By Mordechai Schmutter

If you’re on some kind of fundraising committee and are looking for ideas to get money out of the same people again, I would suggest running a Chinese auction.

A Chinese auction is a tzedakah fundraiser that apparently originated in ancient China, where the ancient Chinese would enter their names in a whole bunch of different raffles so they could win, say, two free tickets to Israel.

Actually, the auctions aren’t Chinese. They originated in America in the early 1900s, and they got their name from the fact that they’re mysterious, and it was thought back then that anything Chinese was mysterious. Like Chinese dry cleaning–how do they do it? Chinese food–what’s in it?

But offensive stereotypes notwithstanding, Chinese auctions are much more inclusive than regular auctions. In a standard auction, you’re pretty much always guaranteed to lose to people with more money. Whereas with Chinese auctions, even if you don’t have a lot to spend, you can still buy a couple of tickets for the prizes you want, although chances are you’re still going to lose. At least that’s how I play. I come from a long tradition of people who lose at raffles.

But it’s still a nice moneymaker. Everyone decides which tickets they want to buy, and they come in for this three-hour event where there are displays showing all the prizes, and they put their tickets in, which takes about five minutes, and then they sit around waiting for the drawings. So sometimes there’s food. I don’t know who pays for that, but that way they can instead sit around chewing. So it’s kind of like a lottery, if you got to eat a meal and watch your friends go home with prizes. Normally, lottery tickets only come with a Slurpee.

But mostly what people do at Chinese auctions is argue with their spouses about prizes. My wife and I go through the same thing every time. I look through the auction book before the event, and I circle the Furniture Package, which, as I picture it, is a big package containing furniture. I’m not really sure what to picture, which is part of why I always circle it.

And then my wife says, “We already have furniture.”

And I say, “Yeah, but this is new furniture. Our furniture looks like the kids have been using it as a handkerchief.”

Or we argue over the Israel prize.

“Israel?” I ask. “Where are we going to leave the kids?”

“Maybe with your parents.”

“I don’t know if they’re up to it. Should I call my parents and ask them whether, hypothetically, if we won, they’d be able to watch our kids?”

I was recently hired to fly out to Cincinnati and host a Chinese auction, and they had some interesting prizes. (Luckily, I didn’t bring my wife.) One prize they offered was “flying lessons,” which sounded really good after spending all day between two airports on a plane that was not much bigger than the one they were using for flying lessons. I also think it would make an awesome gift for your Bubby.

They also featured a set of very fancy linens, donated by a local hospitality company. Yes, there’s a whole industry of people being hospitable. And charging for it. But if you’ve ever been in a hotel and thought about stealing the linens, this was definitely the prize for you. I don’t know; maybe you want your guests to feel like they’re in a hotel, but with bigger soap. The prize consisted of 2 top sheets, 2 fitted sheets, 4 pillowcases, 4 bath towels, 4 hand towels, and 8 washcloths. I don’t want to ask why two guests–who need 2 top sheets and 2 fitted sheets and 4 pillows–need 8 washcloths. What are they washing? And why, in total, do they need 16 towels?

Generally, the prizes themselves are decided by the people donating them, although standard auction rules dictate that there are certain prizes that are required to be featured at every Chinese auction:

1. 2 tickets to Israel

2. A GPS

3. Portable DVD players, for portable DVDs

4. A coffeemaker, for people who don’t know how to make coffee

5. A free pie at the local pizza place

6. An e-reader

7. An extremely random pile of books

8. A gym membership that no one wants, but everyone puts in for anyway

9. A menorah

There’s also something called a “Jackpot” prize, for people who really, really want to win something, but they don’t care what. If you win the Jackpot, you get one free ticket in all the other pots, and you can go on to win things you don’t even want. Or you can win weird combinations of prizes. Like a coffeemaker and a Kiddush cup! Or a coffeemaker and a professional tooth-whitening! Or one of those little kids’ jeeps and GPS! The jackpot is actually for people who are playing the “bashert” card, as in, “My wife won’t actually let me put in for the Jet Ski, so I’ll put in for the Jackpot, and we’ll let Hashem decide.” On the other hand, if you win the Jackpot, what are the chances that Hashem will let you win anything else? Maybe He will say, “You won once tonight. Give someone else a chance!”

But yes, people put in for things they don’t need, because of the fun of possibly winning. For example, people put in for the watch. It’s always a fancy watch with six hands, and it has the day and the month and the cycles of the moon. On the other hand, if your life is falling apart to the extent that you’re not sure what month it is, why are you wearing a $500 watch?

Another thing that people put in for is the Kiddush cup. I’m pretty sure every Jewish home in the world already has a Kiddush cup. If you don’t get one for your bar mitzvah or your b’ris (like 8-day-olds are making their own Kiddush), then you’ll get one for your wedding. Someone will get you one. Do you need another? Are you one of those people that need four separate cups for your Seder so you can line them up like on the cover of the Haggadah, so you can down all four with no waiting, like a racecar driver?

Once you have a Kiddush cup, it lasts pretty much forever. Those things are handed down for generations, and they always have some kind of story behind them, like “My grandfather came into this country with nothing but this cup and a suitcase full of cash.” It’s never like, “Oh, we won it at a Chinese auction.” That’s not a story. So I would suggest, if you did win the Kiddush cup, maybe giving it as a present to someone else, and that way they can at least have some kind of story–that they got it from you. They don’t have to know that you won it for five bucks. You don’t have to put that in the card, unless, of course, it rhymes with something.

Today you’re a man, like the rabbinic scholars,

So here is a cup that I won for five dollars.

Don’t put coffee in it. v

Mordechai Schmutter is a weekly humor columnist for Hamodia and is the author of four books, published by Israel Book Shop. He also does freelance writing for hire. You can send any questions, comments, or ideas to


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