| Double Take |

Presents or Presence 

I’d sent a generous sum of money earmarked for Yom Tov clothing, and let my ex do what she wanted with it

Reuvy: They’re my children, and I want to give them everything I can.
Chedva: They’re part of a new family now, and you’re breaking it apart.



Ialways felt self-conscious, sitting in the ice cream parlor on my own with two kids. Like the whole setup just screamed “divorced dad having his visitation.”

Of course, it wasn’t really true. Plenty of fathers take their kids out alone; there’s nothing really attention-calling about it. And the kids — not really kids anymore, Chaya’s already a teenager and Shmuli’s not far behind — loved going out for ice cream. At home, they didn’t get such luxuries, apparently.

“Pizza or ice cream?” I asked them, when they got into the car together one February afternoon. “You guys hungry?”

“Starving,” Shmuli grumbled melodramatically. “Can I get a whole pie for myself?”

Chaya wrinkled her nose. “You can have my portion of pizza. I just want a salad. And ice cream,” she added hopefully.

“Pizza and ice cream, okay,” I said agreeably. Why not? Fifty bucks to make their day.

We headed for the nearest pizza parlor. I ordered a pie, a salad, fries, onion rings, and drinks. That should be enough for supper even for Shmuli; we’d do ice cream for dessert.

“Yum,” Shmuli said, piling a plate with three slices of pizza and a generous helping of fries. “When we order in pizza at home, we never get the sides. M— I mean, we just make oven fries and stuff.”

“Well, why spend double on something you can make just as easily yourself?” Chaya asked, nibbling daintily at her salad.

I could literally hear her mother’s voice: reasonable, practical, thrifty. We never could agree on the financial stuff. We were just made for different lifestyles.

“Anyway, when do we ever order in pizza? Like once a year for Chanukah?”

“I think the fries from the store are better,” Shmuli insisted. “Anyway, it’s more fun this way.” He’s my boy through and through; likes his restaurants, enjoys spending a bit of money instead of being uptight and budget-conscious all the time.

Chaya shrugged. “I’m not saying they’re not good, just that they cost so much money.”


oney, money, money. Every time I took them out, it came up. Here’s what I’ve noticed: Kids who grew up without are constantly thinking about money. Kids who grew up with whatever they need, some of what they want, all of that — they just don’t think about money that much. Honestly, I think it’s healthier. Time enough for money stress when they grow up.

“How about we just enjoy supper now that it’s here?” I suggested lightly. “And you guys can tell me what’s going on in school and everything.”

It was a good call. Chaya launched into some story about her teacher while Shmuli demolished half the pie. Then he told me some confusing account about a baseball game and his rebbi and the prize, and I pretended to know exactly what he was talking about, ignoring the twinge that reminded me that I didn’t live with him.

When everyone was done with the food, we took a quick drive, and then I parked outside Ice Swirl.

“Let’s make it quick, we don’t have much time,” I reminded them.

Chaya ordered a sugar-free, fat-free vanilla yogurt . “In a cup,” she told the man behind the counter.

I stifled a smile. My prim daughter doesn’t go for drippy cones.

Shmuli, of course, loaded his cone with four scoops — the maximum — and I lost track of the flavors and toppings halfway through. We sat at one of the little round tables, and I watched them blissfully enjoying their treats.

It was cute in a way, how easy it was to make them happy. But it upset me that I couldn’t give them more. An ice cream cone every couple of weeks was nothing. And from all accounts, they didn’t get treats often back at home.

I tried my best to send them gifts, treat them to special nosh and take-out suppers when they visited, but it never felt like enough. When Shmuli mentioned in passing that his sweater was a hand-me-down from a cousin, Lani quietly offered that she’d go shopping for my kids, at least for Yom Tov. I would’ve loved for her to do that — why should my own children walk around in secondhand clothing? — but it would’ve been too complicated to arrange. Everything with an ex is complicated, to be honest.

Instead, I’d sent a generous sum of money earmarked for Yom Tov clothing, and let my ex do what she wanted with it.

It was the best I could do, under the circumstances.

IT had been a mistake from the start, with Chedva. We kind of lived on different planets, even then, and once the engagement-wedding excitement had worn off, things just went downhill.

We got divorced when Shmuli was just a baby and Chaya not much older. Two years later, I met Lani. Now, nine years later , we have three children of our own, and parnassah’s good. While I miss my kids, life is pretty much smooth sailing. Chaya and Shmuli visit every other week and spend part of Yom Tov with us, and I try to use those opportunities to give to them as much as possible.

Lani and I often talk about how hard it must be for them: Chedva remarried a widower with four kids, who is still in kollel, and aside from the children they each brought into the marriage, they now have several more. Chaya and Shmuli — both on the quiet side, a little shy — seem to get lost in the shuffle.

I wish I could give them updated wardrobes, let them choose hobbies and extracurricular classes, take them on trips, and treat them to the little extras like pizza and ice cream that most kids take for granted.

But what could I do to help, given the little time I had with them?

Lani, always bubbling with creative ideas, helped me come up with ideas for Yom Tov gifts, birthday surprises, and ways to treat my kids. I felt good about it; it seemed the least I could do for them to make up for all that they didn’t have.

“Don’t forget afikomen, that’s a great opportunity to give them something big, something they would really want,” Lani reminded me.

That’s right. This year we were having the kids over for first days. I couldn’t wait to have them over, give them a special Yom Tov, and take them on a grand trip the first day of Chol Hamoed before bringing them back to their mother’s house. But afikomen was an extra opportunity to give them a gift they’d never ordinarily receive, and I was determined not to pass it up.

And I knew exactly what that gift was going to be.

IT could’ve been so complicated, having a Seder with “my” kids and “our” kids. But Lani’s super gracious, the quintessential hostess, and my eight -year-old Ari wanted nothing more than to sit right next to his “big brother.” When we sat around the Seder table, it was almost hard to tell which kids lived with us, and which were visitors.

Chaya and Shmuli got into things pretty quickly. With some gentle encouragement, they shared what they’d learned in school, asked questions, and cheered on three-year-old Rikki’s lisping Mah Nishtanah. Looking around the table, my heart filled. This was it, this was how I wanted my children to be raised: showered with warmth, affection, and attention, not lost in the shuffle, struggling to keep up with boisterous siblings and well-off classmates.

Shulchan Orech was beautiful; Lani had outdone herself. Shmuli’s eyes opened wide as anything when he saw the roast, and Chaya delighted in the array of juices and drinks. For my kids, of course, this was totally normal. It was kind of nice to see it through my kids’ eyes; it made me remember how lucky we were, how grateful I should be.

And then we got to afikomen.

Shmuli and Ari had hidden the afikomen together (boys got first night, girls would get second). Still, after conducting a fruitless hunt and admitting defeat, I told them that they would all be receiving gifts on both nights. Why not?

Ari wanted a hoverboard, Yaffa asked for a new American Girl Doll, and Rikki begged for six lollipops. Leaving the hoverboard question for further negotiation, I turned to Shmuli and Chaya and asked them what they’d like.

They were quiet, hesitant. I felt like they weren’t sure what was too much to ask.

“Actually,” I told them, excitement threading through my voice. “I already planned something for you two. How about I tell you what it is and you let me know if that’s what you’d like?”

Two days later, the kids were still on a high.

Camp! Sleepaway camp, a dream come true. An unheard-of luxury where they came from. Well, not quite unheard-of — many of their friends and classmates went to camp, after all. But in their large, financially strapped family, it had never been an option.

Generally, the kids attended day camp, and when they spent half the summer with me, we took them on some major trip or another. But recently, Chaya had been complaining about how “all her friends” went to sleepaway camp and Shmuli had rolled his eyes and muttered something about “babyish day camp” when I casually asked them about their summer plans.

I’d be giving up my vacation visitation weeks, but it would be worth it to give the kids the summer of their dreams.

Thanks to my business connections, I’d been able to reserve them places in the camps Lani recommended, despite having missed registration. And Chaya and Shmuli both confirmed that they had friends attending those very camps — my wife was spot on with her assessment of what would suit them. All Chaya wanted to talk about was camp shopping — Lani promised to take her during one of my visitation days — and all Shmuli could think of was the sports and fun ahead.

No question about it, my gift had made my children’s year. And I couldn’t have been happier.

On the first day of Chol Hamoed, we went to American Dream. The little kids enjoyed it, but Chaya and Shmuli were awestruck. Lani and I exchanged laughing glances, seeing their wide eyes and hearing the thrill in their voices when we told them we’d be able to go to several attractions, not just one.

The day passed quickly, in a blur of laughter and fun — and then it was time to head home.

After dropping off Lani and the kids, I drove Chaya and Shmuli back to their mother. On the way, the conversation turned to camp again. I realized I’d have to figure out the technical details with Chedva — the exact dates, the shopping, even things like transportation. I was willing to do whatever it took to make this work, pay for the clothing, make all the arrangements.

“Tell your mother I’ll be in touch with her after Yom Tov, okay?” I told them as they hopped out of the car. “We’ll figure out all the details then.”

But I didn’t have to wait until after Yom Tov. An hour later, I got a phone call from Chedva.

She wasn’t calling to thank me, or to say how excited the kids were. Actually, she was fuming.

“I just don’t understand how you could do this without checking with me!” she said shrilly. “We— our family does things a certain way, we don’t go for things like sleepaway camp.”

“Hold on,” I said. “This is my half of the summer, remember? What’s it got to do with what your family is doing?”

That only made Chedva even more upset. “Your visitation is for them to spend time with you, not for you to ship them off to camp! How do you think they feel about that?”

How did I think they felt? I knew exactly how they felt.

“The kids are desperate for sleepaway camp,” I said, emphasizing the words kids. “They want what their friends have, they want the opportunity to have something special, and I want to give it to them. They feel deprived with the way things are and they’re absolutely delighted to have this chance for the first time.” I paused a beat. “I don’t think it’s right to take this away from them now.”

Chedva was breathing so hard, I could hear her anger coming in waves through the phone. “They live with me. You can’t make such a decision and then tell them about it without asking me! Because we’re the ones who have to live with the fallout of your generosity.”

“Fallout? Oh, please.” I was losing patience. “The kids are so desperate for a real summer camp experience. I want to give it to them, that’s all. And really? I think you should be thanking me. Do you know how much camp costs?”

“Yes, I know.” She matched my biting tone. “And that’s why giving it to two of my children is going to cause us so many problems. Because I can’t offer it to my other eight kids. It’s not a favor to set Chaya and Shmuli apart, make them feel different from their siblings.”

“And having them feel deprived all their life, that is a favor?” I asked sarcastically. Seriously, the conversation was making me feel sick. So this wasn’t about my kids and their plans at all, just about her other children. Because of them, my kids should suffer through another summer of pining for something they were never going to have?

“The children live with me,” Chedva said. “They can’t make summer plans that affect their relationship with their siblings, their family.”

If I could tell Chedva one thing, it would be: They’re my children, too, and I want them to have the opportunities that most of their friends receive. How can you take away this chance from them?



Sometimes, I marvel at how far we’ve come.

Like recently, when we made a bar mitzvah. Moshe is Tully’s son, but for all intents and purposes, he’s mine, too. We planned the simchah as a family, everyone got dressed up, we had beautiful family pictures with all ten children, and I felt — I really felt — like we had made it to the other side. Bruised, battered, with a lot of life experience I’d rather not have had, but still — here we are now, a large, happy family, kein ayin hara. Tully and I the proud parents, and Moshe and his siblings side by side with my children from my first marriage and the younger ones — the “next generation,” as Tully and I dubbed them privately.

The bar mitzvah was beautiful. Moshe’s grandparents couldn’t stop thanking me for raising their daughter’s children. They were teary-eyed and emotional, but also grateful to see their grandchildren so happy. It was all so different from my own situation, the acrimony between my family and my ex’s, the difficulties navigating custody and visitation arrangements….

That’s when my thoughts end up coming full circle: Yes, we’ve come far, but on the other hand, life with a blended family still gets so complicated.

Take Yom Tov, for example.

Chaya and Shmuli, my children from my first, brief marriage, live with me. They have regular visits with their father, and they often go for parts of Yom Tov. The kids love those visits. I hate them.

It’s not like he does anything wrong, per se. It’s just the money. The gashmiyus. The stuff. My ex-husband, Reuvy, is a wealthy businessman, and he takes every opportunity to spoil the kids, buying them expensive gifts and treating them to treats and luxuries that we’d never bring into our own home.

“Don’t worry, the other kids aren’t jealous,” Tully reassured me, when I mentioned my concerns about the lavish gifts Chaya and Shmuli received for Chanukah. “They know it’s so complicated, it’s not all gifts and ice cream. They wouldn’t want to be in that position.”

I wasn’t so sure. Maybe the older ones had that maturity, but our younger kids just saw two siblings who kept getting the prizes, clothing, and treats that they were constantly asking for. We lived on a tight budget; our idea of a Chanukah gift was a few dollars for each kid and a game for the family. Not a new bike or real gold earrings.

“He’s trying to buy their love,” Tully said once. “But don’t worry, Chedva. Money is glitzy and glamorous, but at the end of the day, kids know what’s for real.”

I didn’t agree. “He does love the kids. He spends money because he has money, and he has a small family, and there’s plenty to spare. Maybe he buys his own kids diamond jewelry for their third birthday, I don’t know. The problem is that it’s not working for our family.

That really was my biggest concern. Yes, years ago I would’ve been up at nights feeling the tension of that competition, who were the kids going to love more, how could I — a lonely single mother working two jobs and struggling to pay rent on a shabby apartment — compare to the rich Daddy, already remarried to Lani Schwerdman, daughter of one of the wealthiest businessmen in town?

But that was a long time ago. Now, we were in a different place — a miraculously different place. I have a choshuve husband, a real ben Torah, we have a large family…. It’s all okay. Reuvy couldn’t touch any of it. He couldn’t take the kids away from me.

But as the children grew older, and the wants grew along with them, and their father kept obligingly fulfilling their desires for more, and more, and more, I started to worry.


hate it when Chaya and Shmuli go to their father for Yom Tov. Yom Tov is the quintessential family time, especially Pesach, and Seder nights.

“It’s just two days, they’ll be back, we’ll take the whole family out together on Chol Hamoed,” Tully, my tireless cheerleader, encouraged me.

I gave a wan smile.

Yom Tov with eight lively kids is nothing if not noisy, but somehow, to me it felt quiet. I missed my kids, I wondered how they were. You’d think after so many years I’d be used to it, but honestly, I could never get used to sending my children somewhere for half of Pesach.

Reuvy was supposed to be bringing them back on the first day of Chol Hamoed — “more likely late evening, we’re doing a very exciting trip that day,” he said. We went out for the day — Tully drove us to the country, and we found a nice park with a petting zoo that the little kids loved — and we came back, ate supper, and did the bedtime marathon for the younger ones.

It was close to 10 p.m. when the doorbell finally, finally rang and my kids bounded in. They were on a high, bubbling over with excitement. American Dream, ice skating, all the rides — it sounded like they’d done it all. Tully’s older kids were hanging around, and I saw their mouths drop open at the gushing descriptions of the luxury mall and extravagant activities.

Okay, this had to stop, right now.

“Chaya, Shmuli, kids,” I said firmly. “I’m so happy for you that you had such a great time! Come, take something to eat, and you can tell me more about it another time, okay?”

Shmuli looked crestfallen, but Chaya, my mature oldest, took the hint.

“Sure, Ma,” she said easily. “Oh, but we haven’t told you the best part!” She lowered her voice. “Daddy’s paying for us to go to sleepaway camp this year, during his half of the summer. He even got me accepted to Camp Ditza, you know, the one all my friends are going to! Can you believe it?”


actually could not.

I was shocked. Utterly shocked, horrified, and furious.

Sending my kids to sleepaway camp without asking? Without considering the ramifications on our family? This was crazy, insane, a nightmare. What would Tully and I do about it? How would we cope with the pressure of another eight kids who wanted what their siblings got? What kind of cruel trick was this, to force us to up our standards when we were barely managing to make Yom Tov….

Chaya was looking at me eagerly, expectantly. With superhuman strength, I mustered up a smile.

“That… sounds exciting. We’ll have to discuss it, okay?”

And then I shooed all the kids out the room, together with a full container of Pesach brownies, so that I could talk to Tully in privacy.

As soon as the door closed behind them, I exploded.

“How dare he! How could he do that? He has no right to do such a thing without my permission,” I ranted.

Tully looked somber. I could see that this time, he was taking the issue seriously, too.

“What will we tell the other kids? What about the way he’s raising their hasagos, raising the standards and forcing us to try and keep up for the sake of the rest of our family? Ice skating in American Dream,” I sniffed. “And we went to a petting zoo. What are the others going to say?

Tully was quiet.

“And then promising them sleepaway camp! I just can’t believe him. Okay, the kids beg for it, they always do, and he wanted to give afikomen presents or whatever, but shouldn’t he check with me first? Instead of presenting them with a done deal?”

“You know what would’ve happened,” Tully said, interjecting. “He could’ve asked, you would’ve said no. He wants to give it to his kids, so he’s not asking.”

“Sleepaway camp.” I shook my head. “What next? Do you know how much this costs? And it’s not just camp, they need a whole new wardrobe now. Not to mention linen and all the odds and ends that kids just can’t manage without in camp…. Yeah, so he’ll offer to pay, and that’ll be another thing that the rest of our kids have to be jealous of.”

I paused for breath. “And what about our values, our hashkafos? He just went and chose the camps that the kids wanted? Who says they’re the standards that we’re looking for? I don’t know the first thing about sleepaway camps. It’s never been a thing for our family.” I grabbed a tissue and blew my nose. Tears were coming on the heels of my raw anger. “I just can’t believe he’s putting us in this position. He’s always causing trouble!”

Tully bit his lip. “I hear you, and I know it’s complicated with the other kids,” he said slowly. “But honestly, I don’t think he’s thinking about any of this. I think he just wants to give something grand to his kids.”

“Exactly. And it comes at our expense.”


was late at night, but I didn’t want to push it off for another minute. I called Reuvy, asking him point-blank why on earth he hadn’t consulted with me first about this harebrained summer-camp scheme.

But apparently, he didn’t think he’d done anything wrong.

“They’ll be going during the time they spend with me, it’s got nothing to do with your family,” he said. “And they’re desperate for camp. They’re old enough to be given a say in the matter.”

“That’s not the point.” I was so upset, it felt hard to breathe. “Go on vacation with them, let them spend time with you, don’t just ship them off to some expensive sleepaway camp that isn’t a fit for our family!”

Of course, he didn’t take that sitting down. He had all his rebuttals ready — the kids want it, they asked for it, they’re delighted at the chance.

“It’s their chance to have a dream summer, all expenses paid. It’s not right for you to deny them the opportunity.”

Look who was talking about right and wrong.

“It’s not right to make such a decision without even asking me first. They live with me. This has to be my decision.”

“I hear you, fine” Reuvy said, sounding anything but validating. “But you know what? You’re not seeing their needs here. Chaya’s desperate for it, she feels left out, she’s the only one of her group spending her summer working in the city. And Shmuli doesn’t want to go to the same day camp he’s been attending since he was four. I’m sorry, but they have a father who can afford the costs of camp, and I intend to send them.”

My heart pinched at his descriptions. Did my children really feel that deprived? Surely not, they had many friends who didn’t go to sleepaway camp. We weren’t the only ones on a tight budget.

“It’s not the point,” I told him, trying to stay calm. “There’s a bigger picture here. Sending two of the children to camp means my other eight kids are hurt. Besides, you’re making Chaya and Shmuli feel different from their siblings. It’s not a favor to them, either.”

“Maybe it’s better than having them feel deprived their whole life,” Reuvy countered.

Deprived. They weren’t deprived, they were normal, happy, healthy kids in a large family. Just because Reuvy and his wife had crazy hasagos for their three spoiled br—

Enough. I had to take control of the conversation, and end it. Quickly.

“The children live with me,” I told him. “The children live with me, and I need to be involved in deciding what’s right for them, how they should spend their summer.”


ut the truth was, it wasn’t really my decision. Not with Chaya and Shmuli talking incessantly about camp, asking when they could go shopping, comparing notes with every friend who’d ever been to sleepaway camp before. Reuvy had won before I even got a chance to start the game; I could never take it away from the kids now.

Tully’s oldest two took it in stride, but Moshe and Yossi, the ones closest to my kids’ ages, were getting increasingly upset.

“I wanna go to camp!” Yossi kept whining. Moshe was too mature to beg like that, but I saw his face, the hunger in his eyes.

“Maybe we should just send them, just this once,” I said to Tully, despairingly. “And after this, I’ll make sure that Reuvy doesn’t spring this sort of surprise again….”

Even as I said it though, I knew it was hopeless. How could I stop him? And if it wasn’t camp, it would be other stuff — presents, jewelry, a trip to Israel. He’d probably offer Chaya to pay for her seminary year there, and then what about our younger daughters? I could imagine him buying Shmuli a car as soon as he was old enough to get his license. The problems wouldn’t be over with camp; this was just the beginning.

“We can’t afford to pay for camp. For any of the others,” Tully said simply. “And besides, we can’t keep up with him forever. We’re just going to have to live with that reality.”

Easier said than done.

That evening, I picked up the phone and called my sister Sara to vent. “Do you know what a difficult place he’s putting us in?” I cried. “Honestly, I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

Sara heard me out, making sympathetic um-hms every so often. But she didn’t have any advice to offer. This problem was ours to deal with.

If I could tell Reuvy one thing, it would be: Your extravagant gifts are singling the kids out from their siblings and destroying the family I’m working so hard to build.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 907)

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