Jewish families maintain the flame of tradition as Hanukkah begins

December 12, 1990|By Pat van den Beemt

Thousands of candles illuminated Baltimore area homes last night as Jews began the eight-day celebration known as Hanukkah.

As the glow from the candles reflects excitement in youngsters' eyes, many Jewish parents hope their children enjoy the holy time as much for its religious significance as for the gifts they may receive.

Giving presents on one, several or all eight nights of Hanukkah has replaced the tradition of giving Hanukkah gelt, or money, in many Jewish families.

Some view gift-giving as a necessity in today's society, where commercialism has overshadowed the religious aspects of

many celebrations.

"The American people, in general, are afflicted by consumerism and materialism, but we have to live in the world as it is, so we shouldn't turn our backs on it entirely," says Rabbi Donald Berlin from Temple Oheb Shalom.

He suggests that for every present given to a family member, a similar "compassionate" gift could be given. "Gifts that connect us with other people -- the homeless, the hungry or a local charity -- are gifts that can keep the Hanukkah lights bright."

Gift-giving to family members should not be done to excess, he says. "I'd much rather the family spend time together in stead of all the time they spend on shopping or wrapping presents. Our gifts become substitutes for ourselves instead of a part of ourselves."

Dr. Aviva Weisbord, a psychologist who resides at Ner'Israel Rabbinical College, says the test of whether a family has gotten caught up in the commercialism of Hanukkah is to see if the family gets tense as the eight-day celebration proceeds.

"If you ask children what Hanukkah means, do they answer, 'Toys!' or do they say, 'Dreidel, latkes and a menorah?' " she asks. "Depending on the answers, many parents may find the focus of their celebration is wrong."

In her family, the children receive Hanukkah gelt each evening after the candles have been lighted. "We live in a very seductive society," she says. "You have to decide how much you want your celebration to be part of the American culture and at what point you say, 'This materialism is flooding my culture.' "

To the Richter family of Mount Washington, Hanukkah means a special time for reflection on the past and a celebration of the present.

Judith Richter, who is assistant to the dean at Baltimore Hebrew University, says she and her husband, Ronald, have tried to emphasize the religious and historic significance of the holiday with their three daughters, while also celebrating with presents.

"When you're surrounded by people celebrating Christmas, you have to find your own path while recognizing a larger path," she says.

The Richters exchange presents, but they also donate a portion of any

Hanukkah gelt they receive to charity.

"I want the girls to enjoy getting, but they also have to give back," Mrs. Richter says.

Her daughter, Miriam, 17, says, "We do give presents and that's fun, but to me Hanukkah means lighting the candles on the menorah and being with family and friends."

Her sister, Jessica, 14, says she has never thought of Hanukkah as a commercial holiday and that her favorite part is "when we go over the story of Hanukkah before lighting the candles."

The celebration of Hanukkah, also known as the Festival of Lights, commemorates the rededication of the temple of Jerusalem more than 2,000 years ago after the Jews triumphed over the Syrians for religious freedom. Candles are lighted at sundown for eight consecutive days to represent the story of the miracle that occurred in the temple when oil meant to last one night burned for eight.

"The story of Hanukkah is about the threatening of the Jewish identity and the strength of our wholeness. Instead of it being celebrated as just a December festival," says Rabbi Berlin, "it really represents a way we should live all year."

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