Lynne Dubin stood in the aisle of Lionel Kiddie City and fretted: Should she buy her friend's baby a first Christmas ornament or a stuffed doll? Sons Jeremy and Peter Dubin, 15 and 12, were getting antsy, edging her toward the door. We've got to go to Kemp Mill Records, they were saying; Dad would love a new country and western tape.
The holiday shopping scene last week, typical this time of year, was a far cry from the Decembers of Dubin's childhood.
Dubin, now in her mid-forties, is Jewish. She can recall when Christmas was a seemingly magical holiday reserved for other children and Hanukah, the holiday her family celebrated, a series of candles and prayers that paled in comparison.
"I felt as if the kid next door was having a birthday party I hadn't been invited to," she said.
Dubin swore that when she had children, they wouldn't feel as left out as she had each December. But how could she indulge her children without abandoning the Jewish traditions she cherished? If she promoted Christmas festivities, she would feel as if she were selling out to the majority culture.
Lynne and her husband, Elliott, resolved what is often called the December dilemma as many Jewish American parents have done. They have elevated Hanukah, a minor Jewish holiday that begins tonight, to a status almost equal to the Christian Christmas. The Dubins hang Hanukah decorations, spend hundreds of dollars on Transformer toys, cameras, watches and other family gifts and attend holiday parties where they exchange more gifts.
Some rabbis and some Jewish parents say Hanukah extravagance is one more troubling sign of Jewish assimilation into a largely secular, materialistic society. But parents such as the Dubins counter that Hanukah exuberance, if it doesn't get out of hand, can in fact build Jewish identity and leave their children free to enjoy both holidays.
"On the one hand, what we've done is wrong," said Lynne Dubin, a Springfield resident who teaches American history at Madison High School in Vienna. "On the other hand, we've avoided the kids feeling something is wrong, that they can't enjoy Christmas."
The Dubins, like many Jews, do not celebrate Christmas in their home. But some Jewish parents do. Ron Wolfson, a Jewish educator, wrote in a recent book that 10 percent of families with Jewish-born parents put up evergreen trees, often called Hanukah bushes.
At the Lionel toy store, Dubin encountered a friend from her temple who confided that for several years her children left milk and cookies for Santa Claus, and got notes back wishing them "Happy Hanukah."
But most Jewish families have chosen to do what the Dubins do -- expand Hanukah rather than adopt Christmas rituals. The greeting card market is one indication of this adaptation: 11 million Hanukah cards will be sold this year, according to an industry spokeswoman, 9 million more than for Passover, a much more significant holiday.
During a lunch break on their recent foray to Annandale's Fair City Mall, 12-year-old Peter Dubin volunteered that he liked Hanukah because "you don't have to sit in services all day long," as might be the case on a major holiday. His friend Gabe Soll, 15, said Hanukah is a happy reminder that soon "we get two weeks off from school."
Fifteen-year-old Jeremy said he enjoys good food at Hanukah, but his favorite holiday is Christmas. "It's the most fun," he said unabashedly, his mother sitting across from him. "There are lots of parties. It's like an American holiday."
This doesn't mean the boys don't experience some sense of being apart during a month when most television specials carry a Christmas theme. Public schools no longer hold the Christmas pageants they once did, but Lynne Dubin recalls Peter sheepishly bringing home a gingerbread house he had made in school and asking her if he could keep it. He did.
Jeremy said that when he was younger, he was bothered by the fact that most merchants decorated only for Christmas. A half-hour later, he and the rest of the troupe scanned a party store window plastered with snowflakes, reindeer, elves and toy soldiers, and finally, yes, there under Santa's beard, found a small menorah.
Slights like that don't affect him much anymore, Jeremy said, because he learned at Hebrew school that Christmas, commemorating the birth of Christ, is far more significant for Christians than Hanukah is for Jews.
During the eight days of Hanukah, beginning at sundown today, the Dubins will review the Hanukah story: how in 165 B.C., the Syrian ruler of Judea attempted to stop Jews from practicing their religion, only to be defeated by a small band of Jewish rebels. The Dubins will light candles in their menorah for eight nights, adding one each night. The candles symbolize the miracle of the small bit of oil found by the victorious Jews that was expected to burn for one day and instead burned for eight.
Lynne Dubin said she believes that if her family celebrates the other Jewish holidays as well, Christmas will diminish in importance. Her rabbi, Bruce Aft, of Congregation Adat Reyim in Burke, agrees. "Christmas makes Jews feel spiritually inferior," Aft said. If families "rekindle the sense of the sacred" by observing the Sabbath and the other Jewish holidays, "they won't need all the gift-giving."
Until this year, Jeremy and Peter Dubin each received a present every night during Hanukah. This year, Lynne and Elliott Dubin are cutting back the number of gifts in favor of larger ones. Last year, they spent about $600 on gifts, Lynne said; neither she nor Elliott, an economist, foresee those costs diminishing.
"It seems a lot compared to what I grew up with," said Elliott, the son of a Brooklyn shoe store manager. "But last year I got a leather jacket. How can I complain?"
Next Sunday, the Dubins will join three other families for an annual get-together and gift exchange. One of those families, Errol and Liz Segall and their children, will be eating potato latkes, traditional Hanukah fare, as they anticipate Christmas goodies in a couple of weeks. Liz Segall, a Quaker, has not converted, and her family celebrates both holidays.
Another mother in that group, Barbara Sipos, says she sees nothing wrong with making a big deal out of Hanukah. Like Lynne Dubin, she recalls a past where the cultural indifference to Hanukah really hurt.
It was 1972; she and her husband were spending their first December in Northern Virginia. She set off in her car down Interstate 95 looking for Hanukah candles, and by the time she got to Crystal City, "I was crying because I couldn't find any. We've come a long way since then."