July 14, 2024
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July 14, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

“What can we bring back from Israel?” my in-laws once offered, over the phone, when they were about to travel.

“Nothing! Really, nothing,” I said, not wanting any more T-shirts that would end up in my kid’s pajama drawer, or kippot that had Lightning McQueen on it, when my son no longer liked the Cars movie. Gifts, although always well-meaning, usually ended up unused or being thrown out. The waste of money pained me. So did the thought of too much clutter.

My husband overheard the conversation and suggested that I let them buy presents for the kids. I looked at him questioningly, as he was equally guilty of wanting to throw out every single item in the household that didn’t have a spot to keep it well hidden. We both craved a minimalist look, though we were far from it. “Why?” I asked.

“Because it makes them feel good,” he said, and the whole time I thought I was doing them a favor. They would not HAVE to spend three days in 75 stores finding the perfect necklace with a map of Israel on it for our daughter. They could use that time to tour or travel more. They would save money, and we wouldn’t have to throw it all away. I thought I was being helpful. He felt otherwise.

After that, when relatives asked us what we’d like for them to bring back, we actually responded with something we needed or would find useful, or at least less impractical. A washing cup, a mezuzah, or some chocolate eggs. And we were all happy.

Every Chanukah, I have one child who goes out of her way to buy presents for her siblings, and the others are less enthusiastic about dipping into their life savings. This year, she made them presents instead of buying, because she still had that urge to shower her siblings with a token of her love, in a more cost-effective way.

So, when the kids came home from school and announced that there would be a “gift sale” for Chanukah items, and they’d be able to purchase presents for family members, I tried to crush my instinct to just blurt out NO, to ignore the whole concept, and I gave each kid a few dollars to spend. I also told each child that he or she would be buying a gift for a specifically assigned sibling, and to bring home the change.

Now, I always know to brace myself for disaster with these types of events. In past book fairs or trips, someone always loses their money, buys double what I have instructed them to buy, or doesn’t realize they are supposed to bring home the change. But, going in knowing that the system wouldn’t be perfect would help me to not be disappointed with the outcome. I also went against my “let’s not buy junk” philosophy because my husband’s voice resonated—it would make them feel good.

It seemed like a nice idea to encourage them to do kind things for each other. Maybe they would fight a little less? The buyer would have to spend time thinking and imagining what the recipient would enjoy, and the act of giving would lead to close feelings of love and care. The recipient would feel great about getting a gift, even if it’s momentary and the gift is later forgotten, but for that minute in which the giving and receiving occur, there is a feeling of sheer excitement and connection that cannot be replicated. Maybe the money is actually spent on that; primarily on the emotion, and less-so on the practicality of the item purchased.

I was surprised when I picked up my kids that afternoon and one came over to me and whispered in my ear, “I need to get something else for Jakey.” I looked at her and asked what had happened, wrongly assuming that she had “accidentally” purchased all things for herself and nothing for him, having been lured by the glittering jewelry or scented lip glosses. “By mistake, I bought him cat-toys. I didn’t notice the package.” She took out the offensive items from her backpack, and sure enough, there were two wiry looking rattles, and the blister packing had a picture of a cat on it, and the words, “Two Dumbbell Cat Toys.”

I wish I knew why she thought her 8.5-year-old brother would like to play with a rattle, even if it had been for humans, and not for cats. Maybe a football? Or a notebook for drawing? But a rattle… I didn’t understand it, but I didn’t question her, because clearly she was devastated by her mistake. She cried at home for thirty minutes, a wonderful musical accompaniment to our dinner, and tried to think of ideas of alternate gifts she could make for him.

“It’s okay, I don’t need anything,” her kind older brother reassured her. But the wailing continued. I showed the cat toys to our toddler (who was not a part of this gift rotation), and his eyes lit up, as he tore open the package. To him they were microphones, musical instruments, and something to whack people with, until after a few minutes, both of them broke. But for that slice in time, he was loving the second-hand cat-toy Chanukah present from his sister. I even had to tape them back together for him so he could bring them to school to show to his class.

My daughter finally calmed down and was able to enjoy the pen she had received. And although now the duct-taped cat-toys are settling down into an incinerator, I feel that my $4 were spent well, despite enduring the tantrum. She was able to give something and make someone else feel good about it. And that is the beauty of gift-giving.

Sarah Abenaim is a writer living in Teaneck. She can be reached at [email protected].

By Sarah Abenaim

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