Citizen of the Month

the writing and photography of Neil Kramer

Sitting Shiva

My friend, Barry, explained to me how the Catholic wake works:  the family sits facing the open casket for a couple of days.  In the beginning, everyone is all reverent being in the presence of the deceased.  By the end, the family is talking about the Yankees while the body is still there.  After the funeral, the family finds it easier to return to their normal life.  It’s a system that seems to work.

Jews have their own system, which is done the opposite way.  It is called "sitting shiva."  After a death, the burial occurs as fast as possible.  Then there are seven days of sitting shiva.  The family sits in the house and is visited by family, friends, and neighbors.  It is a bit of an odd system, since you end up retelling the story of "what happened" dozens of times, as new people show up.  But since it is a Jewish event, there is always a lot of food involved.  In fact, you are supposed to bring food for the family so they don’t have to cook.  In reality, it doesn’t exactly work out this way.  You are put in the position of being a host to large groups of people at the exact point when you are most exhausted from the funeral.   At least Jews do thing differently.

It is considered a "mitzvah" (a good deed) to "pay a shiva call" so many neighbors come, even those that aren’t close to the family.  A few times, my mother and I didn’t know the names of the people.  Sophia came up with a plan where we would look over at her, signaling  that it was time for action.  Sophia then would stand up and say:

"Hello, I’m Sophia.  Thanks so much for coming.  What’s your name?"

As crazy a system as this is, it is nice to meet all of my father’s friends and co-workers.  We heard some funny stories about my father.  My uncle Edward had the best story, which is about how my father became a physical therapist. 

It seems that during the Korean War, my father was assigned to be an MP (Military Policeman).  This is hard to believe because my father was a scrawny Jewish guy with Woody Allen glasses.  He was assigned to transport North Korean prisoners.  He was issued a large rifle and told to do three things if there was any trouble:

1)   Yell, "Stop."
2)   Yell, "Halt, or I’ll shoot."
3)   Shoot.

One day, my father was transporting a North Korean prisoner, when the prisoner broke free and began to escape.   My father followed the rules: 

1)   He yelled, "Stop," but the prisoner kept on running.
2)   He yelled, "Halt, or I’ll shoot," but the prisoner didn’t listen.
3)   My father lifted up the heavy gun, pulled the trigger, and the gun fell on the floor, shooting into the air.  My father got scared and ran the other way.

Later, that day, my father was brought into the captain’s office.   My father was told that he was going to be court martialed.  The captain took one look at my father and realized that he was the worst possible choice for being a military policeman. 

The captain spoke to my father:

"I made you an MP.  Let’s see if I can do better the second time around.  I’m going to send you to a military hospital in Hawaii to learn to be a physical therapist."

At that point my father would have agreed to anything.  This is how he became a physcial therapist, a job he had for 50 years.

45 Comments

  1. That is a great story! Had you never heard that one? He seems like a great man… And his legacy continues with your life!

  2. Re. shiva…
    It’s been said over and over again that although shiva is stressful (because, let’s face it, who wants to be sitting on the hard sofa or a hard chair and be the center of attraction or make small talk all week, etc?) it is such a necessary therapeutic emotional and mental balm at the same time…just because of the stories that are shared with you, the goodness that is revealed, the figurative (and sometimes literal) hand-holding that goes on, etc. People come out of the woodwork to pay their respects to the family and to the Arthur Kramer that they knew.
    We — I speak for everyone here — hope you and your mom and family are managing and can continue to smile between the tears.

  3. hi neil, my father lost his father when he was just 22. he says there’s not a day that goes by that he doesn’t think of his dad. needless to say, i never knew my grandfather. my dad told me once, with tears in his eyes, that “the reverse is not acceptable,” so in his quasi-insensitive way, he was telling me that i should get used to the idea that he’s going to pass at some point. i don’t know, i guess we can never be prepared for things like this, but the reverse would not have been acceptable to your dad, so in dealing, you are carrying out a last wish in a way. sometimes i feel like it’s even insensitive to even dain to give an opinion on something so personal, so difficult to get through…so please feel free to ignore me. 🙂 thinking of you and your family…

  4. I love stories about serious life choices based on mishaps and accidents – makes me think that the universe has a mischevious twinkle in its eye.
    I’m glad you’re holding up. By the way, the “system” with Sophia…Carl and I do that all the time…it’s a great system.

  5. What a neat story, Neil. Sophia sounds wonderful. Hope you and your family are holding up well and that you continue to cherish the memories.

  6. Your father learned to become a physical therapist in Hawaii? What a wonderful wa to get introduced to a career. Your father is an awesome person. I say ‘is’ because he lives on–in you.

  7. Amazing story, and I can’t help but wonder what happened to that North Korean prisoner who probably now has children and grandchildren who owe their lives to your dad.

    Not to be disrespectful to Catholics, but I like the Jewish shiva so much more than the wake with the body in the room. For one thing, those made-up bodies never look like the real person, I think the Jewish practice that avoids embalming is so much more natural. When my mom died I really needed that shiva and to hear those stories over and over again.

    Again, thank you for sharing this experience with all of us, it is riveting, moving stuff and I hope writing about it helps you with your own grieving.

  8. This is my shiva call to you and yours. Buy I’m not bringing food. XOXO.

  9. I am not Jewish but please consider this my shiva call to you. I brought a dish of lasagna (not Jewish I know) – you can keep the pan.

    Please continue to share your wonderful stories of your dad – if you can

  10. If anyone would like to send something to Neil’s mom, the address is:
    Elaine Kramer
    156-11 Aguilar Ave.
    Flushing, NY 11367

  11. Neil/Sophia,
    Is there an organization or hospital that you requested donations be sent to in memory of your dad?

  12. Pearl, it’s:

    Queens Hospital Auxiliary
    Social work
    Queens Hospital Center
    8268 164th Street, N619,
    Jamaica, NY, 11432

  13. Wakes in my family usually double up as family reunions.

    And when you’re in these gatherings you pretty much get sore lips from kissing all the grandmas and grandpas and aunts and uncles that show up.

    On one wake, I thought, hey, let’s get this over with and made my way through the house, kissing every person I saw. Then I went outside and there were more people and I kissed them too.

    Then I noticed some of my cousins were laughing at me. I asked them what was so funny, then they said, “what are you doing kissing those people waiting for the bus?”

  14. Damn, I knew I should have brought that six-foot hero. Yes, the whole shiva thing is a bit surreal and someday, you owe it to your readers to explain the dynamics of where you grew up and how that just notches up the whole shiva by a magnitude of 10. Anyway, just want to say that Artie was indeed a very special and gentle man who positively touched so many people and will be greatly missed.

  15. Thanks, Tuck. My parents live in the same apartment complex for forty years, so they know everyone else. Right now, there are sixteen people in our tiny living room. When some people leave, new ones show up. We have enough cake, cookies, and candy to last us for three months. After this week, we might all become diabetics from all this sugar. Tomorrow the entire first floor is buying our dinner.

  16. I always thought that the Jewish tradition of sending food made so much more sense than sending flowers, which start looking morbid after a few days… but then again, food always comforts me! Much love to you Neil.

  17. … and love to Sophia, Mamma Kramer, and the rest of the Mishpucha too!

  18. That is a classic story. I remember hearing great stuff like that at my father’s funeral too. The stories about him as a teenager were the best. And I remember being stunned when one of his coworkers spoke about how often my dad would speak of me and my brothers – sad that I didn’t find any of this out until after he was gone. You are so lucky to have had such a loving father and such wonderful memories.

    By the way, calories during shiva don’t count. Love to mom.

  19. thank you for sharing this story…i like the jewish mourning tradition. the worst part of a catholic wake is drawing out the final moments with the body. it’s better to focus on what will stay with you…the memories, the stories…such as this wonderful picture of your dad.

  20. This story made me laugh; thanks so much for sharing it with us. Hearing these stories about your dad help give me a better picture about you, too. You were so lucky to have been brought up by two such amazing parents.

    Did you end up taller than your dad? Just curious.

  21. Love that story! How perfect is that?! 🙂

    I feel like we are all sitting Shiva here on the blog with you. Here’s my memory:

    Remember the time you blogged about your parents visiting you and Sophia in Los Angeles this summer? You told your parents what a blog was, and let them read it for the first time. And you told a story about trying to drive while your parents (never actually drivers themselves) gave you the back-seat driver directions? Ha! I laughed at your cute family stories and thought about what a great connection you had maintained with your parents! It was when I first started reading your blog on a regular basis, and I’ve been a fan ever since. I’m glad I got a chance to be there, Neil! And if I could, I’d have brought over with this comment some black beans and rice and some good cuban coffee to go with all those sweets you’ve gotten! It’s not Jewish, but I still think it’s kosher, right? 🙂

    BTW, I just love how Sophia is with you. what an ingenious way to get the names of the folks you don’t know! haha! I wonder if your dad is somehow conspiring to get you two back together? 🙂

  22. What a great way to honour his memory. Well done. And thank you for sharing this.

  23. I’m so sorry to hear about your father, and so glad that blogging is – in at least a little way – helping you to get through it. I know most of us lose our parents at some point in life, but it still doesn’t make it any less awful when it actually happens. While I don’t know you, I’m sincerely sorry – and am really glad that you have such a great support system.

  24. Megan, both my parents are tall, so I ended up tall like them. Actually, there were a couple of height jokes today during our sitting, because many others who had lost family members talked about how the funeral parlors rip them off, nitpicking with the bereaved family over everything and making them feel guilty if they order a plain wood coffin. They even ask you about the deceased height and weight because it may determine how much the coffin will cost. So, remember one of my old posts about how women don’t want to date “shorter” guys. Maybe you should reconsider that now. At their funeral, they will cost you less than a taller guy.

  25. It’s suprising sometimes how much we get from our parents. I’m essentially a smaller version of my father – skinny, gangly and with a gaunt, somewhat dessicated looking face. (Wow … that would really sell in a personal!)

    And one of the lines I remember best from my mother was when she had me trying to fix something. It might have been as simple as changing a blub. I was up on a chair, she was looking up at me and suddenly cried out, “My God! You’re even more useless than your father!”

    Handyman skills were not strong in the DNA, I’m afraid.

    These posts, sad though they are, and the comments, have me regurgitating a lot of thoughts of my own parents. I’m glad that so many of them make me laugh and smile.

  26. Neil, I have sat shiva more times than I care to mention…My husband and I always joke…”looks like deli again!”…But there is great comfort in hearing the stories about your loved one, as you try to find a way to help your heart navigate through the pain. You grab at anything, to know that this person you loved really did exist, and will not be forgotten. My dad died when I was 10…all my life I was told…”you look exactly like your father”…and all my life, I loved hearing that, because that’s how I knew this wonderful man would continue to live on through me.
    Neil, I wish you, your mom, and Sophia…time…to tell stories, cry, laugh, and never forget your wonderful dad.
    Randi

  27. Hey Neil, I’ve stayed out of the blogging world for the last week or two and just now caught up and saw the news. I’m very sorry for your loss and appreciate how you’ve been keeping it real on your blog.

  28. Just knew you were going to write about the shiva … how’s the food?

  29. I have never been to a Catholic funeral that didn’t have a lot of food. I think it must be an integral process of mourning. And yes, people do stop by with casseroles for the grieving family. It’s just common courtesy, and these are things that still persist above and beyond culture and religion.

  30. I’m touched by all your comments. Also, for those in the know, is it more appropriately to spell it shiva or shivah?

  31. It’s wonderful to read your words about Arthur. Everyone reading your words can share and relate to your experience. As your father would say, “Be of good cheer.”

  32. I’ve seen it more commonly spelled “shiva”, although “shivah” is the first entry in Webster’s.

  33. There is a kosher deli close to my parents’ house in Long Island. They have a “shiva package” – everything you need to feed everyone, conveniently packages so you can pick it up on the way home from the cemetary. Unfortunately, we’ve done a lot of shiva sitting in the last few years, and the taste of corned beef and pastrami has become associated with funerals.

    Neil, I am so very sorry to hear about your dad. He sounds, from your stories, to have been a warm and wonderful dad.

  34. Neil I’m wondering how, with you having written so few words, it feels like I know your father personally. I’m an occupational therapist so maybe I’m filling in some blanks, but mostly I think your tone and your wonderful stories show what a warm and kind man he must have been. I’m very very sorry for your loss.

  35. Great story Neil! Reading that made me think of my Grandmother’s funeral and all the people who showed whom I had never met; family my mother told me about over the years, but I had never met them. It was so funny to put faces to the crazy folks in my family. And everyone brought food even though we had ordered some deli trays (of course for some reason the place we ordered them from didn’t understand what Kosher was, so we ended up with lots of ham). It’s really an interesting experience to sit in a room full of Jews, talking about dead people, watching them eat food and get drunk. I wasn’t 21 yet, but you can sure bet I had a few drinks to get me through the afternoon. I never heard so much kvetching. Glad to see you too can keep your sense of humor in times like these…

  36. I’m so sorry to hear of your loss. Your father sounds like a great man, and he will be missed by many.

    I read about your trip to the hospital, then I was busy with my own selfish pursuits, only to come back to find this!

    It’s interesting that you use the Catholic wake to contrast with the Jewish Shiva; I spent the weekend celebrating a Jewish wedding, and as a Catholic, I found much more in common with the Jewish culture than the WASP-y protestant wedding I had attended just two weeks before.

  37. I have had to sit shiva more times than I care to remember but I have to say that we have always eaten exceptionally well. Sorry to hear about your dad. Give my regards to your mom, I hope that she is holding up as well as she can.

  38. What a great story about your dad!

  39. All th comments about the food reminds me of my grandfather’s shiva. The local kosher deli/cater their is Weinstiens (or stocks… Weinsomething). Every night a box with our dinner would be delivered to the door step. I can’t remember the specific foods, I just recall salty heavy rich foods.
    One day this old man came in to pay shiva. No one knew who he was. He had some old military looking tattoos so I assumed he knew my grandfather in the service (for a time he was a MP). As I approached him to ask him, my grandmother made a be line nearly knocking me down to usher him out the door.
    After everyone left she admitted to me it was the man she dated right before she married my grandfather… and he had her name tattooed on his arm!!!!

  40. I can’t think of the right words to say, Neil. My thoughts are with you and your nearest & dearest.

    My Dad’s from Astoria – his (Jewish) father died when Dad was only 2 years old, so he was raised by my (agnostic) grandmother pretty much on her own. Not having the money for college, he enrolled in the army. I think the John Wayne movie “The Fighting Seabees” had something to do with it also.

    In any case, one morning while he was in basic training he overslept. He woke up to find the barracks empty, the sun shining, birds singing… As he rushed to put on his uniform, a sergeant strode in, demanding to know what the hell he was doing there rather than on maneuvers with the rest of his platoon. Dad admitted to oversleeping, and was marched straight over to the colonel’s office. The colonel was this big, intimidating guy with a big, intimidating voice.
    “Soldier! I understand you overslept.”
    “Yes, sir.”
    “Hmph!” (he leaned closer) “Soldier! When was the last time you shaved?”
    “Last week, sir.”
    Dad had just started shaving – he was a very young-looking 18 year old. The colonel & sergeant looked at each other, the colonel rubbed his face to try & hide his smirk, and directed my father to go back to the barracks, shave, and march double-time up to where his platoon were on maneuvers.

    When Dad emerged from the barracks after his shave, the sergeant was there with his jeep & gave him a lift most of the way.

    Your story really touched me.

  41. Great story Neil! I would have been sent to be a physical therapist too … that is if I hadn’t accidentally shot myself.

  42. I miss your dad and I never even met him!

    I’ve never been at the receiving end of a shiva call, but I’ve made quite a few and they are always awkward for me. I never know what to say. So mostly I say nothing. I sit and listen, or smile. Or occasionally I answer a bunch of technical medical questions.

    The best calls are the ones where people tell great stories about the life of the person, not the death.

    I think just being there to show that you care is the point.

    If I were in NY, I’d stop by, but consider this a virtual shiva call.

  43. as a fellow Catholic, your buddy Barry hit us right on the nail about how we view the dead….at my father’s Catholic funeral… he was into theatre and directed shows for most of his adult life…so we had some of his former cast members sing some show tunes at the mass service….but had to get “special permission” from our Priest because it wasn’t really a catholic thing to do. Sorry about your father…

  44. What a great story, and what a blessing to know that story.
    Those pivotal moments that make us the people we are…

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