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A Battle Heats Up—Over Purim Packages

The holiday’s ‘mishloach manot’ boxes used to involve juice and a bag of chips. Now competitive moms have raised the stakes.

Tova Cohen
March 02, 2015
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine

When Mordechai and Esther were saving the Jewish people from the clutches of the evil Haman more than 2,000 years ago, they never could have imagined that their story would someday be commemorated with an erotic gift basket. And yet this year, as the film adaptation of the novel Fifty Shades of Grey plays in theaters across the country, one of the more popular items Sara Beth Fein is selling for Purim is a Fifty Shades-themed mishloach manot package; the $60 basket contains red wax lips, black rope licorice, and candy “handcuffs.” (“I couldn’t find kosher candy handcuffs anywhere,” said Fein, “so I had to improvise with kosher candy bracelets.”) Those who might find the theme too risqué can instead order Fein’s “I’m Saving Up for Plastic Surgery” mishloach manot complete with nose-shaped cake pops, a Bochox brand chocolate bar, a syringe pen, and a bra-shaped cookie.

“Anyone who is a creative person like I am loves celebrating Purim,” said Fein, of Teaneck, New Jersey. A longtime party planner who had often volunteered to make her friends’ mishloach manot—gifts of food to friends and family for Purim as per the commandment to ensure everyone has enough food for the feast held late in the day—Fein decided this year to go into the Purim business by selling her original mishloach manot and advertising on social media. “People have definitely been trying to outdo their neighbor more and more in the past decade or two, even among my former community in Queens, which is usually among the more laid-back Jewish communities. I’m happy to oblige by supplying people with inspired ideas.”

Jewish rituals have become somewhat of a competitive sport in recent years. Typical Shabbos dinner fare like challah and gefilte fish has been replaced by savory leek, garlic, and fennel-infused challah and salmon croquettes served on a bed of Brussels sprouts-and-cabbage slaw. Families that used to host a Seder in their dining room while Uncle Mort shuffled back and forth to the bathroom in house slippers now fly the gantze mishpacha to Puerto Rico for a deluxe Passover program to enjoy a nice omelet station by the pool. And on Purim, the mishloach manot of yore—modest packages that once seemed perfectly acceptable if they included a can of soda and Super Snacks—have become more elaborate projects, often with a custom “theme” matched to a family’s costumes and a poem explaining each item’s thematic significance.

Mishloach manot used to be a mini bottle of Kedem grape juice and a slice of honey cake, and planning for Purim began the day before, on Ta’anit Esther,” said Eliyahu Fink, rabbi of the Pacific Jewish Center in Venice Beach, California. “In the late ’90s, people started getting creative, and an expectation of increasingly elaborate creativity was established.”

Call it the Mishloach Manot Wars. While Purim is a relatively minor holiday in the grand scheme of the Jewish calendar—it lasts a single day, there’s only one formal celebratory meal, and your time spent inside a synagogue is minimal—the elaborate lengths many Jewish families go to to create the most dazzling and unique mishloach manot are anything but trifling. My own inventive mother once collected the blue plastic bags encasing our home-delivered New York Times for several months leading up to Purim and produced an original comedic Purim newspaper to go along with the platters of bagels, lox, and coffee she stuffed inside the bags.

Fink pointed to the many women who welcome the challenge and opportunity for creative religious experiences—including his wife, whom he credits with coining the trend “Martha Stewart Judaism.” In an article last year on his blog, Fink or Swim, Fink explained Martha Stewart Judaism as “the form of Judaism that finds great meaning and pleasure from the creative presentation of Judaism and its rituals … the kind of Judaism that gave us gourmet cookbooks, party planner designed kiddushes, parsha cakes, out of this world Sukkah decorations, and amazing holiday crafts. The Super Bowl of Martha Stewart Judaism is almost certainly the upcoming holiday of Purim.”

But for the many women who do not enjoy the hours and cost involved with creating charming mishloach manot packages, Fink told me, Purim can be an exercise in humility and futility as they feel they fail to meet the expectations of their neighbors.

I didn’t realize how much stigma women still attach to admitting they felt like they fell short of these communal standards, though, even for something as apparently minor as gift baskets, until I posed the question to the community on Imamother, a blog and forum connecting mostly frum Jewish women who discuss issues of parenting, marriage, and Jewish observance. Of the dozen or so replies I received from women decrying the stress of Purim excess, none would let me use their names or communities on the record.

Yael Respler, a Boro Park, Brooklyn-based psychotherapist working in the frum Jewish community, has counseled many women racked with deep anxiety over the stress surrounding preparations for the Jewish holidays, and she called the emphasis on extravagantly themed mishloach manot packages “ridiculous.” “I’ve seen a family dress up as UPS delivery men and women and rent an actual UPS truck to go around the neighborhood delivering their mishloach manot,” she said. “I’ve also gotten a live goldfish in a glass bowl with water from a family doing a fish theme. While many of these themes are cute, I worry that it puts undue stress on women who don’t want or can’t meet these expectations being set, and it also results in a lot of wastefulness.”

This point is especially driven home when you consider that the actual mitzvah of mishloach manot is simply to give two items of food to one person, and, of the four commandments of Purim, mishloach manot usually gets more attention than the mitzvah of matanot l’evyonim, giving to the poor.

In recognition of these often skewed priorities, many Jewish organizations have begun urging people to consider sending Purim cards to their friends and families explaining that instead of mishloach manot packages, a donation to charity was made instead. Rabbis and other spiritual leaders have also encouraged their congregants to scale back the overindulgence. Rabbi Ron Yitzchak Eisenman, who leads Congregation Ahavas Israel in Passaic, New Jersey, started a campaign called “Purim Is Pashut”—pashut means simple—better known as PIP, about five years ago, which asks people to send out only a couple of food packages and to consider people in the community who might typically be overlooked, like singles or the elderly.

“I saw a lot of peer pressure for families, and women in particular, to keep up with their neighbors, and I also found it contradictory that people would collect matanot l’evyonim and then you find out people are spending hundreds of dollars on elaborate mishloach manot,” explained Eisenman. “It’s also bal tashchit [senseless waste], because who needs all that junk food, especially a month before Pesach?” While he said most of the community has been supportive of the campaign, he has since tweaked the language in response to women who complained that he was being a killjoy, as so many of them loved creating and distributing lavish mishloach manot. “Now I say that if you genuinely love it, kol hakavod, but let’s recognize that some women don’t love it.”

And it’s mostly women who bear the brunt of the work required for crafting Pinterest-perfect mishloach manot, as is the case with many traditional Jewish customs observed by religious families, where there are often still sharply divided gender roles and responsibilities.

For Rebecca Klempner of Los Angeles, who’s written about her family’s annual elaborate Purim newsletter becoming burdensome, it’s easy to see why mishloach manot—and other holiday-related traditions—have been taken to extreme proportions. “This phenomenon is a socially endorsed option for excess,” she said. “It’s like you can justify over-the-top effort and the spending because it’s, in theory, all in the name of hiddur mitzvah [enhancement of the commandment].”

But many of the women interviewed for this article expressed a genuine love of the “craziness” that comes with the annual call for elaborate mishloach manot.

Ginnine Fried is a self-described “Purim-a-holic” from Teaneck, and a prime example of the modern Jewish superwoman as a mom of 5-year-old twins; an attorney who works full time; a part-time Zumba instructor; and co-coordinator, with her husband, of the Teaneck Baby Gemach. “I truly love the spirit of Purim and how it embraces fun,” she said, shrugging off the hours she spends crafting mishloach manot themes to match her children’s costumes. “I think Judaism is supposed to be fun, and serving God with joy and celebrating life. Those messages aren’t as clear with the other holidays that don’t offer many opportunities to express yourself creatively.” In addition to her mishloach manot, Fried writes up to 10 original poems for other people in return for donations to the gemach—a Jewish free-loan fund that recycles goods and equipments within the community.

Ilana Rosenbach Talitian of West Hempstead, New York, loves that Purim gives her an excuse to flex her creative muscles. “I’m a busy mom of four who works full time, and instead of being creative, I usually have to just focus on getting everything done,” she explained. “But I jump at the chance to be imaginative and unique on Purim, and I love that my kids are so excited for this holiday.”

Some people, Talitian acknowledges, might go overboard with mishloach manot because they’re operating in the mindset of keeping up with the Cohens. “I opt out of that attitude with everything else, so you won’t see it reflected in my mishloach manot, either,” she said. “My policy is to be as cute as possible but also keep each package to only a few dollars, if possible.”

Even women who enjoy the competition for a while eventually leave it behind. Some women do it all for the kids, for instance, and then opt out of the Mishloach Manot Wars when their kids are grown. “My children came up with the ideas, but I put together about 100 mishloach manot each year,” said Lynn Goldie Sandler of Wynnewood, Pennsylvania. “It was fun and we had some great themes, but I’m 60 years old now and, tired of the hoopla, I send out cards.”

Tova Cohen is a fundraising communications professional and freelance writer. She lives with her family in New Jersey.