Giving gravitas to ‘my kid’s in-laws’

Various cultures, goes a well-known linguistic theory, develop multiple words to describe what is important to them.

The Eskimos, we have all heard, have a bunch of words for snow, the Somalis for camels, and the Hawaiians for sweet potatoes.

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Jews have a number of different words for God, and are also one of the only people in the world with a word to describe your child’s in-laws: mehutanim in Hebrew, machatunim in Yiddish. (A similar word also exists in Spanish, though it is somewhat obscure: consuegro).

And this says something.

We collect numerous different relationships as we go through life, and most of them have a name: mom, dad; son, daughter; sister, brother; husband, wife; aunt, uncle; student, teacher; schoolmate, co-worker, business partner, colleague, teammate, neighbor, sorority sister and so on.

But what’s the name for your kid’s in-laws? You could call them “my kid’s in-laws,” or perhaps co-in-laws; but the first is unwieldy, and the second takes a while to mentally process. No such precise word exists in English.

We Jews have an exact word for this – stemming from the Hebrew hatan, meaning groom or son-in-law – that gives this relationship standing, recognition, even gravitas.

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Assuming that we apply words to things, emotions or actions that are important, and leave unlabeled those we deem unimportant, the fact that Jews have a name for this relationship means we see it as significant.

And it is.

This relationship might not seem natural at first; it might be dicey and even awkward at times, but it is undeniably important – and at the very least deserves a name. That the Jews had the good sense to name this relationship is yet more evidence of that vaunted Jewish wisdom; for how can you bless – or curse – something if you don’t know what to call it?

SO FAR in my experience, with one married child and another one on the way to the huppah in two months, I have thankfully not had occasion to want to curse the machatunim.

That is no a small thing, considering – as I said – the rather awkward nature of the relationship.

The relationship is awkward because its starting point is not a relaxed conversation about news, weather and sports, but rather about business: tachlis. Who pays for what?

What other relationship is framed so soon by an uncomfortable economic dimension? And even if there is an attempt during that first glorious meeting after the children get engaged to stay clear of the subject, and to talk instead about how good the kids are together, the financial question is always lurking right around the corner.

Here is where some more Jewish wisdom, or in this case Israeli wisdom, comes into play.

I’m not sure how it works in other cultures, but the widespread norm for paying for weddings here is that the families split the cost of the band and photographers, and everyone pays for both their own clothes and their own guests. Common sense, no?

While this is not as good a deal for me personally as would have been the case had they done things here like they did when I was a kid in the US – the bride’s family paid for the entire wedding while the groom’s folks sprang for the alcohol and the marriage certificate (I have three boys and one girl) – the Israeli custom definitely benefits immigrants. In fact, Nefesh B’Nefesh should stress this in their promotional brochures.

I have one married niece and a few distant cousins in this land, and maybe eight relatives who will make the journey from abroad. My son’s intended has about 10,000 relatives here. Compared to them, I’ll be getting off cheap.

THEN THERE is the other aspect making the beginning of this relationship somewhat clumsy: the negotiations with the wedding hall.

Like everything else in Israel, the price of the wedding hall is negotiable. You call up a hall, see if the date is available, ask for the price and then try to get it down. It’s like going to the shuk.

Bear in mind that the quoted price does not necessarily include the use of the huppah, the hall’s sound system, or lights. The last one – “lighting not included” – really gives me a hoot.

Shouldn’t lighting be included? Isn’t that a given? It’s akin to going skiing and paying extra for the snow, or going swimming and getting charged a surcharge for the water. What am I supposed to do, bring my own bulbs? Are the kids supposed to get married in the dark?

But it’s all negotiable. And there is a reason – it’s also where you get a chance to impress the future mehutanim.

Who wouldn’t want one’s child to marry into a family able to bargain the price down from NIS 300 per plate to NIS 150? Who wouldn’t feel lucky to have a mehutan able to get the lights included in the overall price of admission?

Which is where I am at a disadvantage. I am not good at bargaining. No, I am horrible at bargaining. Once, in India, I ended up paying more for a throw rug than the guy asked for.

The Wife, bless her soul, is also not too good at it, though she mistakenly believes she is. She went into our highstakes negotiation the other night with the future mehutanim at the wedding hall with a great idea: she was going to tell the manager, “It’s getting close to the date, and you don’t have it filled. Isn’t it better to lower the price and fill it, then have to leave it empty?”

To which the manager replied, “We have someone else interested.”

Poof – there went that chip.

It’s not fair, actually. Wedding-hall managers have done this a million times, they know all the tricks – they are race-car drivers, while we’re barely riding a tricycle.

Which could be embarrassing if the other side were also race-car drivers. But they are not – which is both good and bad.

It’s bad because we couldn’t bargain down the price. But it’s good because if neither side can negotiate, the relationship starts off on level ground: no one feels like a shlemiel, or that their child is marrying into a family of shlimazels.

We Jews have a word for that, too: mazal.

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