PART ONE: BAR/BAT MITZVAH GIFTS
Darling Mr. Grumpypants popped into my office recently and peered over my shoulder to find out what in God’s name I could possibly be ordering now, as he thinks I’ve already bought the whole internet. Luckily, at that moment he didn’t catch me in the act of surreptitiously reeling in another pair of Stewies, nor adding to my infinite collection of couture shades (I never, ever lose ’em and have Ray-Bans dating all the way back to college). But my purchase drew his ire, nonetheless. I, as it turns out, was doing my weekly purchase of Amazon gift cards for that weekend’s bar and bat mitzvahs.
With my boys on the bar/bat mitzvah circuit for the second straight year now, Amazon gift cards are my standard gift since I don’t really know these kids and their interests. This way whether they’re into books, music, games, clothes – really anything under the sun – they can select something they’ll enjoy. While I truly treasured the gifts I received for my own bat mitzvah, today many of these very fortunate kids want for nothing. These days it’s not a boom box but an Xbox. It’s not the electric razor I treasured 30 years ago, it’s an electric Razr scooter.
Anyhoo, I caught flack and loud grumbling for the expenditure, despite the fact that I hadn’t been discovered trying to attain automatic membership status in Neiman Marcus’ Gold Circle. And that confused me. What was his beef? It’s the same gift we’ve been giving for a while, with the exception of a few of Ben’s young lady friends, to whom we sometimes gave a pretty bracelet or something from Tiffany’s (girls are so much easier to buy for!). Yes, I give bigger gift certificates this year than last, because both twins have been invited to all these events, but c’mon, what’s the problem? Get over it, dude! Mr. Grumpypants clearly had something stuck in his craw, yet he couldn’t seem to articulate just what was irking him. He concluded his hissy fit, whirled around and stomped out of my office.
Later that evening, in a much more appealing and logical Tanqueray-tinged frame of mind, Mr. Grumpypants finally isolated what had offended him so drastically. He apologized for his misdirected outburst and explained his viewpoint. “What the heck could these 13-year-old kids possibly need?” he griped. “I hate that we’re contributing to the excesses and unnecessary overindulgences of these kids who more than likely already have more meaningless crap than they’ll ever use or appreciate.”
Hmmm. He actually did have a good point! When he was able to untwist the yarn and get to the specific thread, he added that it wasn’t the amount of money he objected to, it was the form of the gift. He said he would feel better about giving that amount – and probably considerably more – to the teen’s choice of charity instead.
Don’t misunderstand. I’m not tooting our own horn here. I’m not saying we’re such righteous people, or that our own kids aren’t overindulged. But we’ve always felt uncomfortable about other people contributing to our kids’ excess. From when our kids were very young, we requested that their friends not bring gifts to our kids’ birthday parties. People thought we were being mean and restrictive. But in reality, the sight of a fortunate child sitting and opening a tall stack of beribboned boxes is personally nauseating. Seeing them start to assign status to friends by what gift they give is revolting. And having a roomful of toys and games that they played with for ten minutes and promptly got bored with is heartbreaking, when you know that there are so many children in the world who would think they’d died and gone to heaven with even one of the goodies from the discarded pile. Eventually we pretty much stopped having birthday parties altogether, because they were just becoming “out-do festivals” at which you’d try to top the last friend’s party in venue or entertainment or cake creativity. My kids could not have cared any less, and they look forward to a cake-and-candles celebration with the extended family – whenever we all manage to get together, whether it’s that very day, that week or sometime that month. They truly appreciate everyone’s good birthday wishes and whatever they might be blessed to receive, but they don’t expect anything.
(As an aside, my favorite gift for my kids to give and to receive has always been a gift certificate to a bookstore. Half the gift is the sheer joy and delight the kid gets from browsing and choosing. And of course the other half is in the book itself. I think that’s why I’ve given Amazon cards as gifts for almost ten years now. And now I love that you can print them at home and don’t need to think ahead and order them in advance!)
Which is a long way back to my feeling about bar and bat mitzvah gifts. Becoming a bar or bat mitzvah means being recognized as a Jewish adult and accepting the responsibilities that come with that passage. Does receiving a new Wii game teach our kids about being Jewish? Does a ripstick really remind a kid of the sacrifices our people made so that he could be a Jew? When she looks back, are 50 iTunes tracks really going to be a great commemoration of standing in front of her family and friends reading Torah for the first time? I don’t really think so. I can’t disagree with Mr. Grumpypants that it just contributes to the gluttonous entitlement – selfish brattiness – that plagues so many kids today. (Are there less fortunate kids becoming bar and bat mitzvah who don’t have these sorts of “things” and would appreciate and treasure these gifts? Of course. But that’s not who I’m talking about today. I’m talking about the “Keeping Up With the Steins” crowd who’ve seemingly lost all perspective of the significance of the occasion.)
When Ben became a bar mitzvah last year, he was already of the mindset that receiving gifts would be overindulgent. He knew the most meaningful gift to commemorate this occasion would be to make a difference in an area important to him, and he researched organizations that support a cure for breast cancer, in order to pick the one that touched him most. For the rest of his life, he will know that when he became a bar mitzvah he helped raise almost $25,000 for Susan G. Komen for the Cure. That’s something he can always be proud of, and surely a better life lesson than an iPod – which will be outdated by next month – could give.
So while I’m very clear in my opinion about receiving bar mitzvah gifts, I’m still quite conflicted about giving bar and bat mitzvah gifts from my kids. We did receive one other invitation this spring in the pile of nearly two dozen so far that specified that in lieu of gifts, guests instead donate to the temple’s URJ summer camp fund. I did so promptly, gladly and – frankly – more generously than if I were buying an actual gift. I thought it was quite admirable and appropriate. But the rest of these kids will be expecting something tangible, no doubt. And so I’m off to amazon.com again to purchase and print down yet another gift card for the camp friend on Long Island tomorrow.