The Jewish Experience

"Hanukkah Turns Me into the Worst Version of Myself"

Josh Gondelman

Nov. 29, 2021

By Josh Gondelman '07

For eight days a year, Hanukkah turns me into the worst version of myself.

In fairness, I shouldn’t blame the holiday. There’s so much I love about Hanukkah. Spending time with family. Eating fried carbs. Participating in Jewish tradition without having to dress up. Sadly, the Festival of Lights also involves one of my most feared activities: receiving gifts.

We know all about the bad gift-giver, the spacey uncle who shows up to a nephew’s birthday with a trinket purchased at the closest CVS. (Why would you think a seven-year-old wants an electronic thermometer, Mike?)

Or the stingy friend who regifts you a $10 Starbucks gift card they got from an office Secret Santa. (Very smooth, Claire! Nobody will question the Christmas-themed card in the middle of April.)

Fortunately, I’m not that guy. I am a decent gift giver thanks to my crowd-pleasing middlebrow taste and my insecurity-born tendency to throw money at problems. (Problems, of course, meaning the love of my friends and family.) I like giving gifts, and I hope the people in my life like receiving them from me.

I am, however, a terrible gift recipient.

I am incredibly picky about clothes and decor, even though I admittedly don’t have especially good taste. I don’t seek out new gadgets.

When given one, I will frequently forget I even own it until I cut my finger with its sharp edge in a drawer or knock it from a shelf onto my foot.

I’ve inherited (or learned) my father’s tendency to purchase most of the frivolous items on his wish list for himself and my mother’s demure reluctance to tell anyone what she might actually want for Hanukkah.

On top of all that, I’m a terrible actor — certainly not good enough to convince someone that I actually love the T-shirt they bought me in the wrong size (and wouldn’t wear anyway, even if it did fit like a daydream).

That is, I’m a bad actor (unless you are a Hollywood casting director. In that case, I am a committed thespian with the range to play anyone from a 25-year-old substitute teacher who looks like garbage to a 50-year-old stepdad who looks kind of good for his age.)

But (don’t read this, Hollywood types) if I’m being honest, I am an unskilled and largely uninterested pretender.

The sum total of these qualities means that shopping for me is like trying to throw a buttered baseball into the strike zone of a two-foot-tall toddler. Although, on the other hand, if I seemed to appreciate the present you gave me … I did!

It’s not that I require (or even want) more stuff.

I’m incredibly fortunate to have my needs met. I can afford most of the silly things I receive targeted Instagram ads for. (Side note: The ads are targeting me too effectively. AI is becoming too powerful and must be stopped.)

But there is a pleasure in a holiday gift exchange beyond the objects that are changing hands. I just have a hard time remembering that when I’m preoccupied with where I’m going to put the framed photograph you just gave me that certainly is lovely but does not fit my home’s aesthetic.

I don’t want to be this way.

I would love to accept every heartfelt token from a colleague or friend with the enthusiasm with which it is offered. Intellectually, I understand the truth in the sentiment that it’s the thought that counts. I certainly don’t blame the gift giver for my lackluster response to their carefully considered holiday generosity.

But while receiving the present, I will often be mentally absent as I consider where I can most easily donate this new hat (which was purchased at a store with no website and located 100 miles from where I live).

But this year things feel a little different.

After the pandemic largely erased last year’s holiday season, celebrating Hanukkah with family feels like present enough.

The past year and a half (and, unfortunately, still counting) has proven that with gift exchanges, it’s not even the thought that counts after all. It’s a privilege just to have and execute the thought in the first place.

In fact, the post-Thanksgiving evening of giving with my immediate family released a veritable firehose of endorphins in my brain. Maybe I’ve changed. Or maybe my sister found the perfect spoon rest for my kitchen. Who can say?

And if I actually remember to rest my spoon in it the next time I’m cooking, then that will be a true Hanukkah miracle.

About Josh Gondelman '07

Josh Gondelman is an Emmy Award-winning television writer currently working on Showtime's Desus & Mero. He's the author of "Nice Try: Stories of Best Intentions and Mixed Results" and a regular panelist on NPR's Wait Wait… Don't Tell Me!