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Friday, November 7, 2014

No gift, please. And screw Emily Post.

How about this: Next time you’re throwing a party for your kid – birthday, bar or bat mitzvah, sweet 16, graduation, whatever -- put these words on every invitation going to your kid’s friends: “No gift, please.”

 Just for their friends. Not for the adults, whose circumstances you probably know better. You might have to print up two different invitations – or you could hand write it on some – or you could add an insert in the envelope. “No gift, please.”

 I know Emily Post says it’s rude to mention gifts on the invitation, even if it’s to ask that people refrain from bringing them. Screw Emily Post.

 I’ve been meaning to write about this for the last couple of years, ever since my twins’ bar mitzvah. But what reminded me today was this article titled, "How I Realized Child Hunger Hits Everyone Close To Home”:

 “Child hunger in America is often something you don't ‘see’ or suspect is close to you, but there we were in an affluent area I knew quite well, interviewing hungry kids who live just blocks away from million dollar homes. I realized for the first time, 'If child hunger can exist here, it can exist anywhere.'” 

 Those words brought me right back to the bar mitzvah – or rather, one particular incident.

 We were lucky enough to be able to throw a big shindig for our twins – not big by some standards, but still big: buffet luncheon after the service Saturday, and a kids-only all-day trip to an indoor water park on Sunday. As one does in preparation for these things, I asked the kids to give me a list of the friends they wanted to invite. After much prodding, they did; the list included kids from their public school, summer camp, and Hebrew school. I had invitations printed and sent them out to everyone on my list and theirs. Simple.

 A couple of weeks before the event, one of my kids came home from school and told me that a girl he’d invited, M., had asked him what kind of gift she was “supposed” to give. I gave him the standard easy answer: Any gift is fine, but many people give money in multiples of $18 [the value of the word “chai,” or “life,” in Hebrew numerology]. I just figured the kid wasn’t Jewish, so neither she nor her parents had any idea how this whole bar mitzvah thing worked.

Sure enough, when the time came, this sweet kid showed up with an $18 gift and seemed to have a blast with her friends.

 And that would have been that…except it wasn’t.

 Just a couple of weeks after the bar mitzvah, my kids came home from school breathless with excitement.

 “M. won a house!”

 “What? A house?”

 “And the TV news came to school!”

 “Wait…what do you mean she won a house?”

 The whole story soon came out. It was everywhere, including news reports. M. and her family had been living in homeless shelters and provisional housing for four years, ever since their home went into foreclosure. She was the oldest of four. Her mother was a single parent; two of the kids had health problems. Twelve-year-old M. had taken it upon herself to enter a TV "Dream Home Giveaway" contest, writing a letter explaining her family’s circumstances. “Our only dream is to have a house of our own where we can live together as a family,” M. wrote. Out of 10,000 entrants – she won.

 Had she not won, I probably never would have discovered my error: M. probably wasn’t clueless about bar mitzvahs. She was probably worried about the cost of the gift. I was the clueless one.

I had made a stupid, thoughtless assumption about my kids’ friends, and I had learned some really unpleasant things about my own subconscious prejudices, liberal pride be damned. [A question that has plagued me ever since: Had M. not been white, would I have stopped to think of her financial circumstances?]

 In the three years since all this occurred, I’ve kicked myself countless times. I’d thought I was being considerate, mentioning a paltry sum like $18. Paltry for us, maybe. I should have told my kid to tell M., “No gift needed. Just come and celebrate with us.” But I just didn’t think.

 How may times have other kids been placed in this awkward position? Countless, no doubt. How simple it would have been: “No gift required.”

 Next time.

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