Imagine having all the toys and games you ever wanted. Your playroom would be like a toy store: filled with trucks and trains and airplanes and ships, Lego and K’nex, Gameboys and Nintendo, every Beanie Baby ever made, Power Rangers and Ninja Turtles and Barbies galore and huge amounts of Playmobil–any toy or game you could think of. David’s large bedroom was very much like that, stuffed with every toy a nine-year old boy might desire. When friends from school came to visit, they nearly went crazy. It was like living in a toy store. Every kid thought David was the luckiest kid in the whole world.
But David didn’t feel lucky. He didn’t quite know what he felt. Although surrounded by toys and games, he often was bored. “I don’t have anything to do,” he complained to Mrs. Carlson, the nanny who took care of him. Mrs. Carlson, an older woman, lived in David’s house and made meals for the family and took care of David. His parents were business consultants and spent most of their time traveling. They always brought him toys and games whenever they came home, which is why he had so many.
“You’ve got so much here. How about this?” Mrs. Carlson asked, taking a box off the shelf. “This looks like a fun arts and crafts project.” She was very nice and cared about him more than anyone else, David thought, but she wasn’t much fun when it came to playing. David liked it best when she told stories or when they just talked.
“Tell me about Chanukah,” suggested David. He had heard his best friend at school, Adam, talking excitedly about Chanukah, the celebration of the successful Maccabee revolt.
“You’ll have to ask your mother or father about that, I’m afraid. I don’t know much about Chanukah except it is a Jewish holiday that comes around Christmas and children get lots of presents and light pretty candles,” she explained.
David didn’t think his parents knew much about Chanukah either. They were Jewish and even belonged to a synagogue, but they never went and they never did anything Jewish. His friend Adam always did Jewish stuff that seemed to be fun, like wearing costumes and passing out treats and having celebrations and eating meals in a neat little shack Adam’s father built in the yard.
It was early December, and Chanukah was just a few weeks away. Adam and his family had organized a used toy collection for children in a homeless shelter. Kids brought in old toys — stuff they had outgrown — and put it in a big box. David brought a bunch of his toys. “Hey, this stuff is really neat. And it’s practically brand new. You really want to give these?” exclaimed Adam.
“Yeah, I have others like it, and I don’t play with it much anyway,” David explained. Although his friends loved coming to his house because of all the toys, David always had more fun when he went to other kid’s homes.
Adam’s dad brought all the toys to Adam’s house, where the family cleaned them. Adam invited David home one afternoon to help. Adam’s dad, who worked in the local high school, set up the boys cleaning the toys in the basement. Adam’s mom worked too, but his dad was home whenever high school was out. He always made himself available to play with Adam and his two sisters in the afternoons after school. When they were done cleaning the toys, they brought them to a neighbor’s garage where other toys already had been stored. The neighbor had a little workshop in the garage, but the place was mainly filled with toys for now. They would take them to a shelter on the last day of Chanukah, just in time for Christmas, which was the holiday most people in their community celebrated.
Back at Adam’s home, his dad talked about Chanukah, which was just a few days away. He told stories about God’s miracle of making the one day of oil for the lamp last eight days, of the brave Maccabees, and of lighting the menorah. They practiced spinning the dreidel, a top with Hebrew letters on it. One of Adam’s favorite games was tzedekah (charity) dreidel, in which kids tried to win piles of coins. To David, it all sounded great.
David’s mother arrived home on the afternoon of the first night of Chanukah. She had more than the usual number of presents. “It’s Chanukah. I’m so happy I could make it this year,” she said cheerily.
“Are we going to light candles in a menorah?” asked David.
“Oh. Not tonight, sweetheart. I’m not even sure where we put the menorah; it’s been so long since we used it. And, we certainly don’t have any candles for it. But we do have presents for everybody: you, Mrs. Carlson, even daddy,” she explained. David couldn’t hide his disappointment. “If you’d like a menorah, I’ll find it tomorrow and get some candles. We can light it when daddy comes home. He should be home in time for the last night. The menorah will be beautiful with all the candles lit.”
David’s mother was too busy to get the menorah the second night, but it didn’t matter; David had been invited to Adam’s house. Each child, including David, had a menorah to light. Adam and his sisters sang the blessings. Then everyone joined in singing Chanukah songs. David didn’t know the songs, but he danced around and around in a circle with them. They didn’t have much in the way of presents. Adam and his sisters got underwear and heavy winter socks — stuff they needed anyway. David was given some chocolate Chanukah coins. He passed them around. They were delicious.
Then they played tzedekah dreidel. Adam’s dad gave each child a small pile of coins: pennies, nickels, dimes. They would put coins in the middle of a circle and spin the dreidel. Depending on how it landed, each child would win or lose money. If they lost, they would add money to the pile in the middle of the circle. As the pile of coins grew, the children got more and more excited with each turn. “At the end of the game,” Adam’s dad announced, “you can keep half the money you have left, but you have to put the other half in the tzedekah box,” in which the family collected money they would give to charity. Afterward, Adam’s mom made potato latkes. They stuffed themselves with the delicious latkes. David had a great time.
The following nights of Chanukah were a disappointment. David’s mother had more presents but hadn’t managed to find the menorah or get candles. David wished he could go back to Adam’s house.
On the seventh night of Chanukah, the night before they were to deliver the toys, disaster struck. There was a fire in the neighbor’s garage. Nobody was hurt, but most of the toys were ruined. David heard about it from Adam at school the next morning. “We’re not going to have any toys to bring to the homeless children,” Adam said sadly. David felt terrible.
The fire had darkened everybody’s spirits, but Adam’s father refused to let it ruin Chanukah. He called that day, inviting David and his parents to celebrate the last night of Chanukah with them. “Robert will just be returning so I don’t think we can make it,” David heard his mom say. Robert was his father’s name.
When she hung up, David exploded. “I want to go to Adam’s house. You couldn’t even find a menorah. You didn’t buy any candles like you promised. They have menorahs. I’m going. Mrs. Carlson can take me,” David screamed, and ran to his room. Stunned by his outburst, his mother changed her mind, picked up the phone, and called Adam’s father to say they would love to come if they were still welcome.
David didn’t come out of his room the rest of the afternoon. Before they were to leave for Adam’s home, his mother came up to the room. She was shocked to see a huge pile of toys in the middle. “What’s going on?” she cried.
“We’re taking these over to Adam’s house. We’re going to replace the toys that were burned in the fire,” David declared.
“But those are your toys. We gave you those,” his mother stammered.
“I don’t need them. The homeless kids need them more,” David insisted.
“We don’t have room in the car for all these toys. You can’t be serious,” his mother argued.
David had thought a lot about his toys, even before the fire. He also thought about the children who didn’t have any toys. And, he knew that he had more fun and was happier at Adam’s house, where there were only a few toys. “Adam’s father has a van. He’ll help us,” David answered, and he picked up the phone to call.
Adam’s father came over and helped with the toys. David’s mother and even his father, who had only just arrived back home, joined in. They all drove over to the homeless shelter with the toys. The children there were overjoyed. “This is a miracle, a gift from God,” one of the mothers said, sobbing with joy. They treated David like a hero. David, who suddenly experienced the pleasure that comes from giving from your heart, liked the feeling.
Back at Adam’s house, the last night of Chanukah was dazzling. Four menorahs, one for Adam, one for each of his sisters, and one for David, burned with all eight candles and the shamash alight. Everybody sang and danced and played tzedekah dreidel. Even David’s parents got caught up in the celebration.
Later that night, at their own house, David and his parents stood in his bedroom, now nearly empty of toys. “So, what is the best part of Chanukah for you?” David’s father asked.
“I really love the candles and the story and the singing and dancing and tzedekah dreidel and everybody being together. I guess I love it all, especially being together,” David replied.
“Don’t forget the presents — eight nights of presents,” reminded his mother.
David paused for a moment, not sure how to answer. He knew his parents liked to give him presents. And after tonight, he understood how they must enjoy giving him presents the way he enjoyed giving presents to the children at the shelter.. “The presents are nice but they aren’t my favorite part. Still, I’m glad I had them to give to the homeless kids. They really loved them,” David said as carefully as he could. He didn’t want to hurt his parent’s feelings.
His father was silent, thoughtful. David was afraid he might be angry. “Well, maybe should try extra hard to be together more,” he said finally. David’s mother and father hugged him close.
“That would be the best present of all,” David said in a voice that was muffled in their embrace.