You’ll be able to find most of the hot and new toys on your kid’s wish list this holiday season at area malls and toy stores. But you’ll need to spend some time online or visit a synagogue gift shop or Judaica store if you’re hunting for a Hanukah gift with a Jewish accent.
In recent years, Judaica has become big business, a multi-billion dollar industry that includes a wide assortment of religious books and paraphernalia, artsy tchotchkes and expensive jewelry. Spend just a few moments surfing the web and you’ll find it’s a buyers’ market if you happen to need a mezuzah for the doorpost of your new home or to drape around the neck of your new sweetie.
And even though Hanukah is just around the corner, you still have plenty of time to purchase a few dreidels for friends or a new and special hanukkiah for your family. The items – one a toy, the other inextricably linked to the Festival of Lights – are both now a rich and defining part of the holiday. They’re also in demand.
“We have all sorts of gifts for Hanukah,” says Shainah Asrah, the manager of Chosen Treasures, a Judaica store in Sandy Springs. “But dreidels and menorahs are always big sellers around this time of year.”
Dreidels have been around for centuries, a little game picked up by Jews in Europe who spotted their Christian neighbors gambling with a top. The toy became associated with Hanukah and the miracle at the heart of the holiday when the four Hebrew letters – nun, gimmel, hey and shin – were added to the top. The letters are an acronym for the Hebrew phrase, nes gadol haya sham – in English, “a great miracle happened there.”
For years, dreidels were carved out of wood and were given to youngsters as special holiday treats. In the last century or so the wooden toys morphed into plastic tchotchkes, were mass produced and became a ubiquitous – and cheap – Hanukah gift. All that changed in recent decades when artists and artisans began using precious metals to produce the tops and gussying them up with gemstones.
“Dreidels are works of art these days,” says Maxine Schein, the longtime gift shop manager at Congregation Etz Chaim in East Cobb. “We have all sorts of different types and people like to collect them.”
The same can be said of hanukkiahs. The holiday menorah has nine branches – one each for the eight days of Hanukah and a ninth, the shamash, that is elevated and used to light the others.
Around the same time that dreidels were being turned into objects d’art, hanukkiahs were undergoing the same sort of change, with one significant difference.
“They’re part of pop culture now,” says Asrah. “This year we have Hanukah menorahs that look like castles, fire engines, robots and even a pink Cadillac!”
In fact, there’s probably a Hanukah menorah for just about every taste and whim. Recent models have featured teddy bears, clowns, toy blocks, mahjong tiles, cats and dogs; soccer, baseball and football paraphernalia and logos.
It also turns out that retro hanukkiahs are in demand; what was once old is new again. Candles are being tossed aside in favor of menorahs that use wicks and olive oil.
It’s all a puzzle to Schein, who recalls selling hanukkiahs that burned oil when she first got into the business in the late 1970s. By the early ’80s she couldn’t give them away.
Asrah says oil-fueled menorahs are selling well. “People are constantly looking for items that are new,” she explains. “It’s a nice reminder of the miracle of Hanukah and the oil that burned for eight days.”
Of course, with only a week remaining till Hanukah, it’ll be a miracle if you can finish up all your holiday plans and shopping in just a few days. The good news is there are plenty of dreidels and hanukkiahs still waiting to find a home.
So here’s a holiday hint: Spin on over to a synagogue gift shop or Judaica store and burn a little cash. It’ll be a mitzvah!
BY RON FEINBERG / Web Editor