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My first Hanukkah memory has nothing to do with the story of the Macabees overthrowing the Greeks to protect the temple, the lighting of candles, or even the taste of crispy potato latkes fried in oil to commemorate the miracle of lights.
In 1935, I was around five years old and living in Montreal when I opened a small envelope from Aunt Ann and Uncle Harry that contained a $5 bill inside and a note that said Hanukkah Gelt. I was bewildered. What did the holiday have to do with money?
It’s been over 75 years since then, and while many changes have swept North American Jewry during that time, I suspect that thrill for young children–of getting gifts–is what many people still have as their first Hanukkah memory. And it’s not just Jews who’ve begun to associate the holidays with gifts, all Americans are prone to turning to material possessions to celebrate winter holidays.
The power of the societal pull that turns December into the “season of giving” is impossible to resist in much of the Diaspora. In a culture that parallels Christmas with Hanukkah, it is easy for many people to easily confuse the celebration of holidays with the exchange of material possessions. Even in my own life, I have fallen into that trap.
When I came to New York from Canada in the 1950s to run the American business of the Seagram’s Corporation, my first wife and I had a Christmas tree and all the pageantry that accompanied it. As a highly assimilated New York German Jew, it was something she had grown up with and came to expect participating in this “American” custom. I was indifferent and it was important to her, so I went along.
Even when we were no longer married, I continued to have a tree in my home until I met my current wife who sensibly pointed out to me that in a Jewish home one doesn’t celebrate Christmas.
I was 60, and it was the beginning of a Jewish journey for me which awakened me to the wonders of Judaism. After a lifetime of knowing I was Jewish, it was only at the beginning of the third act of my life that I began to take pride in my religion and the way I saw and practiced Judaism began to evolve.
One of the things I am most inspired by in Judaism is the religion’s adaptability. We can often be overly reverent in thinking that Judaism is a religion of obedience. One of Judaism’s great legacies, however, is our ability to reinterpret tradition and the shared studying of our texts. While people often think of Jewish texts as the study of Torah and Talmud, there are smaller texts that we use in the most intimate of moments: prayers.
Like gifts, many people think of prayers as an exchange–you ask for something and hope you get it. In my mind, this is not the purpose of prayer. I see prayer as an opportunity to acknowledge that for which we are thankful. Prayer is an opportunity to articulate intention. Just as many of our greatest texts are a collective memory of how to pursue what is just and fair, our prayers are moments when we must speak out loud what it is we wish for in our hearts.
I have felt most empowered and connected as a Jew when I have taken tradition into my own hands. As a humanist and a Jew, I see Jewish tradition as an evolving, living thing that must constantly adapt, or becomes stagnant and loses its meaning. It is a golden thread that connects us to our ancestors, but unfurls in our hands to pass on to the next generation while we witness the direction they take it.
Blessing children is a sacred tradition in Jewish faith and is a way of connecting generations. Every Shabbat, as we celebrate the dignity of rest, Jews pause to bless our children.
Ostensibly, it is to ask that they be granted grace and protection, but in my mind the greater gift is the children hear they are valued and treasured. We express love and gratitude for them in our lives, and they hear our dreams for them. The traditional text blesses sons to be like Ephraim and Menashe-the sons of Joseph who were the first brothers in the bible to be without rivalry-and daughters like the mothers of our people-Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah. If you decide to write a blessing, it can be an opportunity to educate yourself about the Jewish figures in history you most admire and to teach your children and yourself about who these people are.
This Hanukkah, instead of the traditional gelt, take your Judaism into your own hands and write a blessing for each child; pick a special night for each during the eight day period of candle lighting. Tell them why you are grateful for them in your life and what your dreams are for them. It will be one of the greatest gifts they ever get, and one of the greatest you will ever give.
Many children might still prefer gelt at the moment, but this is an opportunity for you to give something greater: a moment to connect them to yourself, your family, and the Jewish people. By enacting Jewish values that place the home and the written word as being of the highest value, it will instill in them Jewish pride and a feeling of being safe, loved and treasured. It is also a gift no one else can give to them. We can substitute possessions, but not family or love. That is an important lesson to remember in all traditions, and year round.
Instead of binding another gift in fancy wrapping that will be enjoyed and then discarded, you will be binding your family together in the meaning of a Jewish home, and rebelling against seeing Hanukkah as merely an extension of the December gift-giving season.
Edgar M. Bronfman is the president of The Samuel Bronfman Foundation which seeks to inspire a renaissance of Jewish life. He is the former CEO of the Seagram Company Ltd, and is currently at work on a book about Jewish peoplehood with the journalist Ruth Andrew Ellenson.
Editor’s note: This post has been updated.