Saturday 20 February 2010

The Money or The Box?

A new immigrant to Israel has many cultural changes and challenges to contend with. Many of these, such as the typical Israeli aggression and impatience, and the horrendous driving on the roads are fairly well documented. Due to the fact that these cultural changes are better-known, it is easier to prepare for them and to overcome them when they confront you. It is the less well publicised issues that somehow take longer to confront, and longer to overcome. I never expected that the issue of giving gifts at family celebrations would present such a challenge. Sometimes, life has some strange surprises in store for us.

The common practice adopted in my native South Africa is to give a gift, rather than a money present, on the occasion of a family celebration. The idea is that the gift should be carefully chosen to suit the recipient and to reflect the giver. Especially in the case of a wedding, the gift is designed to be something that will give the happy couple something of a start to set up their home and embark upon the path of married life. In the case of barmitzvah boys, this did not always produce the desired result in terms of the presents that they hoped for. For those people who may not have known the barmitzvah boy very well, a pen somehow always seemed to be an appropriate gift. I certainly received a few of them for my barmitzvah. Along with those, however, I received a number of gifts which I am still using today. They provide fond memories of my important day, as well as those people who gave them to me.

More recently especially for weddings, it has become common to set up gift registries at shops to avoid receiving unwanted gifts. The registry is advertised to all invitees and they are free to choose a gift from the register at the shop. This results in the happy couple receiving only what they want, and not receiving duplicates of any items.

The practice of gift-giving in Israel is, however, quite different. Here, it is expected that all invitees will give money gifts when invited to weddings and barmitzvahs. This may be understandable as money is, of course, something that is always needed and welcome. With the money, any items that are needed can be purchased and there are no issues with unwanted gifts or duplicates. As simple as this sounds, however, it presents its own set of issues and considerations. Most notably, there is always the question as to how much money is appropriate to give as a gift. We are told that the considerations are how close a friend or family member the person is, and how many members of your family will attend the function. There are also some people who believe that more money should be given if the function venue is a more expensive one. There always seems to be a danger of giving too little, or even too much money as a gift.

There is a problem with money - not everybody can afford what may be expected of them. Whereas with a gift, it is sometimes possible to give something which is more valuable than its cost, with money this is not possible. Sometimes a gift has a sentimental value or can be acquired at a significant discount which brings the recipient much greater value than its cost. So, where money is expected and an invitee cannot afford the amount that is expected, it happens frequently in Israel that people decide not to attend the function rather than embarrass themselves. This surely defeats that whole objective behind inviting people to a family function, and the giving of gifts?

I imagine that the giving of money gifts comes from a good place. In addition to the advantages of money gifts mentioned above, I can imagine that money gifts must in the past have had an importance for families wishing to celebrate an important event, but not having enough money to even put on the function. They would have been able to put on the function in the knowledge that many invitees would contribute money gifts equal to or greater than the cost of their meal. In this way, the party host could be sure of being able to pay for the function from the gifts, and even possibly having some over to keep for themselves. Even though many Israelis are thankfully not in the position of having to rely on money gifts to allow them to host a celebration function, the concept of using money to fund the cost of the party still persists.

This has been taken even further by viewing the celebration as a "business" project. The choice of where to hold the function and who to invite is increasingly being dictated by money considerations. The idea is to run the function at the best possible "profit". There are those who believe that hosting the function at a more expensive venue will generate better gifts. This is weighed up against those invitees who may decide not to come because the required gift is too expensive for them. It is also sometimes noticeable how many people are invited to functions, sometimes even people who are distant associates of the party hosts. I believe that all celebrants are entitled to host a function that will allow them to celebrate their happy occasion, even if this means using gift money to finance this. Turning the party into a business, however, seems to me to take be taking this practice too far.

I hold the view that, wherever possible, it is better to host a more modest function, but one which can be funded by those hosting the party without relying on gift money. This allows the guests to have the freedom to give gifts rather than money if this is their choice. It also allows the celebrants to have the gifts for themselves, rather than to be financing the celebration. In spite of the flexibility afforded by the receipt of money gifts, there is definitely a lot to be said for the giving of gifts that will allow the giver to be remembered in the future. It adds so much more sentimental value and meaning to the act of giving the gift. It also allows the personality and personal relationship of those giving the gift to be reflected.

Despite the fact that money gifts are generally expected of me when attending local functions, it still remains my personal preference to give a "real" gift. Maybe I am old-fashioned, and perhaps not sensitive enough to local customs. There are, however, some things from my past which I find very difficult to give up.

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