As a rabbi, it is hard for me to accept the notion of Hanukkah gifts. There is far more evidence that the custom of Hanukkah gift-giving comes from our non-Jewish neighbors than it comes from Jewish traditions. This year I am urging everyone to make sure children get gifts for every night of Hanukkah—no exceptions. Why? Because Jewish children—and children as a whole—have just gone through the most challenging year of their lives. Gifts won’t make it all better, yet the holiday of Hanukkah creates an incredible opportunity to take a home-based holiday and make it most memorable.
While communities have rightfully focused on seniors, those living alone, and the immunocompromised during Passover and the High Holidays, Hanukkah is the time to remember a generation of Jewish children who spent a year facing unpreceded difficulties. I remember working before and over Passover to make sure no seniors felt alone and had all the food they needed. The Jewish community has mobilized in the most beautiful way to attend to our sick, elderly, immunocompromised, and the vulnerable during the COVID-19 pandemic. This was the right choice to make. After all, when life itself is at stake, we must attend to the highest value of preserving life. As the High Holiday season approached, we also worked tirelessly to ensure there were safe synagogue options or see that those staying at home out of safety have a meaningful experience.
Yet, during all this, there is an entire generation of children whose Jewish life has been altered, whose ability to engage in learning, summer camp, synagogue life, and so much more, has been compromised. To me, they are heroes. So many of them have been exceptionally understanding of the circumstance; many have had to relocate, deal with questions children should not have to deal with, and miss out on the attention they should have gotten during a normal childhood.
The uniqueness of Hanukkah is that the entire holiday is focused on the home. The rabbis define the obligation of Hanukkah as ner ish u’beito—the candle of every person and their home. Home is the epicenter of Hanukkah observance. Home also became the epicenter of where we spent this year. The juxtaposition of Hanukkah, the year of COVID, allows us to sweeten up that home experience. Even if you usually don’t go crazy with Hanukkah decorations, this is the year to do it. Even if you are not that person who thinks children should get gifts every night of Hanukkah, let Jewish kids remember this as the year the adults in their lives went crazy with kindness and spoiled them. If you are not the kind of parent who gets the crazy kind of sufganiyot or latkas, make this the year. If you are not the kind of aunt, uncle, relative, or family friend that goes all out on Hanukkah for the kids you know, let this be the year you do. Adam Sandler famously sings: “”Instead of one day of presents, we get eight crazy nights!” While I usually would not say this is a must, this year it is.
It is hard to find Jewish sources that require Hanukah gifts or the eating of delicious doughnuts on Hanukkah, yet it is easy to find Jewish sources that speak of how essential it is to impart the values we hold so precious to the next generation. If there is any year in which you want to tie Hanukkah to going all out and making sure kids remember Hanukkah in a positive light, this is the year. Kids have been through so much this year, much of it tied to being at home more than they wanted to. This Hanukkah, make sure home is where they feel thrilled and excited to be kids, to be Jewish, and to continue their fight of endurance during a pandemic like no other.