Patti Rapaport stared blankly at her son as he revealed his latest hankering.
“Toobers and Zots,” 6-year-old Samuel said matter-of-factly, as he ate lunch with his parents during Kol-Bo, a Hanukkah fair with Jewish-oriented toys, books and gifts held recently at Beth Israel Synagogue in Bangor.
“I’d like Toobers and Zots for Hanukkah,” he repeated.
Later, Rapaport, a resident of Brewer, laughed at her unfamiliarity with the odd-sounding toy, a building set made of foam. Even if she had been aware of that particular item, however, she and her husband, Scott, would likely have left it for another time. They had done all the Hanukkah shopping they planned to do.
Like many Jewish families in the Bangor area, the Rapaports try to eschew the indulgence which prevails during the holiday season. Still, the manner in which each family celebrates Hanukkah is as varied as the families themselves.
While many parents offer a gift during each of the eight nights of Hanukkah, which starts tonight at sundown, others give one only on the first night. Some steer clear of giving gifts altogether. One family may involve all members in an exchange of gifts, while another might concentrate only on the children.
The festival of Hanukkah, dating back to 165 B.C., marks the victory of the ancient Jews against a tyrannical Syrian-Greek regime. The holiday lasts eight nights, according to legend, because when the Jews entered the Holy Temple after defeating the enemy, they found only enough oil to last one day. Miraculously, however, it continued to burn for eight days. Today, Jews recall the Hanukkah story by each night lighting one candle in the menorah, or eight-branched candelabra.
Families often make it a point to offer gifts with a Jewish theme. Patti and Scott Rapaport said that Samuel and his 4-year-old brother, Benjamin, would receive a tape of the Hanukkah story and a CD-ROM which teaches the Hebrew alphabet. The parents have also planned to give their boys two silver cups of their very own to hold the sacramental wine used during the family’s Friday evening Sabbath celebration.
Rose Dennis of Hampden has “fistfuls of stuff” in store for 7-year-old Shaina, including card games illustrated with pictures of religious symbols and Hebrew letters, board games which teach Jewish values, even a tiny necklace decorated with a Star of David.
Some families like the idea of giving practical gifts, while others forage for playthings their kids are passionate about.
Nanci Miller of Bangor will give Jared, 12, and Josh, 8, a variety of items this year, ranging in price from $1 to $6. The boys can count on scarves, gloves and socks, as well as tried-and-true favorites such as sports cards and a book on origami, the Japanese art of paper folding.
Meanwhile, Darlene Mogul of Bangor will “definitely focus more on educational toys” for 4-year-old Taylor. Still, added the mother, laughing, “there’s a Barbie doll stuck in there somewhere.”
Other parents concentrate on one gift the whole family will use. During one Hanukkah celebration four years ago, Deena and Jack Weinstein of Garland purchased a VCR for themselves and their two children. This year, Rachael, 15, and Ben, 17, will be treated to a gift certificate to a local record store, clothes and books.
In fact, books appear to be the most widely chosen Hanukkah gift, followed closely by arts and crafts supplies. Hanukkah “gelt,” or money, is also popular — sometimes appearing as honest-to-goodness silver dollars, sometimes as chocolate “coins.”
The first Hanukkah gifts were in the form of coins, nuts or sweets that families in eastern Europe used hundreds of years ago as they played with the dreidel, according to Susan Schonberger, wife of Rabbi Joseph Schonberger of Beth Israel Synagogue. Spinning the dreidel, or top, is a popular Hanukkah game in which each player takes turns trying to acquire the treats heaped in the kitty.
The fact that the treats may have evolved into “power gifts” has mostly to do with the excesses inherent in America today, Schonberger said.
Meanwhile, she continued, the small gifts that she and the rabbi give their three children are a way to make the holiday more festive. Each child will receive books, coupled with action figures for David, 9, and Samuel, 6, and doll accessories for 3-year-old Eliana.
Jo-Ann Kirstein of Bangor said that although her family has thought fleetingly of forgoing the annual exchange of gifts, the idea fizzled in the end.
“The thought of not passing each other something just didn’t seem right,” she said. “We like to recognize each other every night, even if it’s something insignificant.”
This year, Jo-Ann and Jerry Kirstein have planned on giving a karate belt rack to their 12-year-old son, Josh, and gelt to their teen-aged daughters, Julie and Jenny.
Meanwhile, Naomi Podolsky of Bangor will refrain as usual from giving gifts to Avraham, 7, and Akiva, 5.
The boys get plenty of gifts from relatives, said Podolsky, and anyway, “the best gift is spending time with the children, sitting around playing dreidel and eating potato latkes [pancakes].” Latkes, which are fried in oil, commemorate the miracle cruse of oil that lasted eight days.
In fact, most Jewish families wouldn’t think of celebrating Hanukkah without the home-based rituals which make the holiday so distinctive.
“Gifts mean very little to my children at Hanukkah,” Patti Kornreich of Bangor said a few days before the onset of the holiday. “They’re already talking instead about lighting the menorah.
“That’s what the holiday is supposed to be about,” continued the mother of four daughters. “Praising God for the miracle he bestowed upon us.”