Gift Rap

After receiving a Hanukah present, he gave something that could never be taken back
Washington Post Magazine, November 24, 2005

Hanukah is a minor Jewish festival that has been elevated by what Americans call “the holiday season.” This euphemism means to be inclusive, but it also enters Hanukah in a competition it can’t win. Hanukah becomes a film festival, eight days of subtitled curiosities and earnest documentaries, up against a Hollywood blockbuster that opens simultaneously on thousands of screens. Likewise, every Hanukah present can disappoint simply because it is not one among dozens torn open in a flurry of paper around a tree.

The traditional gift is gelt, which is Yiddish for money; as a girl, my mother would receive a silver dollar for Hanukah, or a roll of dimes. But each evening after we lit the candles, my parents gave their children a present culminating in a Big Gift on the eighth night. Along the way, there would be gelt in the form of waxy chocolate doubloons that melt if you hold them too long before removing the foil; a plastic dreidel or some other small toy; books; clothes for our winter wardrobes.

When it came to clothing, I more or less accepted what my parents picked out, which could best be described as sensible and, whether for budgetary or philosophical reasons, excluded trendy items with prominent logos. As with most things, my mother usually understood what I did and did not like, and even when I wasn’t delighted with her choices, I was compliant. My sister, who is two years younger, was far more likely to argue with anything my mother wanted her to do. If my sister defined herself through this verbal sparring, I strived to become the person my mother and father expected.

By eighth grade, I had begun to notice classmates wearing vintage overcoats and army pants, and had become aware of the possibility of style, even if I didn’t have any myself. That Hanukah, on the third or fourth night, I remember peeling back tissue paper to find a safari shirt with epaulets, a larger version of a favorite from a few years earlier. It felt all wrong, as if my mother still saw me as the boy I was back then, only in a bigger size. (My mother recalls a different gift — a plaid flannel shirt, my sister got a matching one — and I’m tempted to defer to her because she did all the Hanukah shopping.) My sister lashed out, telling my mother that she had the worst taste and that she didn’t understand what we wore — that she didn’t understand us. This time, I joined in my sister’s outburst, and our mother looked like she was going to cry. She told us she’d spent hours looking for just the right gifts, hours she couldn’t afford to spend away from her editing work, with all the deadlines she was under that fall. Her vulnerability only egged us on, and our rejection of her gifts turned into a mutiny.

After dinner, my sister and I retreated to our room. The next night, my mother gave us the presents she’d already bought and wrapped, but it didn’t feel the same; once crew members revolt, the captain can never trust them again. And ever since what my mother still calls that horrible Hanukah, she’s become gun-shy and won’t buy either of us anything more substantial than a pair of socks without prior consent. On the one hand, this comes as a relief. But the exchange of gifts between us has also lost some of its magic. Looking back, I wonder about the real reason behind my harsh reaction. Perhaps my tantrum wasn’t a declaration of independence but rather of disappointment, revenge on my mother for not knowing me as completely as, until then, I always thought she had.

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