I loved presents as a child. “What are you getting me for Chanukah?” I would start asking in September. “Chocolate covered ants,” my parents would sometimes say. Mostly they responded, “Chopped liver.” “Ew,” I cried, “that’s disgusting.” For years this went on and even though they always gave me the same answer, I never stopped asking.
Every late November or early December, depending on when Chanukah came that year, I crept into my parents closet and carefully pulled back the wrapping paper to see what was inside. Then I meticulously replaced the folded edges of blue paper with tape so my parents wouldn’t know I had sneaked a peek. But they did know. They never left my “big” gift in the hiding place where I previewed the other presents. That’s the deal with Chanukah for those out there who think we Jewish kids had it better off with eight days of presents: we only got one blow-your-little-kid-mind gift and seven days worth of socks, hair bows, stickers, etc. (at least that’s how it worked in my family). The big gift was always given the first night of Chanukah and my little kid imagination would run wild with anticipation of what it could be. A pony? A miniature motorized jeep? Emerald jewelry? A puppy or kitty or bunny or hamster? (I didn’t care as long as it had fur.) Or could it be the newest Nintendo system that didn’t require one to exhale into the back of the game cartridges to get them working again?
On the first night of Chanukah when I was eleven, I anxiously awaited the something awesome my parents would give me. We sat down to dinner and my mom handed me a small box wrapped in blue paper with Chanukah Gelt taped to the top. (Gelt is a traditional Chanukah candy consisting of chocolate discs wrapped in gold foil to look like coins. According to Wikipedia, it’s a long-standing tradition for Jewish parents to give their children money to distribute to teachers, but of course then the kids wanted in on the cash. By the twentieth century, American chocolatiers created chocolate gelt to fit the tradition.) I ripped off the wrapping paper in two crazy-kid-hand-swipes to reveal a felt jewelry box with gold metal trim. Ooh, the fancy kind of box, I thought. I opened it and started sobbing – big, heavy, ugly, tears. My face was red and angry. Inside the box was chopped liver. “Oh stop crying, Pauler. Don’t be so sensitive,” my mom said. “Just look underneath already.”
“I’m not touching that,” I screeched. My father lifted the raw piece of meat and there sat a beautiful necklace: my name in cursive with microscopic chips of diamonds inlayed in gold.
Two years later, my much older brothers were in town for Chanukah and we gathered in the living room that no one ever used to open our presents as a family. My gift pile sat closest to the fireplace that no one ever used because we lived in Florida where the idea of even having a fireplace was absurd. There it was, the gift I’d been wishing for for years. A kitty litter box wrapped in a bow, they’d even included the pooper-scooper. “Where is it?” I was on my feet, clutching the litter box to my chest and dancing around the room. “Where’s it hiding? Can I see it now?”
“If you take really good care of the litter box, next year we’ll get you the cat to go with it,” my mom said, laughing. Out rolled the big, heavy, ugly, tears. “You are the worst parents,” I screamed.
“We’re kidding,” my mom said. “I didn’t think you’d get so upset.”
“We’ll go pick up the kitten after we finish opening presents,” my dad said. That night, we drove to a stranger’s house and I got the last kitten left in the litter, the one that ran like hell whenever anyone came near it, the one that no one else wanted. Even if it had been hairless, I would have taken it for fear my parents would change their mind. Misty the cat was the least friendly animal I have ever known, but that’s beside the point.
The point is not that my parents were cruel for bamboozling their adolescent daughter, quite the contrary. These mind games taught me to have a sense of humor, to laugh at the things that really aren’t that bad and to toughen up. I am grateful now for their hazing because I am left with only memories and these are the only two Chanukah moments I do remember. I look forward to the day when I have children and can play the same obnoxious tricks on them.