Friday, November 23, 2007

An Alternative Chanukah Gift Guide

I remember it like it was yesterday. Sitting in a hospice room in Hartford Hospital, Bill Schulman (not his real name – but the story is true) lay dead in the bed next to me as I waited, together with Bill’s wife for the funeral home to come, and for Bill’s son to arrive from France. When her son finally arrived, we sat down at the small table to talk about funeral plans. As we began talking, Bill’s son stopped the conversation and asked a question (with his father still lying there in the room) that I’ll never forget: “When can we probate the will?”

I wondered what could make a person so selfish, self-centered and crass. Bill’s son answered my question, albeit unknowingly, during the shiva. Speaking lovingly about his father he told me, “We were always the first ones on the block to have anything. We had the first basketball hoop, the first color television – my father always bought us anything we wanted.” Indeed.

America celebrates its holidays – especially the religious ones – by doing what we do best. We buy stuff. I feel bad for Christian clergy. After all, America has transformed one of their holiest holidays of the year into a crass commercial extravaganza that now begins the day after Thanksgiving. We can’t even digest our turkey properly, as we have to rise at 5am to beat the crowds for the doorbusters. We all get “gift guides” in the mail: in newspapers, magazines, catalogues, brochures and mailings of all shapes and colors. And this commercialism colors our attitude towards our own holidays as well. Who doesn’t buy Chanukah gifts for their children or grandchildren? Do gifts have anything to do with Chanukah at all? And, most importantly, if we’re going to give gifts, what should we give that will enhance, and not detract from the greater message of Chanukah?

In all honesty, Chanukah gifts fly in the face of everything that the holiday represents. At the same time though, I must admit that I will be buying and giving my own children presents this Chanukah. Why? For three reasons: my parents gave me presents on Chanukah, my kids expect them, and it’s not fair to make them the only children in town who did not get anything for Chanukah. We have ingrained the notion of “presents” too deeply into our social consciousness to ignore them completely. But if we do give gifts, we can use those gifts to both express our love, and convey values that we hold dear.

First and foremost, gifts should be expressions of affection. They should not only say, “I love you,” but “I care about you and your interests.” For that reason, I’ve never been a big fan of giving money as a gift (unless the recipient really needs the money to cover expenses). A gift of money conveys the clear message that “I don’t really know what you want, so go buy it yourself.” But that check also says, “I couldn’t think about what you’d want and go out and purchase that thing for you. So get it yourself” If you’re giving a child or grandchild money for their college fund – great! But otherwise, think about what they like; their hobbies or interests and values – and get them something that matches those interests. If they don’t like it, let them return it (and don’t be hurt). At the very least, they’ll appreciate the fact that you took the time and energy to find something specifically for them. And when the item is gone – or lost or broken – the value of that time and thought and energy investment will endure.

If you’re buying something for a child, I have come to realize that our kids have way, way too much stuff. From electronics to games to music to toys, they have so many things that they don’t use a vast majority of them. Today’s latest and greatest device will by lying on the shelf next by next week. They don’t need another cellphone, or video game or television. So why not give a gift of time: get them a lesson with a tennis instructor, or tokens to the batting cages; tickets to a concert of a (kosher) musician or take them to a sporting event. And then take them there yourself – and give them time alone with a parent – which is what many kids really want most anyway. That way, when the game is over, the memory will endure but not gather dust in their room.

Finally, we often find ourselves trying to buy gifts for people who don’t really need anything – usually adults. What can you give to someone who – if he or she wants something – can and will go out and buy that thing themselves? You can give them something. You can value what they value. When I want to thank someone for a favor or give them a gift – and they really don’t want anything from me, I have found that a great gift is giving to a tzedakah that they like in their honor. That gesture (a) really does help others (b) is a great way to spend money and (c) strongly conveys to the recipient that I not only value them, but their values as well. That, to my mind, is a great gift.

Gift-giving season can be challenging, strenuous and difficult – even if you didn’t get up at 4am on Black Friday. But, with thought, care and consideration, giving gifts can be an opportunity not only to make our loved ones happier – but to make them better people as well.

Have a wonderful, warm, light and meaningful Chanukah!