‘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.
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
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?
ON a gift is something I have found, over the years, to be a bit
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.