Chanukah gift-giving is worth the price if it strengthens our identity

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The way the sages tell it, my only obligation is to light the menorah for eight nights and display it in a window.

The way the sages tell it, real gift-giving comes at Purim when we send mishloach manot, baskets of fruit and sweets, to at least one friend and two people in need.

So why am I surfing the net for gifts?

Do I like spending $754, the figure the National Retail Federation estimates each American will contribute to a $217.4 billion

holiday treasure trove? Participating in what academic James Twitchell calls a “festival of consumption”?

Do I think that gift-giving has any historical relevance to Chanukah? That it even remotely commemorates the Maccabees’ victory over the more powerful Syrian-Greek army, or the miracle of the small vial of oil that burned for eight days?

Do I think that my sons Zack, Gabe, Jeremy and Danny need, respectively, an MP3 player, a Red Sox baseball jersey, a pair of snowboarding boots and a subscription to Sports Illustrated?

Of course not.

But I’ve decided that gift-giving is a seasonal reality. One that traces its history not back to Christmas, but to pagan winter solstice festivities in ancient Rome and Northern Europe.

In addition, it is a tradition to give gelt, or money, on Chanukah.

I’ve decided that it’s disingenuous to decry the evils of our consumer culture when it flourishes — and I’m an active if not eager participant — year-round.

And I’ve decided that gift-giving can be a part of this, yes, important holiday, without making it the main attraction.

That doesn’t mean I have to like it. But it does mean that over the years I’ve devised several strategies, in addition to e-commerce, to make the process more palatable.

One of my favorites is the “cafeteria” plan, in which my sons are allotted a specific sum of money. I buy gifts totaling that amount, hand over the straight cash or engage in a combination.

Another is the “night” plan — book night, T-shirt night, calendar night and CD night, for example.

And always, to avoid eye-rolling, moping and the nightmare of exchanges and returns, I solicit special requests.

“If I say I like something, and you get it for me, I still like it,” Danny, 12, says reassuringly.

But I never buy eight gifts. I count on grandparents and other relatives to fill in the extra nights. My sister Ellen’s present is a personal favorite; she gives each of my sons a choice of $25 cash or a $50 donation to a favorite charity.

My sons’ own rituals, on the other hand, adhere to what sociologist David Cheal, in “Gift Giving: A Research Anthology,” calls “the utilitarian rationalization of transfer between family members.”

In other words: “I buy people stuff and they don’t buy me anything,” Jeremy, 14, protests.

“I gave you a visor last year,” Gabe, 16, answers.

“It was three months late.”

“But I bought you a gift three months early this year,” Gabe says, having generously purchased a snowboard with money earned from his summer job.

But just as gifts don’t define my sons’ relationships, neither do they define the holiday. In fact, the real gift is the holiday itself. The opportunity to get together with family and friends, eat latkes and jelly donuts, play dreidel, perform mitzvot and “retell the things that befell us.” The opportunity to reinforce our Jewish identity in a positive and fun way.

And it must work since, according to the National Jewish Population Survey 2000-2001, 72 percent of American Jews celebrate Chanukah, making it the second-most popular Jewish holiday after Passover.

The Maccabees fought for our freedom to live as Jews. But as Rabbi Gerson Cohen argues in “The Blessing of Assimilation in Jewish History,” his 1966 commencement address to Boston’s Hebrew Teachers College graduates, a certain amount of healthy assimilation and acculturation is crucial for the survival and vitality of Jews. He says, “The phenomenon of assimilation presents us with unprecedented opportunities to reinterpret the Jewish tradition so that it will be relevant to the needs of the 20th century.”

Ditto, even stronger, for the needs of the 21st century.

Where the terrorist atrocities orchestrated by Osama bin Laden and other fundamentalists demonstrate the dangers of extreme isolationism. Where, according to Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, the threat of anti-Semitism is equal to the one we faced in the 1930s, if not bigger.

“What are the great things about America?” asks Rabbi Gordon Bernat-Cunin, rabbinic director of Milken Community High School in Los Angeles. “We need to decide what’s worth keeping and what’s worth filtering out.’

And holiday gift-giving may just be a great thing if it helps strengthen our identity as Jews in a predominantly Christian country and an increasingly hostile world.

That’s at least worth the cost of an MP3 player, a Red Sox baseball jersey, a pair of snowboarding boots and a subscription to Sports Illustrated.

Jane Ulman, a freelance writer in Encino, is the mother of four sons.