Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Purim in Chicago

Pipe-cleaners (above)

There's something really nice about the Chicago community.

What's nice about Chicago? The people are warm and welcoming. People say hello to you in the street, and they stop you as you are delivering baskets of shalach manos in order to give you shalach manos. People smile when you come to the door. Everything is an exchange; it's almost unheard of to go to the door and leave without a package or a coin. Usually quarters for the messenger.

In Chicago, we have a tradition. People send each other shalach manos through "The Yeshiva." What's the yeshiva? It's the HTC (Hebrew Theological College). You sign up early, highlight the names of the people you want to send shalach manos to, sometimes initiate reciprocity (if someone sends to you through the yeshivah, you will automatically send back to them- and be charged for it.) It's a wonderful service for those people who are elderly and can't run about delivering shalach manos, or busy people, or those who have too many people to send to.

But it's a mixed bag. On the one hand, all the children always look forward to getting "The Yeshiva's" package. Why? Because it's easily the biggest one. There's a large basket, always made of cardboard, blue and white with purim designs (gragger, megillah, etc) and inside are the packaged contents. There's always a cute song and a theme as well (the foods are connected in some way.) Oh yes, there's also a dvar Torah. And this entire package is covered in very strong thick plastic. Tied around this, securing it, is a pipe-cleaner. The pipe-cleaner is one of any number of colors. This pipe-cleaner and the sticker on the envelope tell you how popular you are.

Colors range from yellow, brown and blue to...well, I'm not sure to what. I still don't know what the most popular color is. The basket you receive is larger based on the number of people who are sending to you.

What's inside the basket? This year they were pretty clever. The theme included sliced salami, honey mustard, pickles (or pickle-shaped cookies) and "Guzzle sauce" which is apparently "like ketchup" but tangier. Aside from this, the package included Zelda's Hot Chocolate with marshmellows, chocolate-covered wafers, Schick's hamantashin, Lasagna chips, Illinois Nut red-hot hard candy (in balls), Manhattan mint cremes and more.

So what's the down side to all this? Personalization. It's nice to see people who put the hard effort into personalizing and creating their own baskets. It's also nice to receive a small basket that's specially made for you as opposed to a large basket for the whole family. People can be very creative with their shalach manos (and I don't just mean purchasing fancy things or "theming" the contents by color.) I'm talking about down-to-earth, arts-and-crafts, homemade clever ideas. One of our friends once gave us Shalach manos in the Kodak package you get when you pick up your pictures from the store. Inside was one "roll" (though not of film) and other entertaining things. And I'll never forget my father's friend, who gave us chili...inside of warm, hot bread baked as a crusty and delicious container.

Also, as far as we children are concerned, it looks like you have more if you see lots of small packages filled with shiny paper, cellophane and glitter as opposed to one large package that dominates the floor, or table, or wherever you place your bags.

While we're on the subject, "more matter with less art." (Quote from Hamlet) I couldn't care less whether you're giving me a really decorative, elaborate package or a paper plate so long as the contents are good- i.e., whatever it is you are actually giving me. The motto of our shalach manos is (or aims to be) substance. How pretty it is? Not important. That's bonus points, but it's not the main point. Speaking of which, last year, our neighbors gave our family a beautiful shalach manos with only two foods- a bottle of wine and a delicious coffee cake. We appreciated it very much (it was wrapped beautifully, too, in pink cellophane. I'd rather have that any year than the most elaborate, decorated box or container that contains a small piece of chocolate. Those shalach manos remind me of the "Black Hole" gifts featured in the back of Consumer Reports.

Purim in Chicago is filled with glee and fun. It can be slightly competitive, but never too much. Children run amok and exclaim with delight; I have seen many "repackagings." Repackaging is when you frantically scramble for the snacks you have gotten, reassemble them, throw them into an unmarked bag, tack on a note and give it to someone waiting at the door (hoping he doesn't notice.)

The competition when it comes to the bags and packages is only slight; the packages do not include vintages or antiques- the idea is that Purim is fun, not another way to show off.

(P.S. Does anyone have a copy of the Likutei Tipshim? Anyone? I adore that. And unfortunately, I didn't have a chance to get one.)


e-kvetcher said...


So this is my first Purim in an observant community - and it is very much like Chana described it. Except I havent heard about the 'Yeshiva' thing yet. The wife and I almost dropped dead doing the shaloch manos... I'm gonna kill our FFB friends for not telling us about it.

Is it very different in other places? Maybe other people can post similar synopses?

East of California said...

As a born and bred Chicagoan who now lives in NY, I can tell you that the Purim my family spent in Chicago a few years back was one of the nicest we ever had. And on the HTC shalach monos - I have mixed feelings. A bit of the personal touch is lost - you feel a bit more "rei'ut" when some effort other than checking a name off is exerted. On the other hand, for some people, it is indeed a true help in reaching those whom you might otherwise miss.

Ezzie said...

I'm a fan of Chicago overall... spent many an off-Shabbos there during high school. People are pretty nice, generous... and hospitable. Never spent time in Skokie really (except for the engagement party of a friend... and to go to Ken's).

Sunshine said...

I'm a Chicagoan who just spent her first Purim (and Shushan Purim) in Israel.

As strange as it sounds, I missed Purim in Chicago. My friends and I used to rent a van and go seuda-hopping.

This year, even though I was able to be at a seuda for both days, I missed that sense of community.

At least I'll be in Chicago for next Purim...

Tobie said...

I also missed Purim at home, being at college this year, where I gave a total of one sholoch manot and spent half the day studying for my final exams.
What I always thought about the HTC thing is that it's good for all those Sholoch Monot that you have to give to fill a chiyuv- meaning that people will be insulted if you forget them. I think that the best policy is to give that to as many people as possible, but still have several individual ones for good friends, etc. That way, nobody gets insulted, the cost craziness is limited, and you still are able to give something special to your actual friends. And when I say special, I don't mean a huge, fancy thing, just something that you actually made personally.
Also, the problem with the HTC basket is that you don't get the delivering experience. For me, Purim is driving around West Rogers Park, dropping off and picking up Sholoch Monot, with somebody else sorting them in the back, and everyone in the car eating so much candy that they become sick. HTC just doesn't have the same interactive feel.

Grumpus said...

Oy. Now I know the truth about our (lack of) popularity. Our HTC basket contained far less than was mentioned by Chana. No hot chocolate, no mint cremes, no chocolate covered wafers or lasagna chips. However, we did get the pickles AND the pickle-flavored cookie. If we owned a nursing home would we have gotten a cookie-flavored cookie?

yaak said...

I can't believe ANYONE would give chili for Shalach Manos!
What kind of crazy idea is THAT???