- The Washington Times - Monday, December 6, 2004

Once Hanukkah was a minor Jewish holiday, marked by the quiet lighting of candles on the eight-branched

menorah and the eating of traditional foods, such as potato latkes with sour cream or applesauce.

Now it’s part of the winter holiday mix, with approximately 11 million Hanukkah cards wrapped into the 1.9 billion cards sold by greeting card makers in a two-month marathon stretching from Halloween to New Year’s.

Blue-and-white holiday gift wrap, ribbons and cards embossed with the Star of David occupy a prominent spot at convenience stores. Blue-and-white lights adorn Jewish homes, synagogues use “Hanukkah gift sales” to bring in end-of-the-year funds and a holiday never known for its emphasis on gifts has turned into an eight-day merchandiser’s dream.

“Because Hanukkah falls so close to Christmas, it’s tempting for Jewish parents to try to turn it into a similar holiday experience,” says an essay on the Web site www.FamilyEducation.com.

“But this can send a confusing message to kids. From Frosty to Santa, the secular symbols of Christmas — and the magical world they suggest — are so enticing for children that no matter how hard parents try to twist Hanukkah into a ‘Jewish Christmas,’ it comes off as a pale and not very satisfying substitute.”

“It’s like saying we have to catch up, that our holiday is just as important, just as big, just as noisy,” says Erica Brown, director of the Jewish Leadership Institute in Rockville. “Jewish kids get caught in that gift-giving, gift-wanting mode. That was never part of Jewish culture.”

In fact, the Talmud has a law prohibiting the counting of money in front of a menorah, she added, as a way of not mixing secular and sacred during the holiday.

“The idea is to make a distinct separation between what is material and what is spiritual,” she said. “I think we’ve been blurring the lines too much.”

What is ironic is that the origins of the holiday in 165 B.C. concerned Jews who resisted — often to the death — the Hellenizing influence of the dominant Greek culture of the time.

But that was then. Today, www.hallmark.com has a list of “Hanukkah celebration ideas,” including a suggestion to seek out long-lost friends and “give them a small gift along with a heartfelt note or card for each of the eight nights of Hanukkah.”

Nordstrom markets a blue-striped “Hanukkah gift card,” for amounts ranging from $25 to $1,000, on its store.nordstrom.com site.

The Web site www.OyBaby.com markets digital video discs, compact discs and videos of Hebrew music. “Do you know what you’re buying for the Jewish baby on your list?” it asks.

Comedian Adam Sandler’s pop hit “The Hanukkah Song,” which concentrates on how many movie stars are Jewish and exhorts listeners to smoke marijuana and drink gin and tonic during “eight crazy nights,” has become the holiday’s most famous musical note.

The simple holiday that memorialized a band of gallant warriors is now a shopping occasion.

“Today a lot of kids expect a lot bigger presents, including electronic gifts,” Mrs. Brown says. “They are clearly trying to compete with kids who get a lot of gifts at one time and they feel a little disenfranchised.”

At most, traditional Hanukkah gifts included “Hanukkah gelt” — gold foil-wrapped money, which was given to children who could answer questions or solve riddles. They also play “dreidel,” a cubelike spinning top with Hebrew letters engraved on it. Mrs. Brown says she has taught her four children to use the holiday to give money to charity and to study their heritage.

The Lubavitch movement, based in Brooklyn, N.Y., has led a successful campaign over the years to elevate the menorah to the same status as the Christmas tree, which is why there are examples of both planted on the White House lawn.

Chabad Lubavitch of Alexandria, an Orthodox synagogue, will stage the lighting of a 6-foot menorah at 5 p.m. Sunday at J&J; Oriental Rug Gallery in downtown Alexandria, with free latkes, dreidels and chocolate gelt.

“This is all so people can feel comfortable celebrating it in the open,” says Rabbi Mordechai Newman, director of the synagogue. “The reason why we light the menorah is to display the miracle. Throughout the ages, Jews have been scared to come out in public in this fashion, but now they feel comfortable with their Jewish heritage.”

Other Jewish families minimize the gift giving, instead reading aloud stories such as Isaac Bashevis Singer’s “The Power of Light,” or visiting Jewish bookstores for Hanukkah-themed games and looking for other ways to make the moment meaningful.

Web sites are big players. The site www.JBooks.com suggests Bob Dylan’s autobiography, “Chronicles: Volume One,” even though it reluctantly anoints the pop star “a nice Jewish cultural icon. Sort of.”

Reams of insights and tips about the holiday, including a list of major world cities that sport immense publicly displayed menorahs, are found on www.chanukah.org.

JewZ.com points out that, because part of the Hanukkah story is about a lamp of oil that miraculously burned for eight days, one should at least attempt items, such as latkes and jelly doughnuts, that are fried in oil. Recipes are provided.

David Butler, president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, says he and his wife stretched out the gift giving for their four children to last all eight nights of the festival.

“We’d light the candles and sit on the couch and sing songs, then open presents. As they got older, there was less singing and more presents,” he says jokingly.

His family has made Hanukkah a time of family reunions, to ease the pressure on bigger and better gifts.

“We are all accepting the fact that commercialization is out there,” he says, “so let’s live with it.”

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