Thursday, January 12, 2017

Gifts and Gift Giving

On episode 51 of Question of the Day, James and Stephen discussed gifts. Now, I love to talk about gifts, particularly the gifts that I think people should buy for me. But today, let’s talk about one of the major weirdnesses for Americans (and I assume people from other countries as well) who come to live in Israel.

If you ask a typical Israeli to talk about what scares him most, it’s not bombs or other terrorist attacks. It’s being invited to a wedding.

In America, if someone invites you to a wedding, you check your calendar, you see if you are free, you check their registry, maybe you go in on a gift with a few friends, maybe you go to the wedding and maybe you don’t, and generally, life goes on.

In Israel, if you get an invitation to a wedding, all hell breaks loose. First of all, by virtue of the fact that you have been invited, you are now OBLIGATED to show up. And that means you are OBLIGATED to bring a gift. And that gift MUST BE CASH.

In the early years of our marriage, when one of Guy’s many relatives would host a joyous event, our invitation was usually delivered by hand to his parents, who then passed it on to us. Stamps perhaps do not exist in Israel? I don’t know. These days, invitations often arrive by WhatsApp, so it’s a good thing Emily Post is dead. (Emily Post is dead, right?) Anyway, we’d hear about the event, and that was it. We had to go. “But what if we have plans that night?” I would say. “Nope. No plans.” Guy would say. The only acceptable excuse for not attending an event to which you have been invited is attending a funeral. Your own.

I remember attending a wedding when I was about four months pregnant with Lior. I was exhausted and cranky, and because Israelis LOVE to smoke, especially 18 years ago (there is far less smoking inside the reception halls these days, although it still happens), I was furious at the amount of secondhand smoke I was inhaling. I was even more furious when I heard that the bride got divorced less than a year later.

Anyway, whenever we were invited to something by Guy’s extended family, Guy and his siblings and parents would then meet and discuss how much each of them would be giving to the person in question. Today, there are helpful apps and web sites that tell you precisely how much money to give, based on:


  • Your relationship to the person
  • If you are coming alone, with your spouse, or with your whole family
  • The day of the week and the time of the event
  • The venue
  • How far you have to drive to get there
  • Your profession


In Israel, you see, if the people have invited you to an evening event at a high-scale venue, you are expected to give them a gift that reflects at least the cost of your meal. In essence, guests are supposed to pay for the hosts’ choice of venue. A Thursday evening event at a fancy hall requires a larger gift than a Tuesday evening event in the synagogue social hall.

The categories for “profession” in most of these apps are:


  • student
  • soldier
  • employee
  • self-employed
  • high tech
  • retired


If you choose high tech, the app basically adds an extra zero to the amount you need to give.

Should have paid more attention in Hebrew School....

On QoD, James pointed out that he hates giving cash, because when you give someone cash, they wind up giving you the same gift back, which is EXACTLY what happens at these Israeli functions. When there is an event, Guy’s mother says, “You know, at your wedding 20 years ago, she gave you $x, so that’s what you need to give her son for his wedding.”

When we invited people to Adi’s bar mitzvah, I desperately wanted to write on the invitations, PLEASE DO NOT BRING US MONEY OR GIFTS. ADI IS ALIVE AND WE ARE SO HAPPY AND WE INVITED YOU BECAUSE WE LOVE YOU AND WE WANT YOU TO BE WITH US. Guy wouldn’t let me.

When I made the guest list for the bar mitzvah, Guy was like, “Abbi, you talked to those people once.” And I said, “BUT THEY ARE SO NICE TO ADI.” And he said, “You don’t understand. By inviting them, you are OBLIGATING them to give a gift.” So there were people I didn’t invite, even though I wanted to, and that makes me sad.

Listen, I’m not trying to say I don’t like money. I do. You can give me money or gifts basically whenever you want, and I will be okay with that. But I never want people to feel like I invited them for the gifts, or to feel obligated to return gifts. Because if I give you a gift, I give it from my heart, and I truly, honestly expect nothing in return. (If my husband wrote you a check, none of that applies.)

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