Getting gelt was good as gold

by Edmon J. Rodman

(JTA) — What can a buck get you on Hanukkah? Maybe a gold mesh bag of chocolate coins or a lighter for your menorah. But Jewish continuity?

At Hanukkah time, when we get so wrapped up in gift giving, I propose that it’s a single dollar of gelt (Yiddish for money) that has the power to keep on giving beyond eight nights.

Hanukkah gelt referred originally in Europe and later America to coins given as gifts to children and adults. Today, gelt brings to mind the chocolate coins wrapped in gold and silver foil that come in a small mesh bag.

But lately, gelt-wise, I’ve been thinking outside the bag and wondering why of all the Hanukkah gifts that I received as a child, it is the shiny silver dollars given by my parents that I remember best. I never even spent them.

Was something more than a dollar being given?

When I was a teenager, and the silver dollars stopped and were replaced by clothes and books, I was surprised by how much I missed the holiday ritual of being handed a dollar. It wasn’t until I was engaged that someone gave me one again.

I had been invited to a family Hanukkah party at the home of my fiancé Brenda’s Sephardic grandmother, Grace Hasson, or as everyone called her, “Vava.”

Some three dozen relatives — aunts and uncles, cousins and their spouses — crowded into a small living room. We said blessings for the candle lighting and sang songs before moving on to dinner. The feeling was nice, warm; nothing unusual.

After dinner and some bunuelos — sugar-powdered fried balls of dough — someone said it was time for “gelt.”

Gelt? For whom?

I watched as four dining room chairs were lined up at one end of the room and four uncles seated. One by one, with the oldest going first, the name of each grandchild was called, and each came forward to pass down the “gelt line.”

My future mother-in-law, Shirley, knowing everyone’s birthday, kept the chronology straight, and when the time came for Brenda, I was surprised to be included with her.

In my late 20s, I thought myself beyond getting gelt. But as I passed down the line, each uncle pressed a crisp $1 bill into my hand (Stanley Berko, my future father-in-law, gave me a $2 bill), and as I shook their hands and wished each a “Happy Hanukkah,” I felt like a million bucks.

When Brenda reached the end of the line, her grandmother handed her a white envelope.

At Hanukkah, “You got a dollar from each uncle, two from your own parents and two from Vava, plus a birthday bond,” explained Joe Hasson, my wife’s brother.

Hasson recalls using the $7 to buy record albums or gas for his car.

“We also used the bills to play liar’s poker,” he added.

“I would bring girlfriends, and they would get a big kick out of it. It made you feel good to continue the tradition,” said Hasson, who is married and has two children who also went through the line.

He remembers the line as a kind of roll call.

“It was the only time you would see all the cousins,” he said.

However, I soon realized, one didn’t even need to be present to be counted. If for some reason you couldn’t make it, someone would be designated to go through the line for you.

One of the uncles, Lou Hasson, remembers the tradition beginning in the mid-1960s.

“There are four branches of our family. It was wonderful to have them together,” he said.

Another of the uncles, Gene Levey, said that “before we gave gelt, each family would pick another family and give them gifts, but it was hard to know what to buy.”

As the cousins married and had children, the number of gelt getters doubled to approximately 40. Berko, who remembers going to the bank to get about $75, recalled that his first gelt line was also the year he married into the family.

“I didn’t even know everyone’s name, but I wanted to be part of it, too,” he said, as did the next generation.

“It didn’t matter to me if it was $100 bill or a dollar, I really wouldn’t have cared,” wrote Beau Karabel, one of the great-grandchildren, in a text. “I just loved these guys and wanted to be them one day.”

Rachel Petruzzi, another great-grandchild, said she remembers “getting together as this humungous unit” at Hanukkah.

“Going through the gelt line, you would get a special moment with each uncle and my grandfather,” she said.

After some 40 years, however, when she was 25, those moments stopped with Vava’s passing in 2008 at 104.

“I miss it so much,” Petruzzi said.

For Rachel’s mother, Ellen Petruzzi, the line was a means of family continuity. Even with the untimely deaths of several of the aunts and uncles, including her mother’s, she noted that the family carried on with its Hanukkah tradition.

“We have strong feelings for each other,” Ellen Petruzzi said of her extended family, who continue to get together at Passover and Rosh Hashanah — a dinner that Brenda and I now host that is flavored with a dish from each family. “We are strongly connected.”

Edmon J. Rodman is a JTA columnist who writes on Jewish life from Los Angeles. Contact him at edmojace@gmail.com.