From the December Monthly: Chanukah Gifts with Jewish Spirit

A few days before Thanksgiving, I was making a purchase in a department store, and the saleswoman who had been helping me recited a short script: “We thank you for doing business with us today, and we hope you’ll come back soon!  We’re even open on Thanksgiving this year.” 

“Really?” I asked her, naively incredulous.  “Open on Thanksgiving?”

“Yes,” she said, still perky.

“I’m not shopping on Thanksgiving!” I told her.  “It’s a family day!  For me and for you, and it should be for everyone who works here.”

And suddenly she dropped her smile.  “I know,” she said in a hushed whisper, “isn’t it awful? There’s no such thing as family time anymore.  There’s nothing sacred anymore.”

The biggest gift-giving and gift-buying season of the year is upon us.  Chanukah, once a minor holiday when children would receive a few coins (gelt), has, through its association with the Christmas season in the United States, been transformed into a major gift-buying and gift-giving holiday.  And just as some of my Christian friends cringe at the commercialization of their sacred holiday, and others enthusiastically embrace the gift-giving, I approach every Chanukah with a mix of delight and weariness.  Watching a child’s face when she opens a gift, or picking out that perfect present for a loved one, brings light to this season of darkness – but when the focus on gifts crowds out other Jewish values, like tzedakah and family time, the lights can seem distracting, not illuminating.

I don’t mean to suggest that any of us needs to stop giving gifts.  But Judaism does challenge us to think about how we can use our power as consumers to express and strengthen Jewish values, rather than detract from them.  So in honor of the 8 nights of Chanukah, here are 8 ways to bring Jewish values into your gift-giving this year:

  1. Make gift-giving a piece of your ritual with family or friends, but not the only piece. Students tell me all the time that their favorite holiday is Chanukah, and the presents certainly don’t hurt! But they also often talk about Chanukah when I ask them what being Jewish means to them – only then, they talk about when their family says the prayers, or sings a favorite song, or listens to an old family story during candle-lighting.
  2. Shop at stores that treat their workers the way you would want to be treated. Comparison shopping isn’t just important for prices.  Are retail workers, who may not be able to afford losing a job, being asked to leave their families on Thanksgiving?  What are warehouse conditions like during the busy Christmas season?  Do workers receive health benefits?  Patronize stores whose policies you support, and explain your decision when you give your gifts.
  3. Shop at stores that support a community. Is there a local merchant who is always willing to hang up a flyer for your son’s orchestra concert, or donate merchandise to your fundraiser?  This is a great opportunity for you to do your part to support community, too.
  4. Shop at stores that benefit causes you believe in. While some merchants advertise their charitable contributions but only donate pennies for each purchase, others donate a much more significant percentage of revenues to specific causes.
    Fair trade bangles and bunnies - yes please!

    Fair trade bangles and bunnies – yes please!

    Or shop for fair-trade gifts through companies like Global Goods Partners, which helps poor women in the global south sell their beautiful handicrafts at a fair price.

  5. Shop at our own Beth David gift shop, Gifted! Not only does Gifted have beautiful Judaica to help make your Chanukah celebration especially festive, but they also sell beautiful home gifts, books, and jewelry – and all the proceeds support our synagogue.  Call the synagogue office to check on open hours.
  6. Put some time into homemade gifts. Not all of us are great artists, but the Torah teaches that all of us can contribute to making something beautiful. And that was before Pinterest!
  7. Participate in Ner Shel Tzedakah, and make the 6th night about charity. This project of our Reform Movement encourages us to take one night out of 8 to focus on giving to others who are less fortunate, and to spend some time learning about poverty during a holiday that celebrates abundance. During the usual present-giving time, each member of your family can announce the tzedakah donation made in another family member’s honor, or reveal a charity that you chose to support.
  8. Cultivate an “attitude of gratitude.” One of our sages taught: “Who is rich?  He who is happy with what he has.”  Take time this Chanukah to appreciate the people you love, the beautiful lights of the menorah, a warm house on a cold night, and all the other gifts that can’t be fit into a box.
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