Be a Conscientious Giver This Holiday Season

We’re a couple of days away from Black Friday, the biggest shopping frenzy of the year. Before you go stand in line in front of a big-box store in the middle of the night, stop a second to consider this:

Most of us already have enough stuff and then some more.

The flood of cheap imported goods in the last few decades turned our societies into cultures of consumerism and excessive materialism. We fill birthday goodie bags with cheap plastic trinkets that are tossed within hours. Many buy clothes and get rid of them after an average of three wears. We produce high-tech appliances that don’t last. We go shopping out of boredom or as a pastime; buy things just because they’re cheap; get rid of perfectly good items only to make room for the next trendy thing. Many (most!) of us have houses full of stuff we never use. We have turned into unaware hoarders.

And then we buy books or hire professionals to help us get rid of it all…

Our consumption habits have a HUGE impact on the planet we live in. Our short-term greed is destroying the prospects of our long-term survival.

And yet, giving is a huge part of the holiday season, and a long-established way to show people we care. So what should a conscientious consumer do?

I say, give responsibly.

Here are a few suggestions:

Give Experiences, Not Things

Experiences build memories that last forever. They enrich lives. Most importantly, they forge connections between people. There are endless possibilities that you can tailor to any budget. Some are entirely free. Others can cost a fortune. There’s a full range in-between.

Here are some ideas: Go hiking with your friends. Give tired parents a coupon for babysitting (and then babysit when they ask you). Take a loved one to the movies. Organize a family camping trip. Buy tickets to an exhibition, a museum, a concert, a play, an opera, a ballet, a Renaissance Fair or any other event. Last year my kids really wanted to see Hamilton. The entire extended family chipped in, and they got tickets as holiday gifts AND birthdays combined. They still talk about it… Take your family on a road trip, a cruise or an overseas trip.

Or, if you want to honor someone AND help those who really need it most, make a donation to a favorite charity in someone’s name.

Give Something that is Designed to Get Consumed or Used Up

This is a combination of traditional gifts and experiences. It involves giving a physical item, but one that will be consumed or used up, and which will therefore not add to the clutter in a recipient’s home. This category of gifts involves foods, drinks, and things like body care or living plants.

We all need to eat, and most of us enjoy it. There is something very basic and satisfying about eating together and sharing food. Like experiences, this is something that can be tailored to any budget.

Cook or bake something special for the people you care about. It’ll be great if you get to eat it together, but even just giving it will feel good. You can also buy some special foods, something that people don’t eat every day: a special bottle of wine; artisan-made chocolates; a local specialty from a place you visited. Or, you can take people out to a restaurant. You can choose how fancy you want it to be.

Things that get used up, like soaps, lotions, bath bombs and such, also provide a fun experience. They last for a while, giving ongoing pleasure, but don’t add to long-term stuff accumulation.

Living plants are a lasting gift. They don’t get used up, but they bring a piece of nature into homes, beautify gardens, and give back to the earth (not to mention help clean the air). When I was a pre-teen, a friend gave me a potted plant. Many decades later, it is still very much alive, in my parents’ home.

Make Your Own Gifts

When you make something yourself, you put a little part of your soul into it. Give it to the right people, and they will know to appreciate and cherish it. When I went to visit my family last year, for example, I got to bring a suitcase-full of my work with me. Giving my own art to the people I love was the best feeling in the world!

I know, not everyone likes to make things, and that’s OK. Many of us want to but don’t have the time. Especially not around the holidays, a busy season for us all. Even I don’t have time to make handmade holiday gifts. I make and give at other times of the year.

If you do chose to make your own gifts, be careful about WHO you give them to. Too many people don’t appreciate handmade, or the time and efforts you put into making your gift. Give such a precious thing only to someone you KNOW will appreciate it.

Buy Locally, From a Real Person

If you do want to buy physical gift items, consider buying from a real, local person.

It’s true that big-box Chinese imports are much cheaper. But they’re also made by people who aren’t paid well and who work in sub-optimal conditions. They’re made in factories that employ children and mistreat workers. They contribute to environmental pollution: to the poisoning of waterways and air. Shipping them thousands of miles is also costly in environmental terms. We should care about this even if this happens far away. We all share the same earth. Dirty air and water will eventually harm us, too. Micro plastics are already found in almost everyone’s guts. We ALL  feel the effects of climate change.

You will pay more if you buy from a real person in your community. BUT you will also make a difference in the life of a neighbor. You will be contributing to your local economy, something that will eventually benefit you in return. And you will probably get a better-quality item, something that will last longer and, in the long run, save you money.

You could buy a cheap mass-produced “reusable” shopping bag, for example. Just don’t be surprised if it fails you at the worst possible moment.

Or, you could spend more on a beautiful handcrafted bag that will last for years 🙂

  • Find a local artisan who uses upcycled materials and achieve a double goal.
  • Buy items directly from their makers.
  • Or, support a local mom-and-pop shop that sells manufactured goods. It’s in your interest to keep small shops open.

Buy Ethically

If you can’t find a local person who creates the things you want, make informed decisions about who else to buy from. Do some research about companies you consider. Learn which factories they produce their goods in, and how they treat their workers. Try to buy from ethical companies that treat workers well and care for the environment. Buy fair trade, recycled, socially-responsible.

 

Most importantly, don’t get caught up in the frenzy of shopping, and don’t let the burden of gift-giving stress you out. Holidays are all about spending time with the people you care about, after all. They’re about taking time off from the hurdles of life and about relaxing. Make sure you do all of that this holiday season.

Happy Thanksgiving!

My Father’s Sukkah: On Textiles, Reusing and the Creation of Traditions

Wednesday night marked the beginning of the week-long Jewish holiday of Sukkot (Feast of Tabernacles or Feast of the Ingathering). The holiday celebrates the end of the agricultural year, and also commemorates the Exodus from Egypt. My father’s sukkah celebrates all of that and then a little more.

When the Temple still existed, Sukkot was one of three pilgrimage holidays. At that time, people from all over the Holy Land used to make their way to Jerusalem during Sukkot, bringing with them harvest to the Temple.

After the destruction of the temple, Jews started celebrating the holiday by building sukkot (plural for sukkah), or temporary huts. We eat, pray, and sometimes sleep in them for the duration of the week. These huts–built to remember both the temporary structures our ancestors slept in during their forty years of wandering through the desert, and the huts farmers built in the fields during the harvest–usually have wooden frames covered with sheets of cloth. Their roof is covered with plant material, usually palm leaves, and is called a schach.

Nowadays, many people buy a sukkah kit online. It arrives ready to assemble, and is usually made of synthetic materials. Once the holiday is over, it easily comes apart, folded and stored for next year. But that’s not the way sukkot were built when I was a kid. Then, everyone had to build their own sukkah from scratch, every year anew.

Of course, some parts of the sukkah could have still been saved from one year to the following. The wood planks, for example, or the cloth coverings. In the case of my father’s sukkah, some of the materials were passed down in the family for much longer than that.

This is my father’s sukkah:

The outside materials are relatively new, but not so the cloth inside. These inside textiles were already hanging in my father’s grandfather’s sukkah in the 1930’s and before.

Originally, my great grandfather, Haim, and his wife, Gele, had other uses for these fabrics. My great grandparents used these as curtains and table cloths in their home in Jerusalem, in one of the first Jewish neighborhoods built outside the walls of the Old City. After many years of use, when these textiles lost their original luster and became faded or stained, my great grandparents turned them into sukkah walls.

While many of these fabrics are still beautiful and lively, one stands out as being really special. Someone, you see, meticulously hand-embroidered the fabric strips serving as the sukkah “door.”

My father thinks, but is not sure, that the delicate embroidery was the handiwork of his aunt Hannah, Haim and Gele’s daughter, who was a talented embroiderer. I can only imagine how many weeks (or months!) it took her to embroider this piece!

For us, children of a mass-manufacturing, cheap-goods materialistic culture, up-cycling, recycling and reusing are fashionable buzzwords. But not that long ago reusing was a way of life. Less than a hundred years ago, materials and objects were expensive. Things were well-made and pricey. People valued items, used them with care, and re-purposed them whenever possible. They also passed things down from one generation to the other.

Thus, Haim and Gele re-used old curtains and table cloths, turning them into sukkah walls. When, in the early 1930’s, they moved from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv to live near two of their grown sons and their families, they brought their sukkah materials with them.

Between holidays, my great grandfather Haim saved his sukkah materials in his attic (“boidem”). He stored the wood, and also the textile wall coverings. Every year, once Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) was over, he, his sons and his grandchildren would start building their sukkah.

They treated the old cloth with care. They nailed these inside textiles to the wooden frame with upholstery nails. Before nailing, the grandchildren prepared squares of cardboard, usually from empty cigarette boxes, to put on each nail. They did so to make it easier to pull the fabrics out at the end of the holiday without tearing them.

On the eve of the holiday, Haim would come home from the synagogue with a poster of the ushpizin: images of the patriarchs: Moses, King David, and the like, and pinned it in the center of the wall opposite to the “door”. As far as my father remembers, this was the only decoration in his sukkah.

My father continues to use his grandfather’s textiles in the sukkot he builds himself, year after year, with his own children and grandchildren. Unlike his grandfather, my dad decorates his sukkah with artwork of his offsprings. I myself made the lampshade in the above picture when I was eleven. My nephews made the paper chains. My father carefully preserves not only his grandfather’s textiles, but also his children’s and grandchildren’s art. His sukkah, therefore, has more decorations as the years go by.

The sukkah textiles are now almost one hundred years old, yet still serve their purpose. They witnessed at least five generations of our family, and hopefully will see more to come. The fabrics enclosed ancestors I never knew in person, distant relatives who died before I was born. They created a holiday-sacred space for tens of relatives and guests, for eating, praying, talking, laughing, arguing and sleeping.

Somehow, I feel, they preserve some of the spirit of these long-gone people who lived, for one week each year, in-between them. The people who made them, the great-aunt who embroidered them, the great-grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins who hung them, handled them, folded them, then stored them with care year after year. By serving as sukkah walls, these textiles, of course, help pass down the traditions of the holiday. But, by passing down from one generation to the next, they also tell the story of our family. In a way, they help create the story of our family. They are both a part of a tradition and the makers of new traditions.

That, I think, is something that synthetic, disposable sukkah kits could never do.

Our Thanksgiving Tradition: Visualizing Gratitude

There are many things to be grateful for, and many ways to express gratitude. And while we should all be continuously thankful for the little miracles of everyday life, it is truly wonderful that Thanksgiving comes once a year, to remind us to really stop, think, and be consciously appreciative.

Every family has its own Thanksgiving traditions. Some are decades old, others relatively new. Ours falls into the later category, and reflects our family’s evolution and growth. We started our tradition about a decade ago, when my kids were still little but could already draw.

Our tradition calls for the making of a “Thank You” poster a few weeks before Thanksgiving. In the weeks leading to the holiday, anyone who comes to our house has to write what they are grateful for on a note, and paste it onto the poster. This is our way to nudge everyone to think more deeply about the things we normally take for granted.

From the very beginning, the kids have been responsible for coming up with a poster theme. I wish I could say that the process has always been cooperative, friendly and peaceful. Sadly, this would be somewhat of an exaggeration. But always, after some arguing, fighting and the occasional shout, they have been able to come to an agreement. Over the years we’ve had Thank You trees, scenes involving native Americans and pioneers, pumpkins and corn, and last year–The Speedwell. This year the kids chose to paint a Thanksgiving turkey.

Our Thanksgiving Tradition: My kids' finished gratitude poster

Once the kids decide on a topic, they cooperate on planning the composition and on the actual painting. Each person gets to do what they are good at and capable of. Some draw, others paint, or cut, or paste. Every year they choose to use different materials. Some years they use crayons, on other years acrylic, or something else. The resulting work of art reflects their collaborative efforts.

Starting to work on our gratitude poster

Painting our Thanksgiving poster detail

Painting our Thanksgiving poster

Once the poster is finished we hang it on the wall in our dining room, right above the Thanksgiving table.

The kids then cut little pieces of paper in shapes matching the theme of the painting (leaves, corn kernels, sails and such), and put them in a small pile near the poster, together with a pen and tape.

Feathers and tape ready to use

Then people get to write what they are thankful for, and paste it onto the painting.

Starting to post gratitude feathers on our turkey

Thanksgiving poster detail

We leave the painting hanging even after the holiday is over, and make all our guest write on it. Appreciating life, after all, should be ongoing. We later keep the posters, which become time-capsules of sorts, and which reflect our lives at any given year.

Why I don’t Make Costumes for My Kids

Halloween came and went, and once again I felt the pang of guilt that washes over me every October. Another year had passed, you see, without me sewing unique costumes for my kids. This year I felt guiltier than ever, for over the past twelve months I’ve spent more time than ever hunched over my sewing machine. I sewed many items, but costumes weren’t amongst them.

When I was a kid, my parents set a very high bar. For years they made my siblings’ and my costumes, all ingenious and unique. One memorable year in preschool, for example, they turned me into a dwarf sitting on a mushroom. My upper body was the dwarf. Somehow my parents attached a doll’s arms to my shoulders, inserted my arms-turned-dwarf’s-legs into small doll’s pants, and shoved my hands into little shoes. My lower body became the mushroom, with a stiff skirt serving as the mushroom’s top. My own legs, clad in white tights, acted as the mushroom’s stem. I am quite sure the world has never seen such a feat. Another year they dressed my sister as a doll in a box. The pictures of these and other costumes were something we kids kept going back to.

So when I had kids of my own, it only seemed natural to me that I should make their costumes, too. On their first Halloween we even attempted a family costume: my husband, myself and our toddler daughter were black cats, while my second daughter, still a infant, was dressed as a cute white mouse. I assembled the clothes and hand-sewed all our ears and tails. Shopping for the fabrics and accessories, measuring, figuring it all out and stitching took hours. We wore these costumes one evening. For most of that time we wore coats over the costumes, for it was a rainy Halloween, as many Halloweens tend to be. Then they were tossed aside.

A week later, on a visit to Target, my toddler spotted made-in-China rabbit ears that cost less than a dollar. She forced me to buy a pair. She and her sister ended up playing with them for years, until they fell apart.  I learned my lesson right there and then: The kids couldn’t distinguish between handmade costumes that took hours to make, and the cheap, store-bought stuff. They couldn’t care less how much planning or time went into preparing their garb. They were just as happy, if not a little more so, with the flimsy, sparkly Chinese stuff.

To make things worse, it turned out that the main attraction of the holiday wasn’t the costumes at all. What my kids really cared about (and later remembered) were the piles of candy, and the excitement of collecting them. I realized then that my life was plenty busy as it was. That was the end of my costume-making attempts.

Since then my kids have been responsible for putting together their own outfits. They have been deciding what they wanted to be, and have been in charge of making sure they have everything they needed. Sometimes they used things we already had around the house, or costumes from years past. Sometimes they asked me to buy something new. At other times they made the costumes themselves, often together with friends. Every now and then it was a combination of the above. And yes, when necessary I did help make a prop or two, or helped a kid attach one thing to the other. This year, for example, I got away with cutting a simple, Pikachu tail out of yellow felt.

Over the years I noticed how much the kids actually liked being in charge of their own dress-up. They loved planning their own costumes. Making them themselves brought out their best creative energies. Working together with friends on a combined outfit encouraged cooperation, strengthened friendships and sharpened negotiation skills. I realized that leaving this responsibility to the kids was actually good for them.

But while my brain knows that it’s perfectly OK–and even advisable–for me not to interfere with Halloween preparations, my heart still feels guilty. And I still greatly admire super-moms like my sister, who, despite being extremely busy, still find the time (and energy!) to come up with family-themed costumes, and then make them all from scratch. I just realize this doesn’t quite work for me.

Despite being Halloween veterans, my kids are still mostly interested in the loot. They collect mountains and mountains of colorful, cavity-causing sugars, and enjoy sorting, arranging, comparing and exchanging them.

My kids' Halloween loot