COMMENTARY: The Greatest Hanukkah Gift for Our Children

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c. 2005 Religion News Service

(UNDATED) The great race to shop for holiday gifts is in high gear. But as Christmas and Hanukkah fast approach, will we also remember to give the greatest, most enduring gifts of all?

There is nothing about the holiday of Hanukkah that demands gift-giving (though giving money to children is a time-honored tradition). But with the holiday arriving so close to Christmas, it’s become a de facto gift-giving occasion.

Hanukkah is a celebration of the Jews’ heroic fight for spiritual freedom in the face of tyranny. The ancient Greeks outlawed three rituals central to Jewish spiritual life: observance of the Sabbath and of the new moon, and ritual circumcision. Absurdly outnumbered and outgunned, the brave Jewish Maccabees fought the Greeks, and with the help of God, they were victorious.

We’ve always kept Hanukkah gift-giving in our family modest (our kids will attest to that), not wanting materialism to overshadow spirituality. Still, when our kids were little, I shopped far and wide to find toys that were innovative, sturdy and perhaps even a little educational. Looking back, recalling their squeals of excitement as they hungrily ripped the paper from a new set of magnetic building toys, I realize that the fun of giving presents at Hanukkah has added to the fabric of happy family memories. Besides, even when I chose a dud gift, I could count on the kids loving the box it came in, and playing with it for weeks, perhaps even months.

And yet, we all know that the very best present from a parent to a child doesn’t come in any box, bag or envelope. It shouldn’t need a special occasion to be given. And when it comes to sheer durability, nothing beats it. This present is the loving attention that our children really want and need more than any status-conferring designer shoes, American Girl doll, or computer game.

Yet too often, we placate our kids with material gifts to fill an empty space in our relationships with them. Our lives are so fast-paced that there is precious little time to devote to our children. I’ve been guilty of this myself. During weeks that were particularly frenzied and I paid scant attention to my children, I’d duck into a store on the way home to buy them a new game. They were thrilled to get an unexpected present, but I knew it was really a bribe: you sit and play with this so I can finish my work.

If these “kiddy kickbacks” are rare occurrences, no great harm is done, but when we parents spend more time figuring out how not to be with our children than we spend with them, we’re in trouble. And today, with so many of us devoting hours a day on the computer once we come home from work, the risk of depriving our children of the thing they need most only grows.

Of course kids love presents, but far more, they love and need us, their mothers and fathers. They need us to spend time with them, hold them, read with them, build a fort with them, tickle them and play ball with them. We need to just be there to listen when they want to tell us about the kid at school who hurt their feelings. We need to be there _ in body and in spirit _ to cheer enthusiastically when they show us their spelling tests with the big red “A” on top. Make no mistake: even teens need our attention and love. They only pretend that they don’t.

It’s appropriate that the word Hanukkah means “dedication,” and its root meaning is “education.” The small, flickering, Hanukkah lights illuminate the eternal Jewish dedication to core values, including dedication to our families. So by all means, bring on the festive Hanukkah latkes, the Christmas eggnog, the parties and a few presents, too. But let’s also dedicate ourselves to giving our kids our full love and attention, not only during the holiday season, but in every season. That, surely, will be the best gift in the world.


(Judy Gruen is the author of two award-winning humor books, including “Till We Eat Again: Confessions of a Diet Dropout.” Read more of her columns on

Editors: To obtain a photo of Judy Gruen, go to the RNS Web site at On the lower right, click on “photos,” then search by subject or slug. If searching by subject, designate “exact phrase” for best results.

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