Book it: Chanukah gifts should go back to its Jewish roots

Book it: Chanukah gifts should go back to its Jewish roots

Chanukah menorah. Wikimedia Commons/	39james
Chanukah menorah. Wikimedia Commons/ 39james

Chanukah is a celebration of education.

What, you say? What happened to the oil, the Maccabees, the gelt?

The story of Chanukah — the rebellion led by Judah Maccabee, the rededication of the Temple, and the one-day vial of oil that kept the eternal light burning for eight days — is not in the Bible. It’s in a book written by Josephus, a Jew captured when the Romans overran Israel more than two centuries later.

According to Josephus, Antiochus III, the king of Syria, took control of what is now Israel around 200 BCE. Although he allowed his subjects to practice their respective religions, all his successors forced them to worship Greek gods. While some Jews managed to hang onto their religious customs, for most it was too dangerous.

By the time Judah and his band drove the Syrians out, cleared the Temple of rubble, cleaned the golden menorah, prepared the small amount of oil they had left, and celebrated the victory, many Jews didn’t remember how to be Jewish, couldn’t appreciate the wisdom of the sages, didn’t know ancient customs, and hadn’t learned core values.

So Chanukah is really the story of how people shine a light on remarkable history and wonderous traditions, reinvigorating and sharing them with the next generation. The holiday offers a moment to celebrate the freedom and to teach Jewish children about their history and religion. The word Chanukah, which means dedication in Hebrew, shares its root with another word, chinuch, Hebrew for education. In other words, education is the foundation of Chanukah.

Since Moses brought the tablets down from Sinai, Jews have been instructed to pass what they know onto their children. But how do you begin to pass along a history a parent may never have known?

JoAnn Abraham

That’s where gelt, the Yiddish word for money, comes in.

The Rambam, Rav Moses ben Maimon, the Jewish physician and sage who lived in the 12th and 13th centuries, made the education/gelt connection when he wrote that gelt could be “an incentive for you [children] to study Torah properly.”

Yet he was speaking about more than Torah or children. Life-long learning is a Jewish tradition. And gelt, be it paper, metal, or chocolate in shiny wrapping, still works as an incentive. But finding the time for the one-on-one moments to pass Judaism from one generation to the next in today’s over-programmed, inter-connected, hyperactive world is often a

Understanding that challenge, the Harold Grinspoon Foundation (HGF) came up with a brilliant option, sending free books with Jewish themes and stories that could be read by an adult to a small child. Imagining that child ready for bed in their PJs, HGF named the program PJ Library. Of course, it’s immaterial if the books are actually read at bedtime. All that matters is that the books, and now CDs, provide a space in time in which an adult and child can learn together what it means to be Jewish.

PJ Library has been wildly successful, and has expanded now that the original members, once babies, have grown up. At the PJ Our Way website, preteens can choose from a selection of pre-screened books. For the little ones, the Jewish Federation in the Heart of NJ organizes PJ playdates for parents and children.

So here’s a suggestion for this Chanukah: After you’ve shopped the sales and scoured the internet for the just right must-haves for guests and loved ones, before you send off special somethings to people far away and wrap delicacies for those nearby, buy each one a book. And if there’s a young child or expectant parent on your list, sign them up for PJ Library.

Choose different options for different people. It can be paperback or illustrated, hardcover or electronic, and audio books are great for folks who spend long hours commuting. Get them online or at your local book store. If there’s none near you, [words] Bookstore in Maplewood is a sheltered workshop for people with developmental disabilities.

Take Chanukah back. All the way back to its roots. Give your loved ones books and surprise them by slipping gelt inside each one. Celebrate the Holiday of Lights by sharing the Chanukah story.

And while you’re buying books, get one for yourself.

Learn more about PJ Library at and For more about PJ playdates, visit

JoAnn Abraham has held executive marketing and communications positions in Jewish federations. She is on the board of Change: The Center for Holocaust, Human Rights, and Genocide Education, and is a member of Temple Beth Ahm, Aberdeen.

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