Avoid the Guilt and Give the Gelt

Avoid the Guilt and Give the Gelt

By Dena Schusterman

Chanukah is just around the corner, and it is the most wonderful time of the year.

I intentionally borrowed that phrase because I do know how difficult it is to manage both our Jewish festivities and the ubiquitous twinkly lights, trees, tinsel and glitziness of the season. It is so inviting, and our kids want a piece of it.

Dena Schusterman
Dena Schusterman

There was recently a first in my family in which my 5-year-old twin daughters asked us if we could “pleeeease” put up decorations outside our house. They were very specific: “Outdoors like everybody else.”

That request had me Googling Chanukah laser lights I thought I saw at Bed Bath & Beyond. So far, we have settled for homemade, dreidel-themed pennants hanging in our living room.

As I have experienced in my own parenting, we want to make things just right for our children, but we all draw a line somewhere. “Mommy, can we get another baby? You think by winter we could have one?” is a plea many can relate to.

This is where most parents become extremely creative in setting the record straight because in our society there is usually a definitive plan between the couple. Parents’ possible philosophical responses include:

  • “I wish we could have another baby too” (doesn’t cost much to dream alongside the child).
  • “We are not the Joneses.”
  • “We do what is best for our family.”

There’s also a simple statement: “I am sorry, but that is a negative. N baby by winter.”

Everyone has a line. Whether it be health or our cup runneth over, a child’s whims will not change the reality.

We don’t always turn ourselves into pretzels to make our children happy, as when a child desires a pet cat and Dad is allergic, or we cannot afford an attractive cruise. We will stay our ground.

Often in life our kids have to hear no, and truly it is OK. If saying no is against your personal principles, then use yes as often as you can; this too is OK.

In the end, we all have a line, so the no will come at its moment.

As I did with indoor Chanukah decor, many will try to appease their children this time of year, working their mommy magic to make Chanukah as exciting as the other holiday. But let’s face it: It is never going to be as exciting.

Their holiday is on every radio channel, TV show, window display and commercial, marketing to our children, so we are best off not even trying to pretend. We just need to work on making Chanukah the best because Chanukah is the best. It is filled with family, food, tradition and gelt (money). What’s better than gelt?

This brings me to my main point: The age-old tradition of Chanukah is to give gelt, the green kind, to our children and their teachers.

Why? Because Chanukah, which means dedication, and chinuch, which means education, have the same etymology. And Chanukah and chinuch are related by more than just their word source.

The Greeks wished to eradicate Jewish culture and Torah study by imposing Hellenism on the Jewish people. This was their cultural answer to Judaism, and unfortunately most Jews bought it at the time. So just as the Temple needed a rededication, so the Jewish people who had lived under Greek rule needed a re-education.

Hence, the custom to give children money in honor of their Torah study. This practice extended to monetary gifts to the teachers who make the proliferation of Torah study possible, imbuing our children with a lifelong love of all things Jewish and Judaic learning.

But today most children know of Chanukah gelt in the chocolate form, and the vast majority of Jewish parents have resorted to giving presents just like the neighbors. This evolution of the traditional practice is understandable; it’s almost the norm in Jewish communities worldwide.

Personally, we only sometimes do presents. Grandparents, aunts and uncles give our children money. The children give some of that money to charity (we get to add some of the educational value), then we go buy presents — or, more accurately, we order them online — while the kids dole out their crinkly bills to me as I punch in the numbers of my credit card.

So our family gets gelt and presents too. This has worked for us, and I encourage parents to try it on at least one night of Chanukah. I think you will be surprised at how well it is received, especially among children over age 6.

If you intend to try this longstanding tradition of Chanukah gelt on your children at home, I suggest doing it on the fifth night of Chanukah. This too has ancient roots. The fifth night is the only night of Chanukah that can never fall on Shabbat, so it is the night that needs the extra light infused. What better way than to light up smiles on the faces of our children?

Happy Chanukah, and best of luck drawing the line. “This is our holiday; this is how we celebrate it” — imbuing the feeling that we love Chanukah for being itself, not for replacing something else, with the added benefit of our increased dedication to Jewish education.


Dena Schusterman is a mother of eight, a wife, the rebbetzin of Chabad Intown and the director of the Intown Jewish Preschool.

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