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Dec 18 2012

A Hanukkah Without Presents: A Report From the Trenches

By at 4:29 pm

“On the first night of Hanukkah, my mommy gave to me,” my 13-year-old son began singing, as the 9-year-old and 5-year-old joined him in the chorus, “Absolutely no-ooooo-thing!”

Well, it’s not like they weren’t warned.

A good week before Hanukkah started, I informed my kids that, due to the damage done by Hurricane Sandy, with people not 50 miles away losing everything they owned, not to mention the high unemployment rate, the millions of people going hungry all around the world, and the fact that my children already had so much stuff they couldn’t even manage to keep their rooms clean, there would be no Hanukkah gifts this year. Instead, we would spend the eight days of the holiday doing good deeds, and the eight nights discussing them as we lit our candles.

To say that they were enthused by the prospect… would be a lie. Hence, the little ditty they composed in my honor. Nevertheless, I stuck to my guns (would I be a professional writer if I let setbacks like rejection and other people’s derision slow me down)?

We kicked off the (as the Wizard of Oz might say)  good deed doing on Saturday the 8th by sifting through my children’s mountains of books and finding a dozen or so in solid enough shape to donate to the library at the ballet school where my younger son and daughter take class. No sooner had we arrived and begun putting the picture and coloring books on the shelves, then a flock of tiny girls in leotards descended on our donations, instantly plopping down to read or draw in them.

“They like what we brought!” my daughter beamed at me with sincere, surprised delight, as if suddenly beginning to comprehend the fun of this giving thing.

On our walk home from the dancing school, we passed several supermarkets with people sitting outside, a cardboard box at their feet, announcing collection for a food drive. As a result, Sunday morning, we compiled a bagful of canned goods and set out to make our own contribution. Unfortunately, that morning, it was drizzling a bit. Not a single Good Samaritan from the day before was out. Like our ancestors in the desert, we wandered from supermarket to supermarket, ultimately making a huge circle of NYC’s Upper West Side before coming upon a church with a food pantry–a block from where we’d originally started.

Come Monday morning, my third grader got up early so he could get to school an hour before the bell rang and help collect donations for their Toy Drive.

“My job is to say thank you to those who bring something,” he informed me. “And to scowl at the ones who don’t.”

He did all of the above while wearing a Santa hat. But, it still counted as a Hanukkah good deed. (I made the edict, I get to make the rules.)

The next day, my daughter and I did the same at her school, dropping off some brand new children’s DVDs in a bin set up for collection.

And… that was it. Those were all the ideas I had. Unfortunately, there were still four more nights to go.

Luckily, on Wednesday, my eighth grade son informed me that he needed a pair of women’s high-heeled shoes. ASAP.

My son is playing Catherine in his school’s production of Shakespeare’s “Henry V.” And it seemed that his big, wide boy’s foot did not fit any of the delicate women’s shoes available in the school’s costume closet. Nor could he fit any of mine. So off we went to the thrift shop adjacent to the food pantry we’d donated to on Sunday. In the middle of a huge, cavernous room filled with amused fellow shoppers, my son attempted to squeeze into one pair of women’s shoes after another, while my daughter ran up and down the aisles looking for prospects and calling, “Try this one! It’s so pink and pretty!”

Finally, we were able to find high heels he could wear, walk, and prance in (Catherine, apparently, does a great deal of prancing about). We bought them from the thrift shop and then decided that, after his performance, we would donate the pair back to the school, so that another boy with large feet may don them in the future.

By late Thursday afternoon, however, I was running out of time and inspiration. Which is when a spot of good luck came my way. The AVID Center, an educational nonprofit that prepare students for college, contacted me to ask if they could use an article I wrote for Kveller, All People Are Not the Same, as a teaching tool and hand-out at an upcoming professional seminar. I said yes, and considered it one more mission accomplished. (What would we all do without Kveller?)

Friday night, the task was easy. I was a parent volunteer with my daughter’s synagogue Junior-Junior Choir, where my job was to help escort a dozen 4-, 5- and 6-year-olds from the room they’d been practicing in, into the sanctuary, down the aisle and onto the bima for their performance, without losing one. I managed. Though it wasn’t easy.

So that only left Saturday. There was a strong temptation to repeat a good deed. But, I kept insisting we would think of something. We would. We would.

And then, literally as we were lighting our candles, a call came. There was going to be a test in my third grader’s class on Monday. 125 spelling words. The mom on the phone was desperate. Her son had lost his list. Might my son have his?

Yes! He did! My son read the list out loud, my husband typed it up in an email, and we sent if off. Eight days of Hanukkah, eight days of good deeds! Done!

And here’s the most interesting part. After the initial sing-along about my failings as a parent, my kids never mentioned presents again. Instead, they woke up every morning asking, “What good deed are we going to do today?” And at night those who didn’t participate in the day’s activity wanted to know how it went and what would we be doing tomorrow? As we sat around the Hanukkiah, we talked about how lucky we were to have everything that we do and about those who are less fortunate. We discussed what makes a good deed and how to measure whether your actions are having an effect. We debated the merits of donating to a large organization versus a grassroots one, writing a check versus hands on action, giving what you think the recipients need rather than what they believe they need; even buying a man a fish versus teaching him to fish for himself came up.

“On the first night of Hanukkah, my mommy gave to me, absolutely no-ooooo-thing!”

I beg to differ.


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