Hanukkah," said Rabbi Daniel Schiff of Temple B'nai Israel, a Reform synagogue in White Oak. "It has effectively made it into a Jewish Christmas."

"It is ironic," said Baltimore-area Rabbi Shimon Apisdorf, author of "Chanukah: Eight Nights of Light, Eight Gifts for the Soul."

"The whole notion of the gift-giving ends up overwhelming the holiday itself."

The story of Hanukkah dates back to the 2nd century B.C., when Jews in Israel were living under Syrian-Greek rule. Facing hostility to their religion from the government, many Jews began to assimilate into Greek culture, taking on Greek names and worshipping Greek gods.

In resistance, a group of devout Jews formed a guerrilla army and called themselves the "Maccabees," the word for "hammer." After three years of fighting, the Maccabees overcame long odds and drove the Syrians out of Israel, reclaiming the principal temple in Jerusalem.

On the 25th day of the Jewish month of Kislev in the year 165 B.C., the Maccabees finished removing Greek symbols and statues from the temple.

To celebrate that victory over the forces of assimilation, Hanukkah starts on the 25th of Kislev, which this year falls tonight.

The holiday's eight-day duration corresponds with the Talmudic story of a temple lamp that remained lit for eight days on one day's worth of oil after the Maccabean victory.

In Israel tonight, Jews will light menorahs in their living rooms and public squares. But most of them won't exchange presents.

In the United States, by contrast, Jews will give gifts mainly because they live in a Christian-dominated country and the holiday happens to arrive each year during the Christmas season.

"The origins of Hanukkah gift-giving are to blend in culturally," said Apisdorf, who is Orthodox. "You give your gifts and we give our gifts."

That's not exactly what the Maccabees had in mind when they were fighting to preserve Judaism as a distinct religion and culture, Apisdorf noted in his book.

Many Jews are seeking a middle way, not abstaining from gift-giving altogether, but devoting more energy to other elements of the holiday.

"We used to give presents every night, but now we only give gifts on the fifth night, to de-emphasize the material aspect," said Downtown attorney Charlie Saul, an Orthodox Jew and father of seven.

Saul and his wife picked the fifth night because of its mystical significance.

On each night of Hanukkah, Jews light an additional candle on their menorahs, starting with one tonight. So not until the fifth night will a majority of the candles be lit, symbolic of light overcoming darkness in the world.

Squirrel Hill resident Jane Rollman, a Conservative Jew, said she and her husband also have restrained their gift-giving. Their three young children receive gifts each night but only small things, such as books and pens.

"We make a bigger fuss out of lighting the candles, having company over, celebrating the holiday," Rollman said. "We decided to change the emphasis."

But in many Jewish homes, maybe most in this country, gift-giving remains a major component of the Hanukkah observance.

Hampton High School senior Laura Kress, 17, said her mother piles the Hanukkah presents in a corner of the living room. Then she and her siblings open one each night after lighting the menorah.

Kress -- a columnist for The Jewish Chronicle, a Pittsburgh weekly -- recognizes the Christmas influence on the Jewish holiday.

"Sometimes Hanukkah is blown a little out of proportion because of the time of the year," she said.

And to the extent it's blown out of proportion, it warps the entire Jewish year, since Hanukkah is supposed to be a minor holiday, B'nai Israel's Schiff stresses.

"The gift-giving makes the festival something that is tremendously anticipated, especially by children," the rabbi said. "It's the Christianization of the Jewish calendar, because our principal, focal time of year should be the new year, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur."

Not all rabbis share Schiff's concerns, though.

"I don't think it's a negative thing to give children Hanukkah presents. It's a way of enhancing our holiday," said Rabbi Alvin Berkun of Tree of Life, a Conservative congregation in Squirrel Hill.

Berkun views the gift-giving as a form of reverse assimilation.

"One of the geniuses of Judaism for thousands of years is the way we've been able to take things out of the society in which we find ourselves and Judaize them, make them something of our own," he said. "To take things from the culture around us and make them Jewish is, I think, a healthy thing."

Both Christians and Jews can identify a religious basis for gift-giving, although the connection of Nintendo games to their spiritual traditions appears tenuous at best.

Christians can trace Christmas gifts back to the gospel story of the Magi, who brought presents to the young Jesus.

Jews, meanwhile, have given coins, called "gelt," to their children since Medieval times. Children spin a four-sided top, called a "dreidel," in a game played for gelt, which today commonly takes the form of chocolate coins.

When it comes to giving larger gifts, Reform Rabbi Art Donsky, of Temple Ohav Shalom in Allison Park, said Jews are not incorporating Christian practices into their Hanukkah celebrations.

Rather, he said, both Christians and Jews are succumbing to this country's consumerist culture.

"Many of my Christian counterparts in the North Hills feel the same way," Donsky said. "Christmas isn't really about giving gifts, either."

Jeffrey Cohan can be reached at jcohan@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3573.

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