We’ve been told recently how American Jewish kids get all excited about the Christmas catalogs that show up in their mailboxes in October, expecting the lavish offerings to translate into eight nights of sumptuous gift-giving in December.

My kids, here in Israel, wouldn’t know a “holiday” catalog if it hit them on the head — though I doubt they would object to an eight night-long consumer debauch. But what they would really like for Hanukkah — besides smart phones and Princess Elsa dolls —  is the cherished full week’s vacation that they had in past years, and that they’ve been deprived of this year for reasons that some of us find hard to fathom.

We’re told that the Education Ministry decided to shorten this year’s Hanukkah break because the start of the school year had been “returned” to the first of September, after a year in which studies began earlier; but somehow I’m not understanding what one year’s Hanukkah vacation has to do with another year’s first day of school. Shouldn’t it be about the kids and their need for a break?

All the school-vacation yo-yo-ing that’s been going on these last few years in Israel — adding days here, taking them off there — reflects a widespread perception that there is something wrong with the traditional 10-month school year and the various holiday breaks that punctuate it.

The “problem” is generally defined as a lack of balance.between children’s many days of no school and parents’ few days of no work. This definition is born of a reality in which both parents work 40 hours per week (or more) outside the home, with limited vacation time, and have to scramble for childcare arrangements when their children are off school and they are stuck at their jobs.

In this reality of regimented 40-hour work weeks and parental stress, recent initiatives such as the 11-month school year and longer preschool days (i.e., subsidized tzaharonim –afternoon programs) are looked upon as social victories. My question: who’s winning? Is it really a victory when toddlers’ “work” days are lengthened and children’s vacation entitlements are slashed? If kids were unionized, they’d surely be striking.

Is it a victory for women when the government, by subsidizing afternoon programs, manipulates them into being more “active” members of the labor force? Frankly, I’m not sure I need the government to tell me how to manage my work-life balance.

It’s a pity that the long, stressful days of work/scrambling for childcare arrangements/making ends meet keep us from identifying the real problem and taking steps to solve it. The real problem is our sanctification of the 40 (or more) hour work week — a historical artifact that deserves to be reconsidered. There is a wealth of information available on the Internet about how the full-time American work week as we know it came to be and considerable speculation about what our lives would be like had things developed differently. In particular, it has been pointed out that the failure to shorten the work week as productivity rose in tandem with technological advancement was rooted in a strategic shift on the part of American industrialists, who actively advanced a “gospel of consumption” that would keep people working more hours so they could buy more goods that they didn’t necessarily need.

In fact, the standard American/Israeli work week is considerably longer than that of European countries regarded as socially progressive — countries where people have learned to value their personal time.

It has been pointed out that long work hours are not necessarily associated with high labor productivity. Israel in fact ranks close to economically-troubled Greece on both parameters — long work hours and low labor productivity.

Maybe if we work fewer hours and have more time for our families and other pursuits we will be more productive when we do work.

Here in Israel we are preoccupied with our children’s educational attainments compared with the attainments of children in other developed countries. We are always lamenting Israel’s poor showing on international standardized tests.

Maybe if we give our children a real weekend, instead of an anachronistic 6-day school week — and stop encroaching on their precious vacation time — their performance on these tests will improve. At the very least we might, as a country, enjoy the tranquility of an extra morning each week when our children don’t have to be hustled out of the door.

As our abbreviated Hanukkah vacation approaches, we would do well to consider whether our children benefit when we treat them as obstacles to full labor force participation, and whether we might not all be better off trading a little consumption for some more downtime.