OUT THERE: Passover and the freedom to give gifts

How, for one family, Passover became the holiday of gifts.

Illustration by Pepe Fainberg (photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
Illustration by Pepe Fainberg
(photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
It seems counterintuitive, but know this: in my home, Passover is gift-giving season.
Yup, this is it. This is when we give the gifts. Not your more traditional December, with Hanukka; nor February, when we celebrate US Presidents Day. But Passover.
Why Passover? Well, like I used to tell the kids when they were small, because we the Jewish people received our freedom on Passover, and there really is no greater gift than freedom, is there? “No, Abba, freedom is the greatest gift of all,” they would chime in, on cue like Jewish von Trapps, before holding out their hands to receive the second-greatest gift – their present for finding the afikoman.
Yes, the afikoman. That half matza hidden with great pomp and circumstance at the very beginning of the Passover Seder, and for which – at the end of the meal – the finder is rewarded with a gift.
At first, when the kids were small, we did indeed reward only the actual afikoman finder with a present.
But that was a really bad move because it created sibling tension as we sat around, in a reclining position, recalling the Exodus from Egypt. See, the kids weren’t sitting, reclining and retelling as they were supposed to; rather, they were running around looking for the broken matza before one of the other siblings grabbed it first and claimed the prize.
When it became clear that rewarding only one child made the Seder a less happy place, we changed the rules: henceforth every child would get an afikoman gift, no matter what – even those who didn’t scramble fast enough to find the afikoman, and even those who actually closed their eyes, rather than peek through one of them, as I hid it.
And that’s how traditions are born.
Another tradition, at least in my home, is to push responsibility for all this gift-giving onto someone else.
“Abba, what do we get for the afikoman?” the dear children would ask year after year.
“I dunno,” would come my usual response. “Ask Ima.”
The Wife, it seemed to me, had this great sense – an uncanny one – of knowing what to buy as gifts. She always knew what to get me for my birthday; what the kids needed for theirs; and what to take to people’s houses when they invited us for Shabbat dinner. I always thanked my lucky stars for ending up with someone who very well could have gone on to become a gift consultant at Macy’s.
Her philosophy is simple: buy people something they actually want or need, not what you want, or just to fulfill perfunctorily an obligation to get them something.
Very intriguing idea, that.
SO THIS is gift season in my household, and not only because of the afikoman: April is also the month of The Wife’s birthday, as well as our anniversary.
I love my spouse dearly. I am very thankful she was born, and equally grateful that we got married – and not only because she knows precisely which gifts to give. But this does put the pressure on, and I always get nervous this time of year because I never know exactly what to buy to commemorate those two auspicious events.
“Honey,” I’ll say in the days leading up to our anniversary, which comes three weeks before her birthday, “let’s face it, we have everything we need. Why don’t we make a pact? You don’t buy me anything, and I won’t buy you anything.”
“OK,” she’d agree, and we’d decide to just celebrate by going out to dinner.
I, inevitably, would keep my part of the bargain – more because I had no idea what to buy to celebrate 31 years of marital bliss, than because I’m a guy true to his word. The Wife, however, would always sneak in some little gift, like a book or something. Nothing big, nothing dramatic, but enough to make me feel inadequate. I’d vow to do better next year, until, of course, next year would sneak up on me.
And then there’s her birthday. I may have never been great at picking out gifts, but this much I did know from the get-go: you buy your spouse a gift on her birthday, and not just any gift, but a thoughtful one.
So on The Wife’s first birthday after our first anniversary, I wanted to get her something special: something she wanted, but also something she could use. It was warm in Jerusalem at the time, and she was complaining about the heat. What better gift, I thought, than a fan? So I went downtown, bought an oscillating fan, put a bow on it, wrote a card and presented it as a birthday gift. I anticipated a hug and some thanks, but was disappointed.
The Wife was mortified.
“Rule No. 1,” she said, “don’t buy your wife a birthday gift at the hardware store. Rule No. 2: don’t buy me something you want.”
Lessons learned. From then on, all household fans – and there have been many of them since – were purchased using money from the everyday budget, not from the funds socked away for birthday gifts.
And that’s when I first discovered that The Wife is the one in our household blessed not only with emotional intelligence, but also with gift-giving intelligence. As such, she has since assumed all the gift-giving responsibilities, including for the afikoman, piling that on top of everything else she does.
In our house, the division of labor over the years has fallen pretty much along the lines of what everyone is good at. Which means that I put up the sukka every year, cut the toilet paper before Shabbat, and take the car in for its annual checkup.
The Wife does pretty much everything else.
Her birthday wish for this year? Redoing that list.