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Home > Holidays > The Friday Chanukah present

Editor's Column
The Friday Chanukah present

Senior Editor
December 26, 2000

CHICAGO—Chanukah, unlike other Jewish holidays, is a holiday of simplicity. There's no long, detailed ritual like the seder, nor any strenuous mitzvah like putting up a sukkah. It has a simple story accompanied by a simple ritual, lighting the menorah.

For kids, of course, it's even less complicated than that: Chanukah is about presents, though to some people, giving presents on Chanukah is "goyish" (literally non-Jewish), an assertion I think Jews would be better left without. Aside from the shameful connotation it suggests—that we're better than non-Jews—it's also historically inaccurate, since the practice of giving Christmas presents was modeled after the Chanukah tradition of giving gelt. At least that's what I heard the last time someone said the "goyish" thing to me.

My question about Chanukah stems from my childhood experience. We weren't one of those every-night-a-present families; we averaged three or four (.375 is pretty good in baseball, I figured). One of those presents, however, was always a Friday night present, given right after menorah and Shabbat candle lighting. It was always wrapped in a brown paper bag, since we couldn't tear open wrapping paper once Shabbat started. It was always a book.

When I was younger, it was usually an activity book, with puzzles, word games, and the like. For my sister, a few years older, it was probably a book to read.

My simple Chanukah question was this: if the Friday night present was going to be wrapped in a paper bag anyway, why couldn't it be a regular present, like a game? Obviously it wouldn't be anything requiring batteries or electricity that would violate Shabbat, but why could it only be a book?

As a kid hoping for exciting toys and games, I will confess I wasn't exactly thrilled with the books. I can't remember the first time I got the Friday night present, but I think over the years I grew not to show any disappointment. Disappointment requires anticipation or hope for something specific, after all; if you know exactly what to expect, that minimizes any false expectations.

Now, as an adult, I think I appreciate the Friday night presents just a bit more.

We live in a wonderful time, and those of us who were fortunate enough to have been born in America or other free countries have so much to be thankful for. We have unlimited freedoms, to do what we want, to say what we believe, to pursue what we choose. So what greater gift could a parent give—aside from love—than knowledge?

I don't know if the Friday night presents were intended to say, "Go be a doctor, son." (If so, then obviously they failed. I conditionally apologize for not living up to expectations.) And those activity books—which, at a puzzle a day, I would have finished after 7 years, not to mention the puzzles from the next year's book—may not have been Dostoyevsky, but they stimulated the mind, certainly more than the countless hours of TV I watched after school. Or more than the Atari 2600 I always longed for. Or more than the countless "Simpsons" reruns I watch now.

But the foreshadowing marked by that childhood experience is clear. On Friday nights now, especially when Shabbat starts early, I look forward to that long period after dinner before going to sleep, when my wife and I catch up on some reading. No television, no internet, just the warm lights of the living room, the soft cushions of the sofa, a cup of tea, and the newspaper, a magazine, perhaps something on the parsha. Of course, eventually we'll start talking, and inevitably we begin quoting lines to each other from our favorite TV shows, "The Simpsons" and "Seinfeld." But even—or perhaps especially—that wouldn't be possible without proper mind development begun in our youth.

Thanks for the Friday night presents, Mom and Dad.

P.S. Next year, please send a check instead.

©, 2000. May not be reproduced without written permission.

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