Forget the presents &mdash its Chanukah traditions that count

For my husband, Larry, it’s Project Yankee Doodle, a rocket launcher made by Remco Toys in the 1960s.

For me, it’s a generic plastic pickup truck.

We’re talking favorite childhood Chanukah presents. And while Larry also recalls with fondness a robot and battalions of army men, the truck remains the favorite — and only — Chanukah gift embedded in my memory.

“That’s it? That’s all you remember?” my mother asks.

I nod my head guiltily.

Perhaps I remember it because of the circumstances — a hastily purchased gift, one that I was allowed to select myself at Doden’s Drug Store en route to my grandparents’ house.

Perhaps I remember it because of the context. In 1956, in Davenport, Iowa, girls didn’t play with, let alone own, toy trucks.

Today, as the mother of four boys and the chief family shopper, wrapper and, often, exchanger of almost two decades worth of Chanukah gifts, I feel my mother’s chagrin.

And since payback is an inevitable part of parenting, I now feel my own chagrin.

“What’s your all-time favorite Chanukah gift?” I mistakenly ask my sons.

“I remember when I was 5 and got stuck with the ‘Ghostbusters’ girl action figure, April O’Neal, because all the good ones were sold out,” says Zack, 20.

“I don’t know,” adds Jeremy, 15.

“I don’t really like Chanukah presents,” admits Danny, 13.

Only Gabe, 17, who will be visiting his girlfriend in Boston during his winter break, responds positively. “My airplane ticket, of course,” he says.

But here’s the upside. Far greater than that little truck — and the furry slippers, scarf and mitten sets, books and phonograph records that I undoubtedly received — was another gift: a love of Chanukah and a love of being Jewish.

This is important to Larry and me. We want to ensure that we have Jewish grandchildren (though — and I can’t emphasize this strongly enough — not yet).

This is also important to Jewish leaders and educators across the country and across denominations who are seeking sure-fire ways to forge strong Jewish identities among our youth.

Maybe the answer isn’t Jewish day school, a bar or bat mitzvah, a summer at Camp Ramah, a birthright Israel trip or a subscription to Heeb magazine. Maybe the answer is as simple as this: unmemorable Chanukah presents, along with a memorable Chanukah.

Growing up in Iowa, even with only three other Jewish kids in my grade, I never felt left out or less than the other children. I never felt the desire to sit on Santa’s lap in Petersen’s Department Store or have a big frosted Christmas tree in our living room. And it wasn’t as if — sorry, Mom — Chanukah was a big blowout in our family.

“Go and make Christmas out of Chanukah,” my mom always said, quoting her friend Alice Weitzman.

But she did better: She made Chanukah out of Chanukah.

A holiday of joy and warmth. Of chanting the blessings and lighting the chanukiah, of eating freshly made latkes with burnt edges cooked by my mother in the electric frying pan, of playing dreidel with my siblings and parents and betting with Chanukah gelt.

And a holiday of driving across the river to Rock Island, Ill., to celebrate with my grandparents. Of baking poppy seed cookies using my grandmother’s recipe, using dreidel- and menorah-shaped cookie cutters.

A holiday that reflected the anti-assimilationist ideals of the Maccabees, that ancient band of guerrilla fighters who refused to submit to the Syrian Greeks. Who were willing to sacrifice their lives to continue studying Torah, observing Shabbat and circumcising their sons.

But the threat to Judaism at the time, interestingly enough, was internal as well as external. Many Jews of the second century BCE were easily drawn into the dominant Greek culture. Not unlike today, where — according to the National Jewish Population Survey 2000-01 — 42 percent of respondents who defined their religion as Jewish described their outlook as secular. And where we have to work hard to remain Jewish in a non-Jewish world.

Chanukah gives us that challenge and opportunity. Especially since younger Jews already tend to express their Jewish identification through the celebration of holidays. And since, according to the population survey, 72 percent of all Jews said they light the menorah.

And so this year, emulating my mother, I will once again try to make Chanukah out of Chanukah. I will go through the ordeal of buying, wrapping and, perhaps, exchanging all those Chanukah gifts, which my kids will soon forget. And maybe that’s OK.

As Zack says, “Ten years from now will I remember all of the presents I received? No. But will I remember that magical feeling of celebrating Chanukah? Absolutely.’

And, I hope, that magical feeling of being Jewish.

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

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