Poor shaming ruined my childhood Purim

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BONN, Germany (JTA) — If one created a People’s Choice Award for holidays in Israel, Purim would surely be a top contender. Religious and secular Jews of all ages don colorful costumes, put on fancy makeup and wear extravagant hairdos. They get to be whatever and whoever they want, even if just for a day.

As the streets fill with merry partygoers, schools and youth movements across the country stress the true meaning of this day: a thanksgiving to God and an acknowledgement of Queen Esther’s role in saving the ancient Persian Jews from the genocidal Haman and King Ahasuerus.

While adult revelers often drink in excess and have their fill of hamantaschen, there’s only one truly obligatory edible tradition: giving and receiving mishloach manot.

According to this mitzvah, each person must send at least two portions of ready-to-eat food to at least one other person during the holiday. The purpose of the commandment is to increase solidarity among the Jewish people, as well as to satisfy the needs of the poor so that they, too, can enjoy a dignified Purim feast.

In classrooms across Israel, teachers coordinate the exchange of mishloach manot in advance, so that each child can arrive on Purim morning with a nicely wrapped basket of treats and candies. Each child typically is assigned the name of a fellow student randomly and they exchange baskets, or the teacher finds a creative way to keep things anonymous.

This exchange might sound like an innocent and fun way to celebrate the holiday, but the practice can be devastating for some children who can’t afford to go all out.

In my kindergarten, some packages were so big and heavy – stuffed with anything from homemade pralines to amusement park vouchers and toys worth hundreds of dollars – that parents had to carry them into the classroom themselves. The truly over-the-top parents would even include “small” presents for the receiving child’s parents, like a “modest” bottle of Moet or vouchers to the local spa.

I will never forget the look on my fellow kindergartner’s face when he was unfortunate enough to receive my mishloach manot. He was so disappointed by the leanness of my poor basket, which contained merely hamantaschen, some bonbons and a slice of cake, that he burst into tears. 

I was so ashamed. Luckily the exchange was anonymous, but I knew very well why he was crying.

It was because of me. Because my basket was small and ugly. Because I was poor.

Breaking into tears myself, I demanded to go back home to my mom, who couldn’t do much to console me. She knew what had happened before I even opened my mouth. After all, she was the one who tried to improvise a punnet from an already empty pantry.

Ironically, to fulfill a ritual meant to give dignity to the poor, my mother had to go through the same shame she felt when sending me without a sandwich to school or to birthday parties without a present.

I didn’t go back to kindergarten for two weeks. I couldn’t bear the humiliation.

My case was not an isolated incident, but part of a growing trend that completely misses the original intention of the commandment. Much like Purim costumes themselves, the mishlochei manot mitzvah has spiraled out of control.

Many of my friends who are now parents are horrified just thinking about how much money they will have to invest in “proper” Purim baskets for school and friends.

Turning this initially humble tradition into an extravagant spectacle is not only offensive but harmful.

Instead of increasing friendship or showing concern for the poor, mishlochei manot have turned into a flashy beauty pageant meant to attest to the qualities of the sender much more than the delight of the receiver.

This was not what Maimonides stressed in the Mishneh Torah when he wrote that “one should rather spend more money on gifts to the poor than on his Purim banquet and presents to his friends.” If one thing is certain, shaming the penurious was never part of the plan.

We need to find ways to ensure this tradition is inclusive and elevating.

This is why many stress that giving “matanot la’evyonim,” gifts or donations to at least two poor people, is significantly more important than mishloach manot.

“No joy is greater and more glorious than the joy of gladdening the hearts of the poor,” Maimonides continues in his Mishneh Torah. “He who gladdens the heart of these unhappy people imitates God, as it is written: ‘I am … to revive the spirit of the humble, and to put heart into the crushed’ (Isaiah 57:15).”

Sticking to the original values of mishloach manot and matanot la’evyonim means keeping it simple – but it also means making sure that everyone participating in the celebrations can do so with dignity.

Sometimes, all that requires is an email or WhatsApp from the teacher setting clear parameters and stressing that treats shouldn’t be over the top. It could also mean asking parents in advance if they need help or donations in order to make their kid’s own package, or setting a standard list of a few items (a piece of fruit, a bar of chocolate and a couple of hamantaschen, for example) that each basket should stick to.

It might be slightly embarrassing to bring the celebrations down to earth, but it is hardly as soul-crushing as seeing your child heartbroken.  

We need to find ways to ensure that this and every Jewish tradition – especially those involving children – can be done in an inclusive and elevating way. Holidays and milestone events should be a time to celebrate our values, not display our means.

More than I ever wanted to receive nice mishloach manot, I wanted the person who received mine to be happy. Being attentive to our surroundings could have made my wish come true – and would be more in line with the true commandment of this holiday. 

is an Israeli news reporter at Germany's international broadcaster Deutsche Welle.

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