In these days of COVID-19, with many people out of work or cutting back on expenses, I recall a story to remind us what is important in life.

One of my great joys as a child was snooping in all the possible places in our home to find where my parents had hidden our Chanukah gifts. I discovered the ultimate location one year in a far corner of the basement, behind our laundry room, a space with electrical and heating cabinets where we never wandered. There they were, peeking out from under an old sheet: A beautiful new doll, with a pink wooden crib, for me, and lots more. I kept the secret from my brothers, and I acted surprised when we actually received our gifts.

After that I didn’t snoop again, because I discovered it was more fun to be surprised.

In our own nuclear family, we’d give our children one serious gift on the first night of Chanukah, and sometimes small items on subsequent nights. In later years, as the children married and were fruitful and multiplied, bli ayin hara, we resorted to the older Jewish custom of Chanukah gelt (money), as it took less planning and shopping, but when they were younger, tangible gifts were de rigueur.

In the early 1990s, we moved into an old-new home in Efrat, up the street from where we had rented since 1985. The size of the house was unpretentious, and our renovations were modest, but it put a strain on our finances. Among my splurges were wall-to-wall carpeting in the children’s bedrooms (rare in Israel) and — my dream since childhood — a beautiful bay window.

Chanukah was drawing near.

Both general and religious elementary- and high-school education in Israel are theoretically free, but most schools ask parents to pay additional fees to upgrade what the school can offer, such as smaller classes, additional courses (in addition to the usual books and supplies bought by parents), and so on, and we were big believers in after-school art, drama, dance, and sports classes. So with six kids, and a few already in (non-free) high schools, money was tight, and that was with my husband teaching the equivalent of a job and a half, and me teaching part-time, writing a bit, and working at various creative — but not very lucrative — projects.

In short, we could not come up with a plan for Chanukah gifts without plunging us into high-interest overdraft.

And then it came to me.

A poem.

I wrote a two-page poem (in Hebrew), printed it out six times, and illustrated each one with small drawings and cartoons, different for each child.

And that was what we gave them on Chanukah.

A few excerpts, in translation:

What unspoiled children you are

That after the lighting of candles you don’t ask

“Where are the gifts?”

Only  — “Where are the latkes?”

 

You heard us talking

About our overdraft

So you didn’t ask for

Earrings or toy soldiers and tanks

But I have a suggestion —

That you use your imagination

And think about the things

That make your lives

More pleasant.

When you rise in the morning

And it’s crispy and cold outside

And you put your feet down on a soft, warm carpet

Think — 

This is a Chanukah gift.

 

When you sit on the sill of our big bay window

With a book (or without)

And with a hot mug of cocoa (or without)

And look out at the sun sparkling on the red rooftops

Or at the rain washing the mountains

Or at the snow tumbling softly over the treetops

Think—

This is a Chanukah gift.

 

And when you sit by the computer

In our small, charming office

(That used to be a laundry room)

Playing, or writing history papers

Or doing homework in language or math

And across from you is a warm, wood-paneled wall

Think—

This is a Chanukah gift.

When the spring arrives,

And you roll around on the green lawn

And measure the heights of the growing saplings

And smell the honeysuckle

Think—

This is a Chanukah gift.

And remember

That the light in our hearts

That you have put there

Is the most beautiful gift of all.

 

Have a joyous Festival of Lights!

With love,

Abba and Ima

Thank G-d, I guess we did something right (or raised amazing actors) because the children loved the poem and the drawings, and said they were the best gifts they ever got. (And in the end, we also slipped them a bit of Chanukah gelt.)

Our children grew, went off to college, worked, got married, and one day I got a phone call from our son in the army. He needed a certain document, and asked me to get it from his top desk drawer and fax it to him.

“You don’t mind if I go through your drawer?” I asked.

“Nope, no big secrets there.”

I found the document, and, in the process, I found the poem I had given him about 16 years earlier. He had saved it along with other papers that he considered important. And I found something else.

His own poetry. Lots of it.

I called him back and told him I found the document, was touched that he had saved my poem, and asked him, “When did you start writing poetry?” I vaguely remembered one poem of his in a youth club newspaper, not the reams I saw now.

“Oh, in high school, I think.”

“It’s very good.”

“Thanks,” said the soldier, and returned to his job.

He went on to become the chief intelligence officer of an elite anti-terrorist unit, and the army awarded him five citations of excellence during the seven years and eight months he served. And he still writes poetry.

While writing this piece, I WhatsApp-ed my kids, asking who still had my poem. Most of them did. One of my daughters — who has moved many times since then and is raising five children in the Negev — knew exactly where to find it, and she scanned it and sent it to me.

Thank G-d, we are blessed that now we are more easily able to give our children and grandchildren gifts (gelt or otherwise) on Chanukah, but the light in our hearts that they have put there is, for us, the most precious gift of all.

Happy Chanukah!

Toby Klein Greenwald is an award-winning journalist, theater director, and the editor-in-chief of WholeFamily.com.

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