Out There: The gift horse

Native-born Israelis and Americans living in Israel often look at the whole simcha gift-giving experience quite differently.

July 27, 2013 23:21
The gift horse

The gift horse cartoon 370. (photo credit: Pepe Fainberg)

‘DO YOU HAVE to buy a present?” The Youngest asked, perplexed, when he heard his first cousin – my favorite niece – had become engaged and The Wife and I would be traveling to Denver for her wedding.

Not a “Mazal Tov,” not a “Gee whiz, that’s grand,” not even a question about the lucky groom. The Youngest’s eyes, as always, zoomed in immediately on the prize.

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And in his very pragmatic eyes, the prize – at least my niece’s prize from us – was the very fact that we would be putting out all that money for plane tickets, and expending those precious few vacation days, to attend her wedding. Isn’t that gift enough, he was thinking (I knew what he was thinking because – somewhere deep in the recesses of my soul where I struggled to keep it down – I harbored a similar sentiment).

It was an interesting philosophical query, that. It brought to fore essential questions we deal with on an everyday basis. Not existential questions of the why-am-I-here variety, but questions that do touch on fundamentals of interpersonal relationships.

What gift to give a bar or bat mitzva kid? How much to give for a wedding? Do you send invitations to people abroad whom you know will not be coming to your simcha – or is that just too obviously a request for a gift? Should the value of a present depend on your fondness for the person? Is it right to “go in” on a gift with others?

GOING IN ON a gift is something I have found, over the years, to be a bit dicey.

On the one hand, when someone asks if we’d like to go in with a group of people to purchase a gift for a newlywed couple or a kid, the initial inclination is to jump at the offer – especially if somebody else is actually going out and doing the purchasing. It saves all that time and effort.

But upon deeper examination, there is something problematic here. First of all, the conversation usually goes something like this:

“Do you want to go in with some other people and buy Scooter and Betsy a wedding present?”

“Sure, sounds good. How much?”

“Well, we’re not really saying, whatever you want to give.”

What does that mean, exactly – “Whatever I want to give?” I want to give NIS 10, especially if someone else is going to chip in NIS 600 and the recipient will get a lovely present at the end without knowing who contributed what. But if the shoe were reversed, and I were the one anteing up the big shekels, while someone else didn’t “feel” like giving much, I’d feel like the quintessential sucker.

Group gift buying is also problematic from the recipient’s end. Let’s say we’re talking about a bar mitzva kid. You’re a 13-year-old boy: Would you rather get one gift from 10 people, or 10 different gifts from each of your parents’ good friends?

BUT I DIGRESS. Even before addressing those questions, it is necessary to honestly acknowledge a basic truth: native-born Israelis and Americans living in Israel often look at the whole simcha gift-giving experience quite differently.

Another basic truth is that it is a good thing the numerical equivalent (gematria) of the Hebrew word chai (life) – the basis for all monetary Jewish gifts, be they presents or charitable donations – is 18, not 124. Could you imagine having to give gifts not in variables of 18 – such as NIS 18, 36, 54 or 72 – but rather in combos of 124? We would all go broke.

For most Americans, the simcha gift is for the kid, or for that happy new couple. For many Israelis, it’s an admission ticket to the celebration. Or, more bluntly, you’re literally paying for your meal.

I was stunned the first time my oldest son, The Lad, was invited to a friend’s bar mitzva. He came home and declared that rather than give the boy a book on the wonders of the weekly Torah potion, we should give cash because that money would then go to the family to help pay for the simcha. Cash, he insisted, not even a check, so the father could use it to pay the caterer immediately after the party.

How gauche, thought I, superciliously. It’s like being invited to someone’s house for Shabbat and, instead of bringing a box of bonbons, delivering a check to pay for the cholent meat. Let the kid buy a soccer ball with my NIS 72. Taking their kid’s bar mitzva gelt to pay for the Moroccan cigars at the reception – what kind of parents would do such a thing?

The kind of parents, it turns out, who are pragmatic, well grounded, and with average salaries who want to have a party in honor of their kid’s coming of age, but not go into debt in the process.

They love their child no less then I, but their cultural background is not that the bar/bat mitzva money needs to be socked away for the kid’s college or marriage fund, or for the kid to buy his first shares of Exxon stock, but rather to pay for the party.

Besides, these parents are probably going to end up paying anyhow for the child’s college, wedding, much of the first apartment and well beyond, so why not let them get their hands on some of that bar mitzva stash.

IF THERE is logic in taking the bar/bat mitzva money to pay for the crudités, all the more when it comes to wedding checks.

Especially in this country where, Baruch Hashem, people are blessed with large families.

The Wife and I both come from small families, and – as a result – had a small wedding (to this day I joke that I was lucky even The Wife showed up). But in this country it is not uncommon to go to a wedding of 600 people, and that’s with the second cousins left off the guest list.

On the one hand you can say that if you want to invite that many people, keep the nuptials modest.

Fair, but even if you are only serving shwarma, fries and a Coke to all the guests at NIS 40 a head, multiply that by 600 and you are still talking about NIS 24,000. And that’s without the lovely hall in the city’s industrial area, flowers, photographer (video and stills), band, etc – and, I stress, that’s only with shawarma, fries, and a Coke on the menu. But who serves that kind of meal at a wedding?

Normal people working for normal salaries who want to serve a normal wedding meal and have a big family just can’t afford it – so they dip into the gifts.

Is it bad? Is it vulgar? Is it improper? Definitely not. What it is, is sensible.

Will I do it? Of course not, it’s not something I grew up with, it’s not in my cultural suitcase. In other words, I remain – as the kids often remind me in the form of a put down – “too American.” Though in this one narrow instance, I’m pretty sure they will not mind this particular “Americanism” all that much.

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