Five Rules of Giving Secret Santa Gifts to Orthodox Jews
My friend Miryam is Jewish. I am not. We were talking about "Secret Santa" gift exchanges, and the question came up as to what an appropriate gift would be for an Orthodox Jew. The rules are complicated. There are even rules against re-gifting! There is practically an entire language written around these rules. I was out of my depth.
As a service to future Secret Santas out there, I asked Miryam to summarize the situation with five rules of giving gifts to Orthodox Jews. She wrote it up in a jiffy! Check it out:
Rob asked me about five rules of giving Secret Santa gifts to Jews. Here's the thing - just like there are all different types of Christians with different sects and different levels of observance, you're going to find the same levels of observance amongst Jews. Some Jews keep EVERYTHING to EXTREMELY strict standards, some keep nothing, some keep standards somewhere in the middle. There are Reform Jews, Conservative Jews, Orthodox Jews, Ultra Orthodox Jews, Chassidic Jews, Orange Jews, Apple Jews, Prune Jews. (Sorry, I had to get one bad pun in there, it’s part of my Eastern European birthright).
So nothing is set in stone. But I'm going to answer Rob’s question in regards to just "Orthodox Jews"; which within that term there is a wide variety of opinions and levels of observance, so caveat emptor – the orthodox Jew you’re shopping for might not always agree with me.
1. Don't give food. Just don't. The laws regarding kosher food are so vast and there are so many different intricacies and different stringencies in the laws that it's very hard to guarantee that what food you give as a food item will actually be consumed by someone keeping kosher. If you absolutely must give a food item, then consider a nice basket of fruit. (But make sure it doesn't come from Israel because then there might be a problem, or a few problems (again complicated laws in regards to growing produce in Israel)). Like I said, don't give food. And certainly don't give homemade food.
2. Don't give wine or alcohol. If food was complicated, wine falls into an even more complex category. Jews who keep strict kosher will not drink non-kosher wine, and in fact there are rabbinic authorities who prohibit a Jew from benefiting from it all; ie they can not regift the non-kosher wine to someone else because the Jew will then benefit from the goodwill of having given a gift. Certainly don't bring a bottle of Manischewitz, because the only person who likes it is your Great Aunt Betty who likes it mixed with sprite. Alcohol is also a no-no. Not because we can't have alcohol (YES WE CAN! L'CHAIM!), but because again anything that is wine related or made in wine casks (most of the brown spirits) is off limits. Plain vodkas are usually okay - Stoli, Smirnoff, but some people won't drink Absolut. But some people will. Like I said, it's complicated. Unless you walk into a liquor store in an orthodox Jewish neighborhood and tell them you want specifically kosher alcohol for an orthodox Jew, I wouldn't go this route.
If you absolutely must buy a bottle of wine for someone - like a client - I urge you to go to the liquor store in the orthodox Jewish neighborhood, and get a good bottle of kosher wine - Bartenura and Baron Herzog are two decent popular kosher wine companies and tell them it's for an orthodox Jew. ***MAKE SURE THE WINE SAYS ON THE BOTTLE SOMEWHERE "MEVUSHAL"*** Please don't ask me to explain this but let's say "Mevushal" wine is pretty much safe.
3. Don't give anything with any kind of religious connotation. No I do not want a Christmas tree ornament that is a blue glass Star of David. Do not get the orthodox guy in your office a t-shirt with a picture of Jesus on it that says "Renegade Jew" (true story, someone gave this to the owner of my company one year). Do not buy Judaica or Jewish related items - likely I already have one or more of the item. And unless I work at a university in the Religious Studies Department, don't buy me a book of biblical criticism. Even if you have the best of intentions, just don’t. Oh, and just say no to Chick tracts.
4. Don't give anything that has any type of sexual connotation. While orthodox Jews certainly enjoy sexual relations (YES WE CAN!), they don't generally talk about it publicly. Avoid lingerie, suggestive books, or anything that could be construed the wrong way - like a pack of flavored condoms - even as a gag gift.
5. Take a few minutes and find out about the person you're getting a gift for. Do they like to entertain? Buy them a serving dish, or wine glass charms, or a beautiful flower arrangement. Do they have a sports team they are maniacs for? (GO YANKEES) then buy them something team related. Do they have children? Buy them a board game that they can enjoy with their family. Okay, so rule #5 applies to everyone, not just Jews, but truly a gift that someone put thought into means more then anything else. Don't just buy a bottle of wine. Don't just buy another hat/glove/scarf set. For goodness sake don’t buy them a gift card. Take a few minutes and think about it. The best gifts I got over the years: a hand painted candy dish from Israel, a charger/valet thing to organize my electronics, and my favorite - martini glasses (YES WE CAN! L'CHAIM!).