Oy, Hannukah. A holiday, relatively light in religious significance, that over the years got mixed up in the fevered American orgy of year-end gift-giving. Which isn’t too surprising, really. Hannukah is eight nights of celebration perched precariously close to Christmas. The simple cultural traditions of lighting candles, giving small sums of money to children, and eating fried food are no match for the seductive pull of Christmas, so the customs of American Jews have evolved to match the season (and likely, the demands of children).
Although plenty of parents now give big gifts to their kids, most Hannukah gifts are pretty small and tend to fall into one of three categories. Each of these categories, on closer examination, are very much in dialogue with Christmas. There are the “stocking stuffer” variety of gifts--chapstick, socks, and the like, which elicit no real love but do serve a practical purpose. There are the Christmas imitators (Maccabee on the Mantel is the Jewish version of Elf on a Shelf--but a lot less merry). And then there are the self-referential gifts (the dreidel being to Hannukah what the Christmas tree ornament is to Christmas), which quickly wear out their usefulness once the holiday is over.
I propose that the best Hannukah gifts should be modest, be useful for multiple years, and/or reference the values and themes of the holiday or contemporary Jewish culture in some way (sacrifice, self-deprecation, humor, food). Here are some favorites:
Hannukah sweaters to make them sweat. Are you trying to be ironic with that dreidel sweater? Or would laughing be culturally insensitive? Keep the goyim guessing at your work’s holiday party with comfy fleece hoodies for little ones.
Menorasaurus Rex. It’s a T-Rex! It’s a menorah! It’s both! Relegate your Thanksgivvukah turkey menorah to your basement for Hannukah eternity with these fun dinosaur menorahs.
Dr. Dreidel. A dreidel with a different portrait of Dr. Dre on each side?? Where can I get 100? Nowhere yet, apparently, but I dare you to make your own.
PJ Library subscription. Thanks to PJ Library, my children have more Jewish-themed kids books than any other kind of book on their shelves. That’s because PJ Library mails out a book for each child in your family every single month until they are 8 years old. Most of the books are stunners, written and illustrated by some of the best Jewish (and non-Jewish) children’s authors and artists out there. Best of all, it’s free--all you have to do is sign up online.
Milk Chocolate Maccabees with a Santa Inside. The discovery that a chocolate maker had used a Santa mold and wrapped the candy in a Maccabee exterior set off a kerfuffle on some online Jewish blogs, but if your kid is half-Jewish and half-Christian, these are the perfect gift.
A classic Israeli (by way of Philadelphia) cookbook. Most Jewish holidays are defined by food, and Zahav is the cookbook to get for your favorite home chef. It’s filled with mouthwatering Israeli food, including eight different types of hummus that are fun and easy to make with kids.
The Latke Who Couldn’t Stop Screaming. This book by Daniel Handler, aka Lemony Snicket, is an instant holiday classic. It somehow manages to be snarky, melancholy and hilarious while also imparting key information about the history of Hannukah and why it’s important not to conflate it with the Christmas.
UNICEF Kid Power Band. Tzedakah--giving charity--is a core Jewish concept, and is emphasized during Hannukah by giving children money to give to worthy causes. The UNICEF Kid Power Band extends this concept throughout the year with a unique twist. Kids wear a movement tracker on their wrist. The more they move, the more points they earn to unlock nutritional food packets to save the lives of children around the world. Kids can join teams and go on virtual missions to challenge themselves to move more and learn about the people and places they are helping. Given the current state of the world, this might be the best gift of all.