Hanukkah, which starts Friday, is a minor holiday in the Jewish calendar. But how can the simplicity of lights and latkes, menorahs and dreidels stand up against the deafening din of Christmas advertising encouraging people to buy large, expensive items?
"They're two very different holidays, and yet they're forever connected because of the time of year," says Rivke Berkowitz, associate headmaster of Kadimah School in Amherst, the region's only Jewish day school. So just before a holiday that traditionally includes the exchange of simple gifts, Jewish youngsters are absorbing the relentless advertising of everything from jewelry to iPods, laptops to cell phones.
How to prevent what's been called "gift creep" that could transform a minor Jewish holiday into an eight-day Christmas-like extravaganza?
While it's certainly a challenge, local Jewish parents and educators are well aware of the problem and ready for the fight.
"There are certainly people who do grapple with [children requesting expensive gifts] and there are people who don't," says Berkowitz, who sees it as part of a larger problem. "We fight against the commercial world that we live in every day of our lives -- it's not just holiday time. They've figured out a way to get us to buy for everything, at any time of year. There is no escape from it."
Given that, she says Jewish parents and teachers "must establish techniques of our own for dealing with our children so they have positive values and learn to share. If you have a holiday that's inundated with gifts, make sure that they involve themselves in giving to those who don't have, so they don't see it as just getting -- it's also giving."
The trend toward larger, more expensive Hanukkah gifts isn't new. While a Jewish child in the 1920s or 1930s would have been delighted with a dreidel and some gelt -- coins or chocolates in the shape of coins -- those children grew up to give their own offspring far more.
Sharon Jacobs, director of education at Temple Beth Am, whose own children are now grown, fondly recalls being given a Tiny Tears doll one year for Hanukkah. "At that time for a little girl, that was a big thing," she says.
But in the years since then, it's gotten much worse, she says. "Opportunities to indulge our children are everywhere, and the more they get, the more they want. And why is it that parents are sent on a guilt trip if they give something that's special but not huge?"
Janet Ables-Register of Buffalo, who has girls ages 9, 12 and 14 and a boy aged 6, says her family chooses different ways to make Hanukkah meaningful. "Some years we look hard for where we can give," she says, which resulted one year in a holiday gift for an elderly neighbor. "Or I might give them a bunch of dollars apiece and they'll go to the dollar store, and each of them will buy stuff for their siblings," she says.
"Or we go to Amvets -- I like to support the veterans -- and I've taught my kids to find good buys there, even though we could afford more. Hanukkah really is not a big holiday, as far as things and toys," she says.
"I feel we're very fortunate and don't need a lot of stuff. I'm sure my kids feel differently," she says, laughing. "I don't even go into the malls around Christmastime, it's just too difficult. But the little kids, they expect presents."
Leslie Kramer of Amherst says that as her children get older, they understand and value the meaning of Hanukkah and the differences between the Christian and Jewish winter holidays.
Her daughter, 7, and sons 9 and 13 know that "for people who celebrate Christmas, it's a very big, meaningful holiday. Hanukkah is a great holiday, but we have a lot of holidays, and a lot of historical stories," she says. "But my kids, my youngest two especially, really like to share information about Hanukkah with their classmates. I've gone into school and brought dreidels and we played the dreidel game, and my daughter likes that, because it helps them understand who she is."
Allison Clement says even doing family errands exposes her children, ages 5 and 7, to December hype. "If I run into Target because I need paper towels, guess what's in the first 14 aisles?" she says. "If you watch TV now, even starting in October, there are twice as many toy commercials."
This year, Clement says, "I have very much pared down. I bought eight presents for each child, one for each night, and none of them is a huge big-bang thing. In past years, I might have just kept purchasing, and I'd go to wrap and be amazed."
Clement says she and a friend just discussed their hope that today's youngsters may reject the overindulgence of their own parents, who were themselves spoiled as children. "Our parents, who had nothing, didn't want us to go without," says Clement. "So a lot of people in my generation spoiled our children. I hope our children wake up and realize that having things isn't all that's important about life."
Her youngsters have "come home for the last three nights and wanted to play dreidel," she says with delight. They divide up noodles to go to the winner, and "they're getting it, and they're starting to know the prayers, and they can light the candles. It's important to me to instill not only your religious values, but also your cultural values."