It began rather innocently as I chatted with my housekeeper (a fancy way of saying "cleaning lady", no? To me, "housekeeper" conjures up images of a live-in maid in a starched apron who keeps my house spic 'n span 24/7. Reality check: think older Moroccan woman whom I love dearly, swishing around a sponja rag for a few hours a week in a vain attempt at keeping my house clean for a scant day if we're lucky!) this morning about, y'know, the things you chat about when one of you is wiping countertops and the other one is attempting to finish a chapter of her serial story (!).
And then we got onto The Subject, which means that I asked her what the custom is amongst her family and friends regarding gift-giving at simchas (happy occasions). That's when she let the bomb drop--but let me preface this a bit. My cleaner is, as I mentioned before, a wonderful middle-aged Israeli woman of Moroccan descent, which means she is Sefardic, extremely family-oriented, and probably a wonderful cook. It also means that her culture is very different than mine, just by virtue of the fact that I'm Ashkenazic, North American born-and-bred, family-oriented in a very different way (she spends Shabbos with her parents, for example, EVERY SINGLE WEEK!). In fact, the only strong similarity between the two of us is that I'm also a great cook :-). Oh--and we're both sweet (another smiley face would go here if I hadn't already used up my quota for this blogpost!).
So what's up with gift-giving in her family? I wondered. She's making a bar mitzvah in a month, so the question wasn't exactly from left-field. I just wanted to know what the expectation was as far as a gift goes since I'll be showing up and I want to be socially correct. Pretty suave, I thought. Well, let me just preface this by saying that I am accustomed to giving actual gifts, rather than money, for a few reasons. Firstly, I think it's more intimate and thoughtful. Secondly, I'm always uncomfortable with price-point; if I give 100 shekels, the recipient knows I gave 100 shekels. If they consider 100 shekels a nice amount, then I'm fine, generous, and may even be invited back to the next simcha! But if they think 100 shekels is kind of measly, then, well, it doesn't really reflect very well on me, does it?
On the other hand, if I buy a beautiful crystal dish for 100 shekels and have it wrapped gorgeously, then it has definite eye appeal and the recipient isn't thinking about the price tag and the economics of the gift. At least that's the way I look at it.
Well, here's Dahlia's take: they give money. Cash. And lots of it. Not only that, but they write down exactly what amount everyone gave--and then MATCH it when they're invited to the other guy's simcha. That means that if you give me 400 shekels for my daughter's bat mitzvah (hint, hint), I will then give you 400 shekels when you invite me to your son's bar mitzvah. It's just that simple.
"And if you don't have the money, you give it anyway!" she tells me, leaning on the sponja stick.
I was really kind of, well, between being blown away and stymied (a relatively tumultuous place to be, as you might imagine!). Is that really what a simcha is? Giving a gift that is really just a credit note--an IOU until you can "pay back"? And, she informed me, even if you don't attend the simcha, you send the money by hook or by crook. In my perspective, this system would make me regard every incoming invitation like it's a bill. Can I really afford to be friends with so many people, when 4-600 shekels is considered the normal gift to give?
I realize my lovely cleaning woman's world may be a bit extreme to myself and many of you readers, but pray tell, what do you give as a gift, and how do you feel about it?