Shifra Sharlin has recently completed a memoir, Lopsided. Her essay about marriage and the Marquis de Sade appeared in the 2021 anthology, The Contemporary American Essay (Random House). Her work has appeared in Bomb, Salmagundi, Raritan, Southwest Review (a Notable), Yale Review, and elsewhere. She has recently retired as a Senior Lecturer from Yale where she taught and co-directed a popular multi-section course on reading and writing the modern essay.
POTLUCK OR POTLATCH?
Naomi’s wedding was held at the East Side Club, an establishment built in the 1950s, situated on the grassy shores of one of Madison’s three lakes. The architectural style – flat roof, horizontal lines, low ceilings and pine paneling – is in style once again, although it had never gone out of style in Frank Lloyd Wright’s home state. The marquee would not have pleased him; it was an additional selling point for us. It was retro and kitschy, in short, delightful. We had booked the place sight unseen, trusting a friend’s recommendation.
When we saw it a few days before the wedding, I was only a little bit disappointed. As Kris had warned me, it was a bit shabby. In truth it reminded me of the basement of the First Baptist Church where the Ames Jewish Congregation used to hold its Purim carnival, except that there was no stage.
That must have been my pre-wedding jitters because on the day of the wedding it seemed perfect. The enormous room was nothing like the Baptist’s basement. There was an enormous C-shaped bar complete with well cushioned bar stools. The view out to the lake beyond the sloping lawn seemed to extend into the unadorned room. There was no barrier between the outdoors and the inside. The giant trees cast their soothing shade in our direction.
Naomi is the youngest of David’s and my four children and the last to marry. Her siblings, Phoebe, Gideon, and Isaac, helped with setting up. Gideon and David assembled the wedding canopy polls, acquired at the last minute from Nora whose second husband had a serious woodworking hobby. I had sewn the wedding canopy itself for Phoebe and Gahl’s wedding about seven years earlier. At Phoebe’s wedding, the blue-green organza rippled like water. Gahl means wave. At Naomi and Carl’s wedding the organza’s blue-green had the shimmer of leaves blowing. Naomi compared her love for Carl to a linden tree.
The memory of Phoebe’s wedding was like the view of the lake, distant and suffusing the present with its glow. She and Gahl had also been married in Madison at a small, nineteenth-century synagogue, Gates of Heaven, on the shore of another one of Madison’s lakes.
I became aware of past and present getting mixed up. Phoebe and Gahl’s wedding was the first time I experienced this confusion. Gazing at the wedding guests from under their wedding canopy, I had found myself thinking my cousins were the same age as my children as if all those years had never happened. At Naomi and Carl’s wedding, I kept forgetting that my children had grown up. Watching Phoebe with Daphne and Netta, I thought, for a moment, she was their sister, not their mother.
Watching the children talk to the wedding guests helped this impression along. There was Gideon with his wife, Dominoe, talking to Marc and Judith and the present moment was connected to the time when Marc had tutored Gideon for his bar mitzvah. Although we no longer lived in Madison, we held the wedding there. At first, the main considerations were the logistics and expense of having a Brooklyn wedding where Naomi and Carl lived. Once we had booked the East Side Club, however, I lost myself in imagining how our Madison friends and the Fab Four would get to see each other again.
My dreams were realized and preserved because of an excellent photographic record thanks to the advice of my daughter-in-law’s mother, who would later knit socks for me while she was thinking/praying for me when I was undergoing treatment for cancer.
I didn’t see neighbors and friends in Naomi and Carl’s wedding pictures. I saw guardian angels. The hugs and smiles were benedictions. The soundtrack ought to have been a hallelujah chorus. “Praise be God, Ruler of the Universe, who has sustained us, saved us, and brought us to this moment.” Jews recite this prayer to mark both a culmination and a beginning. It seems symbolic to see one friend after another leaning over Naomi to re-button the small button at the neckline of her dress.
It was the spirit of the potluck. Naomi’s wedding couldn’t be an actual potluck, as I had at first hoped it could be, but we ended up staying true to that blessed midwestern tradition. In part, because the meal was served up from giant stainless steel trays, like the ones I served from when I worked in the cafeteria of the Iowa State Memorial Union. And the menu was potluck type food. Macaroni and cheese. Green beans. Salmon. Potatoes. It was the kind of food that was behind the tongue-in-cheek going away present that Lou had gotten when she left San Francisco for Madison: a casserole dish with a secure lid. Potluck food is easy to serve and to transport.
Nothing says community like the willingness to eat each other’s casseroles. A potluck is more than a way to feed a lot of people. A potluck unites people. In my mind potlucks are like barn raising. I’ve never been to a barn raising, but the First Baptist Church, my First Baptist Church in Ames, had been built in a barn raising fashion, as a joint effort by the men of the congregation. Potlucks are one more example of American civic religion. Out of many, one. Potlucks are harmony. Potlucks are reciprocity perfected. Giving and receiving are perfectly balanced as we hover over each other’s casseroles, plates in hand.
I believe in reciprocity: potlucks are its sacrament. I believe with perfect faith in a perfect harmony between all people. I believe in a world where nobody disappoints anyone else, where there are no misunderstandings. Reciprocity is the credo of my civic religion.
How could an anthropologist writing in France at the beginning of the twentieth century illuminate a wedding that took place in Madison, Wisconsin at the beginning of the twenty-first century?
Marcel Mauss was an observer, a modest man, deferential towards and devoted to his famous uncle, Emile Durkheim, who is considered the founder of sociology. Mauss was the sort of person who was the secretary of an organization, the one who did all the work, and not the president who got all the glory. Biographers can find little to say about his personal life. When he recalled his career and the future of social science in France, he dwelled on the loss of a generation on the battlefields of World War I. His uncle, he said, was as much of a casualty of World War I as those who died in battle. Mauss watched him die of grief over his son’s death in battle.
Both Mauss and Durkheim were Jews, natives of Alsace Lorraine and descendants of rabbis, who dedicated themselves to understanding social solidarity. Religion was one source and so was, said Durkheim, the way societies organize work. Mauss’ genius was to realize the enormous significance of the seemingly small, trivial practice of gift giving.
Mauss was not prolific. He praised the French university system for nurturing scholars who would write less and think more. All but one of his books was written in collaboration with another scholar. Mauss tells his reader that his book, The Gift, is a mere provisional, incomplete and sketchy foray into a topic he is not really qualified to write about. The French title, Essai sur le don, expresses this more than the declarative English one, The Gift. And yet, the scope of the book is fiendishly broad.
The Gift is not a book about what a bad idea gift cards are or the evolution of the bridal registry. Or, it is not only a book about gift cards and bridal registries (by implication only). That’s what makes it so fiendish. Because Mauss won’t let you pick out your gifts in peace. He doesn’t believe you pick out your gifts in peace. Society is always and everywhere looking over your shoulder.
You’re not alone as you browse those gift registries. You’re participating in a society -wide system of exchange. You’re participating when you invite a few of your besties for wine and cheese. Mauss puts hospitality of all kinds in the same category as gifts, which are in the same category as contracts and any form of exchange in national and international relationships. Gifts are one manifestation of “total services,” which are, he writes:
Apparently free and disinterested but nevertheless constrained and
self-interested. Almost always such services have taken the form of
the gift, the present generously given when, in the gesture
accompanying the transaction, there is only a polite fiction, formalism,
and social deceit, and when really there is obligation and economic
Only the self-deceiving deny their own social deceit. Our gifts and all our social interactions are constrained by “obligation and economic self-interest.”
Who doesn’t dream of withdrawing into a happy, private kingdom or, as a friend’s Viennese refugee father liked to say, “Sewing buttons!” Mauss won’t let us sew our buttons in peace and in private. Even if you never leave your house and resolutely think only of buttons, Mauss will show you how you and your buttons are enmeshed and entwined and inextricably bound up with your society.
That’s also a good thing. It is social solidarity. Each of us is bound to the other through that system of obligation. The wealthy are bound to the poor. Mauss was a socialist and fought for what we now call a social safety net. He observed that the Hebrew word for justice also means charity. Justice is equity and reciprocity.
Marcel Mauss, like his uncle, was an armchair sociologist. In the spirit of Agatha Christie’s detective, Hercule Poirot, who scoffed at detectives who studied footprints and the like, preferring to sit in his own armchair and exercise his “little grey cells” to solve crimes, Mauss also preferred pondering in his Paris study. He did not travel to the countries he studied, depending instead on the experiences and notes of other people.
If he had read my account of Naomi and Carl’s wedding, he would have skimmed past the bit about the lawn and the lake. He would not have cared about the marquee or the curved bar. He might not notice that the wedding canopy shimmered like water or leaves. The menu would also be inconsequential. Marcel Mauss was the kind of social scientist who saw those material details as mere instantiations of universal, timeless human impulses. He would not be distracted by lawns, lakes, silk organza and other stuff in his pursuit of universals. That is to say, he would have taken one look at me in my long linen dress and old sandals and seen a chief of a tribe in the Pacific Northwest watching over her potlatch.
I am willing to agree. I can set aside the vanity of my individuality. I’m a creature, a creation, of my society and of human nature. I’m a speck in the universal flow. It’s like looking in the mirror. My wrinkles get wrinkles just like every other aging person I know. I’m not so different from a tribal chief. I can put aside my love affair with the East Side Club. And it is not even difficult for me to forget about angels, prayers, benedictions and the rest of the transcendent ecstasy of a child’s wedding.
Like Marcel Mauss, I am also a follower of Emile Durkheim. As an impressionable first year student at the University of Chicago, I read Durkheim’s Elementary Forms of Religious Life and it felt as if the veil of illusion had fallen from my eyes. With that book as my guide, I showed how my bat mitzvah, held in the lounge of the First Baptist Church filled to capacity, was an exercise in social solidarity down to its smallest detail. Writing that paper did not depress me.
Lifting the veil of illusion was not the same as disillusionment. Letting go of the spiritual claims and accouterments of my bat mitzvah made it easier for me to be happy about it. The high stakes had been lowered. I did not have to believe in God. I was a good Jew if I believed in my dear co-religionists in the Ames Jewish Congregation, if I wanted to make my parents happy, if my brother, Allan, made an extra trip home from college (the University of Chicago!) for the occasion, if both my brothers were proud of me.
Thus educated by Durkheim, I cringe only a little at the notion of letting Marcel Mauss lift the veil of illusion on Naomi and Carl’s wedding.
Mauss calls the potlatch “agonistic,” from the Greek agon, meaning a struggle or a contest. Potlatch is competitive hospitality. Nobles from the same tribe would host celebrations for weddings and other occasions to display their wealth, going so far as to destroy their own possessions, the ultimate demonstration of conspicuous super abundance. Nobles can be killed in the rivalry of the potlatch. When one noble potlatched, another had to potlatch in return. Potlatching was compulsory. While potlatch is a specific social phenomenon practiced only among the Haida and Tlingit tribes of the Pacific Northwest, Mauss, with his taste for universals, identified the same rules in other cultures. He saw them in the Paris of his own day.
I see them in the Madison, Wisconsin of my day. I’d rather not admit to my self-interest, polite fictions and social deceit. I hate thinking of my hospitality as competitive and manipulative. There’s hostility behind my smiles? On the other hand, to be more potlatch than potluck offers a less stringent notion of reciprocity. Mauss also lowers the stakes on my enjoyment of my child’s wedding. It does not have to be all tranquil, transcendent heaven-sent harmony. Mauss makes room for unease and tension and disappointment.
Nobody needs a groundbreaking work in social science to know how fraught wedding invitations are. Nonetheless, I feel better thinking about Nora’s hurt at not being invited to Phoebe’s wedding at the Gates of Heaven in Maussian terms. That hurt was her eagerness to maintain our close social and emotional connection. Mauss identifies three obligations common to all potlatches: to give, to accept and to reciprocate.
Another person might have been upset about not being invited because they wanted to attend the wedding. Not Nora. I thought that when I told her that the Gates of Heaven had a strict limit on capacity, she would relent on the invitation question. Not Nora. She said I could have sent the invitation and slipped in a note telling her she couldn’t come! Thinking she would be relieved, I told her I wanted to free her from the obligation to send a gift. Not Nora! She wanted to be obliged! “I want to give Phoebe and Gahl a gift!” she exclaimed. Nora, along with her intuitive feel for the power of symmetry, also understood the power of the potlatch without ever having read of word of Marcel Mauss.
Giving, accepting and reciprocating were risks Nora welcomed. That brave woman did not fear the unwelcome gift. Accepting an invitation was like jumping onto a merry-go-round. There would be no easy way to get off. She would have to keep going. It was like double-dutch jump roping in which two children swung two long jump ropes in opposite directions. The two girls (only girls jumped rope in my day) swinging had to keep an even pace. The third child had to enter the swinging arc of ropes and jump back and forth over the two ropes. The swinging ropes were an invitation and a challenge. Slap and slap, they smacked the ground with the force and finality of a guillotine. Misjudge the pace and risk a bad fall and ruining the game for everyone else.
Giving, accepting and reciprocating are risky. Error and disappointment threaten at every step. Who, aside from Nora, does not fear giving an unwelcome gift? Accepting in the wrong spirit? Reciprocating inadequately?
Joy, tranquility, harmony – and other heaven-sent blessings -- are not a required part of a potlatch. They are not necessary for reciprocity. Violence is often a part of a Pacific Northwest potlatch. The giver can be disappointed and anxious. Will their gift be accepted in the spirit it was given? Possibly not. Differences make the potlatch difficult and risky.
David and I were not sure how Naomi’s in-laws would feel about the wedding or about us. Aside from having four children, we seemed to have nothing in common with them. I had gotten in the habit of telling people that Naomi and Carl’s wedding was a meeting of two Wisconsins. Ours was college town academic, professional, Jewish; and theirs was small town, small church, evangelicals. Those differences did not disappear in the potlatch. Where would be the fun in that? They joined in. They came bringing good cheer and positivity, wild flowers for the tables and cake for everyone. On the day of the wedding, they tracked down a sound system so that everyone who wanted to danced the night away.
Some people left early, some before the food was served, some before the dancing started. Mauss also understands the risk I took in inviting the couple I still hate to call former friends, people with whom the reciprocity of invitation had broken down. I relentlessly criticized them behind their backs, but I still liked them. What kind of friend does that? Marcel Mauss knows. Tribal chiefs. Potlatches are about affirming a relationship, not asserting its perfection.
The desire for this social reciprocity is as deep as our expectation of symmetry. Mauss searched for evidence of potlatch everywhere and through all time. That we want to enter into these relationships of giving, accepting and reciprocating, bound in social solidarity is universal, obtaining in all cultures and pervasive within each culture, a pattern that can be seen in private relationships and between large groups of people.
Among the original potlatchers, refusal to potlatch could be a declaration of war. Sometimes it is hard to tell the difference between gift giving and intimidation. Some throw a gift at the would-be recipients feet, imitating the gesture of “throwing down the gauntlet.” Gift giving can be veiled hostility, manipulating the recipient into a position of obligation. Gifts force the recipient to become debtor.
Mauss’ theory of the gift has implications for other relationships between unequals, for instance, parents and children. No wonder children criticize parents, says Boris Groys in an article on Mauss. What is a parent’s dedication to childrearing, but a parent whose giving, willy-nilly, turns a child into a debtor. That debt can weigh heavily. Children criticize parents to diminish the parent’s so-called gifts and thus free themselves from their debtor’s prison.
R. is my oldest friend. We have known each other since we stood in line together to take the Hebrew placement exam before classes started at the University of Chicago. When we lived in Berkeley she used to scoff at the naiveté of people who thanked her for the presents she gave them. Didn’t they know that gift giving was all about power? I think back to that comment when she refuses to give me her current address so that I can send her a present.
The power of gift giving to create relationships attests to the power of things. Which brings me to Mauss’ research question, “What power resides in the object given that compels its recipient to pay it back.” Once, when Dvori pressed a small, inexpensive zip-up cloth bag on me, she said, “So that you don’t forget me.” Without thinking, I replied, “I don’t need a gift to remember you!” I thought I was being generous, thoughtful and kind – assuring her of my affection. I was, and I was also missing the point.
Because I do always think of her and that conversation when I use that small and useful cloth bag. She is present whenever we use the wedding canopy. True to her principles, Dvori always tells me how much she prizes the boiled wool blanket I made for her and her husband Eitan the first time we visited them in Tel Aviv. Mauss makes me believe Dvori’s claims. Mauss helps me accept her mixed motives—she gives so lavishly both to show off, to dominate, and also to connect and to nurture. In one of the cultures Mauss describes, parents-in-law never meet, but exchange presents regularly. Are we competing for the soul of our children’s marriage?
When Mauss writes that the potlatch is “A struggle between nobles to establish a hierarchy amongst themselves from which their clan will benefit at a later date,” I take him to mean that children are the reason tribal chiefs organize potlatches. The point of the photographs was to photograph the children talking to our old Madison friends. At the wedding, a Madison friend, Judith, told me that Phoebe had introduced her to one of my cousins as “my Madison aunt.” It’s a story from the wedding that I often tell.
When we moved to Madison, David and I thought we had realized our real estate fantasies with a six-bedroom, white with black shutters, center-hall colonial built in 1922. What could be more real than that? But as soon as our children left home, we moved out. What was the point of four bedrooms in four corners without four children to sleep in them? Or, as they so often did, have “sleepovers” with each other, that is, drag a mattress into a sibling’s room so that they could whisper to each other as they were falling asleep.
It turned out that an essential element of all those dream-come-true parties and dinner parties in a fantasy house was that our children were there. What good was a large dining room with four large windows and French doors that could easily seat 15 people, if none of those 15 were the Fab Four? My fantasy was realized when I overheard Isaac explaining to Naomi that being Jewish meant having friends over for dinner on Friday night and talking.
And besides, I had my ultimate affirmation when I was once “problem of the week” at a Weight Watchers meeting. Let me explain. Part of every meeting was set aside to identify threats to dieting in the week ahead, i.e. the problem of the week. One week, my friend Sue, without naming me, named dinner at my house as that week’s problem. As if that was not distinction enough, someone else guessed that I was the thoughtless diet buster. And what makes me so proud is that, even though Sue did not out me as the thoughtless diet buster that I am, another friend, Jane, did. All she had to hear was that dinner at this unnamed person’s house would be a threat to sensible eating and she knew it had to be me. That’s how successfully I had insinuated myself into the potlatch traditions of my adopted city.
After the wedding, David and I agreed that we should have parties at the East Side Club every few years. Maybe some day we will. When we left Oxford, our friends were shocked. One after another said, how can you leave, you’re one of us! One friend said, but you’ll move back. You’re our friends, they said. In contrast, nobody was surprised when we left Madison. Maybe that is the sad thing about living in the provinces. Our friends said: we always expected you to leave! Were the nobles of the Haida and Tlingit tribes also motivated both by undying, unrequited devotion and by deceitful social fictions?
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