By Mordechai Schmutter
I would have to say that Chinese auctions are, hands down, the best type of auction. Unless you count those car auctions that people are always walking away from, saying, “You see the car I bought? Five dollars! All it needs are seats!”
It’s definitely more exciting than just buying things from a store. Going to the store is kind of boring, actually. You give the store money, and you basically always get something for that money. There’s no excitement, no suspense. So Chinese auctions are definitely the way to go.
I think we should even sell aliyos via Chinese auctions, rather than the way we do it now, which is a system where everyone sits there while the gabbai yells out numbers, and people indicate that they’d like him to yell out higher numbers by doing things such as tugging their ears and beeping their noses. And if no one does that for a while, the gabbai counts to three, like he’s a parent trying to get his kids to pick up their toys, and just like the kids, no one bids higher until the gabbai gets to two-and-a-half. And meanwhile you’re sitting there, afraid to scratch your ear because the gabbai is going to think you’re bidding. And if he does mistake your scratching for bidding, you have to go into a mad frenzy of waving your arms and hope he doesn’t think that means you’re bidding even higher.
So my thought is that we should sell aliyos via Chinese auctions. There should be a separate pot for each aliyah, and people can put their tickets in, and the gabbai will pull out names. Or you could put in for the “jackpot” prize, and that way you can win several random aliyos: “Maftir! Shlishi! Kohen! Oh boy.” (Or: “Hagbaah AND gelilah? How am I going to pull that off?”)
Also, in a Chinese auction, there are lots of exciting prizes to win. Though actually, most Chinese auctions, I think, are legally required to offer the following prizes or some variation thereof: Two tickets to Israel, at least two sheitels (His and hers?), a laptop, a coffee maker, portable DVD players for the car (though how I’m supposed to drive and watch DVDs at the same time I’ll never know), a GPS (for when you’re driving and watching DVDs), a digital camera, a pile of random books (some of which are, say, Volume 3 of a set), and one free week at a two-month camp.
I recently went to a Chinese auction. I hosted it, actually. You know the guy who announces the winners and makes corny jokes about the prizes? I was that guy.
I didn’t volunteer to be that guy. Someone representing a school in Cincinnati (RITSS, which stands for the Regional Institute of Torah Something Something . . . Social Studies? I don’t know) called me out of the blue one evening in October, during a blackout, and I said I’d think about it. So she said, “Can you write down my information? Or do you have it on caller ID?” And I said, “Neither. You called me in the middle of a power outage, it’s pitch black, I had to race upstairs in the dark to answer my one corded landline, I stubbed my knee getting here, I think I knocked over one of my kids, and I didn’t think, before I ran up the stairs, to feel around for a pen and paper so I could write your phone number in the dark. Is there any way you could call back another time?” And she said, “I’m sorry. Did I just call in the middle of a humor column?”
I personally didn’t understand how my being there would make them money, but I didn’t ask, because I didn’t want to rock the boat. After all, there are 150 frum families in Cincinnati. Who else are they convincing to come? Maybe the idea is that normally, some people just buy tickets in advance and don’t bother showing up, but if people actually have a reason to come in, they might impulsively buy more tickets, because it’s a 3-hour event, and it takes like 5 minutes to put in all your tickets, after which you spend the rest of the evening sitting around watching everyone else putting in tickets and arguing about them:
“Okay, but if we win the trip to Switzerland, who’s going to watch the kids?”
“Who needs a generator? When do we ever have a blackout?”
“We already have a Kiddush cup. What would we use a second one for? Bentching?”
Eventually, you realize, “It’s been two hours, and everyone’s still putting in tickets. Did I buy enough?” So you buy some more. So I guess the idea is that if I’m there, making jokes, everyone will stick around until the end, and they’ll keep putting in more tickets.
The auction had pretty good odds, though, because of the amount of families involved. So I was thinking of putting in for some prizes myself—just blowing my whole fee on raffle tickets. My wife would be thrilled about that.
“No, honey, it said that if I paid $500, I could get $800 worth of tickets!”
But then I thought, what if I win? Am I going to stand up there and say, “And the winner is… me! Thanks for inviting me!” And how am I going to get this stuff back on the plane, anyway? What if I win the children’s furniture package? Or the swing set, assembly included? Or the gas grill, sponsored by anonymous? That’ll get through airport security.
“Sir, who gave you this gas grill?”
And then I thought, wouldn’t it be funny if I actually DID have this problem? So I bought some tickets.
Now I know that you think that my putting in tickets lowers everyone else’s chances of winning, but it doesn’t. I never win anything, unless it’s something that I really, really don’t want. I actually did win a prize at a Chinese Auction once: It was a year-long gym membership. I didn’t even want to put in for it, and I had that argument with my wife beforehand, of course.
“A yearlong gym membership?” I gasped. “I have to work out for a year?”
And then she pointed out that this was a ridiculous argument to have before we’d even won anything. And then after we won it, she pointed out that it was too late to argue about it. So I was stuck with a yearlong gym membership, lo aleinu.
In the end, I barely used the membership, although my wife did, because she has a husband who’s home most of the time, so even if the alternative is to schlep out and do endless cycles of hard labor with no visible reward, then so be it. I did go a few times, but in general I find that the thing keeping most people going to the gym is the thought that, “I’m paying; I might as well go.” But I wasn’t paying. Also, I was scared of the trainer. (Don’t ask.) Also, I found that it took me such a long time to get ready to go, drive over there, change into my workout clothes, clean myself up afterward, and drive back that I was literally not in good enough shape to spend enough time actually working out to make that worth it. Also, some of the “Men-only” times were very inconvenient. Did I want to go swimming at 5 in the morning? I did not.
I tell you, I was full of excuses.
But there were no gym memberships in this Chinese auction, so I didn’t win anything. If there’d been a gym membership, that’s what I would have won, and if you think it’s a pain to get out to a local gym, imagine a gym that requires a two-hour flight to get there. So my point is that my chances of winning were so low that my buying tickets actually improved everyone else’s chances of winning. I mean it. Somebody won every single prize that was there.
You know who won? Several people whose names I couldn’t pronounce. In a town of 150 families, I was the only person there who didn’t know everybody.
Their names were all Chinese to me. v
Mordechai Schmutter is a weekly humor columnist for Hamodia and is the author of three books, published by Israel Book Shop. He also does freelance writing for hire. You can send any questions, comments, or ideas to MSchmutter@gmail.com.