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Most Jewish festivals demand a lot of work, what with all the shopping and cooking of ritual foods. But Hanukka is an easy holiday. Hunting for a few gifts for the kids is nothing compared to the effort and expense experienced by our Christian friends.
Long before Christmas, people search for cards to send to long-lost friends, and the gift-list includes every great-aunt, neighbor, postman and refuse collector. There's even a knitted coat for the dog. Many sitcom and movie scenarios illustrate the anxiety of finding the right gift and the disappointment of receiving yet another hideous nightie.
Food, too, is far less of a hassle at Hanukka. Even if one wants a change from latkes and donuts, the alternatives are very simple. In our house, we don't miss out on the calories, but I have stolen a recipe from Halloween: I stuff and bake a whole pumpkin with Chinese vegetables topped with Parmesan cheese. And if the first strawberries are sweet, these make a good dessert for those who gain three kilos every time they look at a donut.
We have also limited the gifts to the children only. With 10 grandchildren, this could be done the comparatively painless way of stuffing some cash into an envelope for each one - the traditional Hanukka gelt - or it could be done the more time-consuming but more fun way of choosing something they really want.
The older children usually prefer cash. If they are saving up for some big item, every contribution from parents and grandparents adds up. The younger ones usually have more modest needs, and tooth-fairy money is usually as much as they can handle.
So a few weeks before Hanukka I make a list, remembering any hints or special requests passed our way. One branch of the family lives in New York, so unless I'm visiting them around one of the festivals and can take them out to choose, cash is the most convenient option.
Whatever adults say about today's children and their materialism, we can all remember absolutely craving some product or toy when we were small. For me, born in wartime London, toys were scarce - but I remember to this day how I longed with all my soul for a doll's pram for my fifth birthday. Even though the war had just ended, there were fuel shortages and electric power-cuts during that winter, so when my mother went to the West End to search for a doll's pram, the shops were lit by candles. She went from shop to shop peering through the dim light until in magical Hamleys, she found the dream pram. It was blue with a dark blue hood, high wheels and springs just like the royal prams used at Buckingham Palace. It was also horribly expensive, and she called my father to check whether she should buy it. I was squeaking in the background, "Oh yes, oh please, oh yes!" I think I enjoyed that doll's pram more than the real thing we bought when our first son was born.
On my eighth birthday, my eldest brother returned from four years' army service overseas, and he bought me a little portable typewriter - just the gift for a wannabe writer. How overjoyed I was to type out my little stories! Since my fingers and sleeves had always been covered with ink, my mother was delighted, but she soon discovered that I made just as much mess with carbon paper and typewriter ribbons.
At Hanukka we keep to a more modest budget, but I much prefer to consult the children and, if possible, take them to choose for themselves. Of course, we as adults have our principles, but we have to remember that while a gift may not be particularly educational or develop motor skills, if it gives pleasure to the child - so be it.
Itamar loves computer games, and he's very good at them. However, it's frustrating that the manufacturers of these games and computers are permitted to upgrade so frequently that the expensive games quickly become obsolete. At one time, all games were made for the personal computer. Then came Playstation, then Playstation 2, and now Wii. Not only does the basic equipment cost a month's salary, but the prices of the games are totally out of proportion to their design and manufacturing costs. And of course, a few months later, the child is left with a shelf of unusable games because the equipment has been upgraded.
Another problem is that the store where one purchases the games will not take responsibility if the game is defective or incompatible with one's system. In one such case, the Bug chain referred us to the manufacturer in Ra'anana, where they insisted that the game was not malfunctioning and that we had to accept their technical assistance. Well, we have two computer scientists in our family, and even they couldn't understand a word of this technical assistance.
Yam, meanwhile, loves action figures, and I loathe them. "Not another Spiderman, Yam!" I protest, but he just smiles and leads me to the toy department to add to his collection.
Mayan, at 15, is so busy that we haven't even chosen her birthday gift yet, and that was October. So off we go to the mall tomorrow to get some clothes (it's always clothes for a busy teenager).
Shahar was easy this year. She has a bat mitzva coming up and wanted some discreet eye make-up and lip gloss. Her mother insisted that it be almost invisible, so I spent an interesting half-hour at the cosmetics counter learning about almost-invisible make-up for a young teenager whom nature has given the most amazing eyes and skin.
Shahar's little sisters, Oren and Shaqed, and their cousin Abigail love arts and crafts. For the basic paints, felt pens and drawing blocks, I always go to Michlol, the Technion stationery suppliers. All universities in Israel have these stores, which also sell books, computer accessories and everything needed for school. But the Castra Mall in Haifa specializes in arts and crafts. It also has a designer chocolate shop that charges NIS 6 a bite, and clothing outlets with equivalent prices, but there is a large store where, for a reasonable sum, a child or adult can come away with a good stock of paints, glue, beads, stickers, pages for creating glass art, boxes, lampshades and plaster casts for decorating and painting.
A word of warning: This excursion takes time. Fortunately the staff is helpful and patient.
All the children enjoy reading, so I often just take them to the nearest book shop, where they can sit comfortably at a low table and browse. My judgment of Hebrew books is questionable, so I rely on the older children to help us make our selection. I also choose shops where the staff is helpful and knowledgeable; some children prefer specific authors, and it may take some searching to find those writers' other books.
For the baby, it should be simple, but Michael's parents, like myself, do not like activity tables or animal puzzles that produce synthetic music or sounds that do not resemble any cows that we have ever heard. Thankfully there are shops that specialize in wooden puzzles and toys, and the good book shops also stock quality, baby-friendly toys and games.
For all ages, one can add Hanukka games and coloring books with holiday CDs or DVDs. I usually add a bag of chocolate coins and a dreidel, and encourage each child to make and decorate his or her own hanukkia.
When my own children were young and we lived in a small English country town, there was an exciting choice of plays and pantomimes at reasonable prices - and of course there were the traditional plays at the more expensive London theaters. Unfortunately I have found little to replace this in Israel, apart from the wonderful Mediatheque in Holon and the occasional children's theater festival.
The major performances around Hanukka, such as Festigal and other shows at the large theaters, are an assault on the eardrums and the intelligence. And unless tickets are subsidized by one's workplace, the cost of seats from which one needs a telescope to see the stage, is prohibitive. I love going to good theater with children, but they love Festigal - so it was with some relief that I found this year that each child was going with family or friends who had subsidized tickets.
Hanukka is a joyous festival. It is a holiday when one can travel, take the kids to leisure centers, films, shows. And since December is not usually a cold month in Israel, there are plenty of activities that can be done outdoors - picking and buying fruit at farms or citrus groves, having a picnic in the park, walking along the beach, barbecuing in the forest, or just going singing in the rain.