Thursday, December 06, 2007

On Hannukah and gift-giving

They say everyone remembers their first kiss. And their first love. Since getting married three months ago, I’ve discovered a series of new firsts – the first time my husband and I experience a calendar cycle together. When we first got married, I thought that since Ari and I were both Orthodox Jews of Eastern European descent, our traditional practices would be remarkably similar. However, as the Jewish high holidays passed, what was remarkable was how each religious celebration brought a clash of family traditions that we had to navigate, from choosing a Rosh Hashana prayer service to determining the appropriate foods to eat before and after the Yom Kippur fast.

With the Jewish holiday of Hannukkah quickly approaching, my husband and I prepared for the next in our series of firsts – the first battle over Hannukah presents. Ari’s close knit but frugal Americanized family has always been one for small Hannukah gifts – candies, books, CDs and knitted scarves. Last year, he and his siblings did the Jewish equivalent of a secret Santa – each sibling bought a gift for one other.

Gift policy in my family has always been hairy, especially since most of us are hard to shop for and we rarely exchange gifts face-to-face. In contrast to Ari’s family, my three siblings and I spent last winter in four different countries.

A few weeks before Hannukah, one of Ari’s siblings suggested a change to gift policy. Perhaps the married-and-working siblings should buy each person a gift at Hannukah (and be done with it) while the single-and-in-college siblings should buy birthday presents only, spreading out their cash outlay over many months, and dispense with Hannukah presents entirely?

For reasons known only to God and Adam Sandler, the ensuing battle lasted eight crazy nights. Why, I asked, were we buying Hannukah presents at all? Didn’t my husband know that they were a Christian tradition and to be truly Jewish we’d have to give gelt (Yiddish for cold hard cash), and then only to children? Why would we spend hundreds of dollars on useless clutter we were not certain our family members would like, when we could spend it on such useful things as food and shelter?

My husband was quick to note that four or five ten-dollar gifts weren’t going to bankrupt us, and that I always gave actual presents to my small cousins. Wasn’t I being hypocritical by playing the “it’s not really Jewish” card?

My best argument led to eventual slammed doors and both of us going to work fuming. Since Ari’s brother and my sister, by ridiculous coincidence, were next-door dormmates in a rez hall of a local university, if we gave Ari’s siblings and sister-in-law presents, we’d have to extend the same courtesy to my siblings and brother-in-law. Add shipping charges to Canada, and you’ve got a tidy sum. No wonder many North Americans get second jobs this time of year.

Fortunately, Ari and I put our marriage first, and consensus second. Sighs and begrudging apologies led to a ceasefire of sorts. In the grand spirit of Hannukah gelt, childless siblings would get gift cards, and married-with-children ones would get gifts showered upon their children. Siblings in foreign countries would get gifts eventually, and Ari and I would keep our credit cards paid off as our Hannukah candles burnt.

Eventually, I know, there won’t need to be debates about whether we should stand or sit for certain blessings and whether the Shabbat candles should be on the table or on the sideboard. We have battled over some of these clashing traditions, and some were just not worth fighting over. But as the dust settles after our latest match, it’s clear that Ari and I are not oil and water, and somehow, with time, our traditions will mix.

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