History of gift giving on Chanuka, with gift guide

History of gift giving on Chanuka, with gift guide

Local designer Jen Primack’s holiday-themed skirt includes Velcro icons that your little girl can change along with the Jewish calendar.
Local designer Jen Primack’s holiday-themed skirt includes Velcro icons that your little girl can change along with the Jewish calendar.

Shop ’til you drop

Chanuka begins on the 25th day of Kislev, which falls this year on the evening of Saturday, Dec. 8. For many Jews across the United States, that means now is the time to start shopping.

The tradition of giving gifts to celebrate Chanuka is relatively new, and not one that is embraced by the Jewish community as a whole.

“Chanuka gift giving is a distinctly American phenomenon,” said Rabbi Scott Aaron, community scholar of the Agency for Jewish Learning.  “While Chanuka always involved special foods and sweets, and gelt for playing dreidel, gift-giving as a central component of the holiday did not develop until the 19th century in America.”

The prioritization of Chanuka gift giving arose from both necessity and desire.

“As Jewish immigrants poured in to the tenements of New York City and other urban areas in the mid- to late-1800s, they lived in very close proximity to gentile neighbors and their holiday customs,” said Aaron.  “For many of them, it was their first up-close look at Christmas, which included gift giving.  It also included missionaries working in the tenements who lured Jewish children to Christmas celebrations with the promise of presents.”

The call to compete with Christmas was often explicit, according to Aaron. In fact, in 1885, Rabbi Kaufmann Kohler spoke here in Pittsburgh, imploring Jews to ramp up their Chanuka celebrations to vie with Christmas in order to counter Christmas’ attraction to Jewish children.

In addition to protecting their children from being lured by the festivities of Christmas, another motivation for Jews to amplify Chanuka was to further ingrain them as part of the social fabric of America.

“For other Jews, though, gift giving in December became a sign of being an American; if my neighbors can earn enough to give such luxuries to their children then so can I,” Aaron said. “As we became more affluent and moved to the suburbs, the cost of the gifts rose proportionally too.  For whatever reason, by the 1920s the giving of Chanuka gifts had become an ingrained practice in American Jewry and a way to feel equal to other Americans without losing our distinction as Jews.”

To be clear, gift giving is not the primary reason most American Jews celebrate Chanuka today. But for those who have embraced the tradition, the Chronicle has compiled a list of suggestions of some unusual and interesting items that your loved ones may enjoy receiving this holiday season, or anytime.

For children

Shalom Sesame T-Shirts:

Who knew that Cookie Monster, Elmo and Grover were Jewish? These fun little T-shirts feature the beloved Sesame Street characters, but with a Yiddishe bent. Choices include Cookie Monster “Nosh,” Grover “You had me at Shalom” and Zoe “B is For Bubelah.” The shirts are printed on soft 100 percent cotton American Apparel T-shirts by Rabbi’s Daughters. Sizes: 6-12 months, 12-18 months, 18-24 months, Toddler 2, Toddler 4.


A Hanukkah Bear For Me Personalized Book:

This beautifully illustrated Chanuka story is personalized with your child’s and her family’s names incorporated throughout the book. In the story, the child lights the menora, plays with a dreidel, enjoys chocolate gelt and latkes, and on the eighth night, receives the gift of a cuddly bear. The book comes with a small Gund® bear as well. Written by award-winning author Jennifer Dewing and illustrated by Wilson Ong.



Yogibo takes the beanbag chair of old up several notches. These chairs and loungers are made from a comfortable cotton-Lycra fabric that stretches and moves with you, molding to your body. Yogibos come in a variety of sizes, shapes, and colors. Yogibo’s most popular item, the Yogi Max, can be used as a chair, recliner, bed or couch.


Crayola Digital Light Designer:

Your child can use the stylus to draw anywhere on this dome-shaped, three-dimensional canvas and his designs will light up in vivid colors. He can even create animations with special effects, and his work can be saved and displayed later. There is also a game and activity mode. Toys “R” Us toysrus.com)

Upcycled Designs Jewish Holiday Skirt:

This adorable holiday-themed skirt includes Velcro icons that your little girl can change along with the Jewish calendar. All of local designer Jen Primack’s unique clothing is made with reclaimed materials, so giving one of these skirts as a gift is tikum olam in action. (etsy.com/shop/upcycleddesign)

For the foodie

Handmade Gray Sea Salted Caramels:

The description of these candies by Shari’s Berries sounds delicious. Each caramel is smothered in milk chocolate and sprinkled with Sel Gris, otherwise known as gray sea salt. Sweet, salty, smooth, and crunchy. 16 Sel Gris Gray Sea Salted Caramels, certified kosher dairy by the Orthodox Union.


Delavignes Garlic Infused Olive Oil, Delavignes Basil Infused Olive Oil, Delavignes Hot Pepper Infused Olive Oil:

Olive oil infused with flavor can enhance a variety of foods, from omelets to pastas to soups. In the spirit of Chanuka’s miracle of the oil, why not give the chef in your life one or more of these gourmet concoctions? Certified kosher by the Star-K.


Carousel Blue Velvet Cake:

Oprah chose this cake as one of her favorite things for her 2012 O List. A moist “blue” vanilla cake with cream cheese filling and topping, decorated with delicate sugar snowflakes and silver beads.

Cakes are 7 inches and serve 6 to 10. Certified kosher by National Kosher Supervision.


For the bibliophile

“The Lawgiver: a Novel,” by Herman Wouk:

Released just last week, this is the culmination of Wouk’s 50-year dream of writing a novel about the life of Moses. Wouk, now 97, gives us this tale that Amazon describes as  “a romantic and suspenseful epistolary novel about a group of people trying to make a movie about Moses in the present day. The story emerges from letters, memos, emails, journals, news articles, recorded talk, Skype transcripts, and text messages.”


“What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank: Stories,” by Nathan Englander:

These eight new stories from novelist and short-story writer Englander have the celebrated young author grappling with questions of modern life, and displaying his versatility in terms of tackling a variety of issues.

The title story paints a portrait of two marriages in which the Holocaust is played out as a devastating parlor game. In “Camp Sundown” vigilante justice is undertaken by a group of geriatric campers in a summer enclave. “Sister Hills” is a political fable, chronicling the history of Israel’s settlements from the eve of the Yom Kippur War through the present.


“How Judaism Became a Religion: An Introduction to Modern Jewish Thought,” by Leora Batnitzky,  (Princeton University Press):

This book by the professor and chair of the department of religion at Princeton examines the question of whether Judaism is a religion, a culture, a nationality or a mixture of all three. Batnitzky tells the story of how Judaism came to be defined as a religion in modern times, and why Jewish thinkers have both fought and championed this idea.


“Scenes from Village Life,” by Amos Oz, translated by Nicholas de Lange (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt):

This is the 18th book of fiction by the Israeli writer perennially mentioned as a favorite for the Nobel Prize. It is a novel in stories about the unusual lives in one town.


For the techie

Belkin Bluetooth Music Receiver:

This receiver is a perfect way to get music from your phone or laptop to your stereo. Just plug this receiver into your audio/stereo system and stream music endlessly via Bluetooth.


LG Tone-HBS-700 Wireless Bluetooth Stereo Headset:

Up to 10 hours of listening/talk time keeps you connected to your music and social life whenever you need it. With its unique form factor and sleek design, the LG Tone has an around-the-neck wearing style, ensuring your comfort throughout the day.


iRobot Mint®4200:

 This is the newest domesticated robot from iRobot (inventor of the Roomba), and the most affordable. The Mint is like an automatic mop that does the cleaning for you.


Vtech InnoTab 2 S:

This is a great educational tablet for kids. It has downloadable games and learning exercises and even keeps track of you child’s progress, showing areas of improvement.


Out of the ordinary

Initial and trinket necklace:

These customized pieces by Lotus Jewelry are sure to delight that special woman in your life. The 16-inch chain and initial disc are adorned with your color choice of dazzling stone trinkets. The chain is solid sterling silver, and the initial discs have a soft satin finish.

(Little Boutique on Wheels:  412-344-2312)

Award-Winning Jewish Independent

Film of the month club:

A subscription to this club gets its recipient an award-winning Jewish-themed feature film and a bonus short film every other month. A portion of all proceeds is donated to charity.


Leather-bound Story of a Lifetime:

This do-it-yourself volume helps preserve memories for your family by posing questions such as: “What do you feel has been your purpose in life?” and “Is there any particular incident in your life that changed everything?” The book is intended to help chronicle school, careers, relationships, traditions and milestones. The front cover may be personalized with the name of the recipient. Winner of the Family Channel Seal of Quality.


Waring Pro® Cotton Candy Maker:

This is just fun. This appliance can turn any gathering into a celebration. It’s cotton candy.


Nice Jewish Guys 2013 Calendar:

We couldn’t resist. This calendar features 12 months of photos of guys that would make your bubbie kvell. Who needs movie star hunks when you’ve got boychiks like Mark, Jake and Jonathan?


For the arts lover

Pittsburgh offers a wide array of world-class cultural events and performances. Consider giving the Pittsburgh Cultural District-wide gift card that can be used to purchase tickets for: the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre; Pittsburgh CLO; Pittsburgh Opera; Pittsburgh Public Theater; Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra; The Pittsburgh Cultural Trust; and the August Wilson Center for African American Culture. Gift cards can be purchased in person at most Cultural District box offices or at culturaldistrict.org/gift-card.

(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at tobyt@thejewishchronicle.net. Josh Reisner and Angela Leibowicz contributed to this story.)
























































































read more: