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Hanukkah's Gift Rap
For Some, a Once-Simple Jewish Festival Is Morphing Into an Explosion of Presents

By Annie Groer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 7, 2006

Herb Nechin remembers exactly what he got for Hanukkah as a boy growing up in the Bronx in the 1920s.

"Nothing, really," says the retired psychology professor. "My parents didn't have anything to give."

When his only child was young during the 1950s, Nechin and his wife "tried to find out what he most wanted, and to give him that one thing."

Fast-forward to 2006, to Potomac. Nechin, now 85, lives with his son, Kenneth, 54, a physician; daughter-in-law Annette Bicher, 43, a surgeon; and four granddaughters, ages 13 months to 10 years.

The girls will get gifts -- toys, books, art supplies, perhaps a guitar or camera -- during the eight-day festival of lights that starts at sundown Dec. 15. That's a lot, certainly when compared with their parents' early experiences, but perhaps not as much as the children would like.

"I need a cellphone," 8-year-old Hannah informed her father recently. "I need an iPod, I need a laptop."

To which Kenneth Nechin says he replied, "I think when you're 16, you'll still be needing those things."

Hanukkah, a minor Jewish holiday celebrating the ancient victory of the Maccabees over the Syrians, traditionally is observed with simple rituals of lighting candles, eating potato latkes, singing songs, playing with dreidels and receiving gelt: either real currency or chocolate coins. Customarily, the presents are mostly for children.

It often has been noted that the holiday's proximity to Christmas has, over the years, resulted in a kind of gift creep. But in many families, Hanukkah creep might now have become Hanukkah leap.

Charlene Feldman, 60, of Potomac is a mother of two and grandmother of three. She sees a generational explosion in gift giving. "It wasn't so overboard, like things are today," she says, comparing her daughters' basements to Toys R Us and suggesting that the grandkids might be "jaded."

Feldman, who grew up in Silver Spring and taught in Montgomery County schools, remembers receiving "little things" as a child, then giving her own girls "something for every night, a mixture of extra-cute necessities like underwear, a board game."

Feldman's younger daughter, Jamie Freedman, 35, a mother of two, works part time at American University. "My friends are all talking about what are the big-ticket items," she says. "I have a friend who stood in line for the new Wii" -- the video game console from Nintendo released last month. "Her kids are 3 and 6. A lot of my friends don't have all this money, but they do it just to keep up with the Joneses." Or the Cohens.

"Everybody tries to give more than the last generation," says another Potomac mother of two, requesting anonymity for fear of offending her in-laws. "The grandparents started from scratch and gave their kids small things. Our parents gave us a little more. And now we are out of hand, pretty much getting our kids everything they want. I try to avoid electronics because they are so expensive. Do kids need them at 7 and 5? No."

Edith Greenberg, 71, is a Silver Spring homemaker who revels in the gift giving. She grew up in an observant Jewish home in a Pittsburgh neighborhood filled with Christmas decorations that left her "feeling, my whole life, left out." The occasional gifts of silver-dollar gelt hardly helped.

The arrival of two sons, now in their 40s, meant more than just ritual candle lighting. "Every penny I could afford went into Hanukkah gifts. A small electric motorcycle, a riding firetruck. Whatever was hot that year. Evel Knievel. GI Joe."

Then came her only grandson, who is 6. "I have bought everything under the sun for him for Hanukkah and Christmas, because he's half-and-half."

Her husband, Norm Greenberg, 79 -- a federal retiree whose most memorable Hanukkah gift was a bottle of French dressing from a grandfather trying to get him to eat more -- says he just shrugs at the excess and pays the bills.

Ellen Epstein, 59, of Chevy Chase says that rather than gifts at Hanukkah, she preferred taking her five children to the Ice Capades and other special events when they were young. Gifts were played down, although one daughter, now 27, remembers a pair of pajamas.

Today Epstein, a professional organizer, sees what she considers Hanukkah excess in some of the homes she is hired to declutter. These parents "want to give their children something unique, unusual, or maybe to show off how affluent they are. Some of it is overly indulgent," she says.

Annette Bicher, who was born in Israel, says Hanukkah there is less gift oriented than in this country. Her Hanukkah presents tended to be "little things: games, things for art projects. Certainly it was not the huge thing that it is in this country because of the rub-off from Christmas."

She sees several factors as having contributed to the escalation. "I think in many ways, people who didn't have the means either to give earlier in their lives, or who did not receive gifts when they were young, do buy more things for their children or grandchildren."

Sandwiched between his father and daughters, Bicher's husband, Kenneth Nechin, is trying to hold the line.

"What happens, generationally and culturally, is that somehow Hanukkah takes on the air of the Jewish Christmas, and families feel they need to be giving gifts every night," he says, noting that at his home the focus is on charity and the holiday's deeper meaning: "Religious tolerance, the freedom to practice religion, minorities overcoming majorities who are trying to take your rights away. It really ain't about the presents."

Rabbi Shimon Apisdorf of Baltimore, author of "Chanukah: Eight Nights of Light, Eight Gifts for the Soul," says he doesn't mind gifts. In moderation.

"It's kind of sad if all you're left with is the wrapping paper and nothing inside of you," Apisdorf says. "And in a sense, you are cheating your kids if the lasting memories are gifts. But if you don't do anything, there is a sense something is missing. So by giving a gift, you did it and there is not this unfulfilled expectation."

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