Every Friday night, a group of Jewish men meet in the apartment building I grew up in and greet the Sabbath. Most of the men are older or find it difficult to travel to a temple. Traditionally, you need ten men to form a “minyan,” the group that prays together. In Judaism, praying in a group during Shabbat is considered more important than praying alone (sorry ladies, traditional Judaism doesn’t count women as part of the minyan).
I’m not very religious and don’t go to temple very often, but I was honored to be asked to join the minyan for the night. The leader of the group said it would be a good opportunity for me to say “Kaddish,” the traditional prayer said for the deceased. I can read Hebrew and know the prayer, but I’ve never stood in front of a group of religious men and said Kaddish out loud in honor of my father. It was an experience as powerful as my bar mitzvah. The ancient text praising G-d really leapt off the page for me. During the service, Kaddish is said three times. During the first time, my voice was uncertain and croaky, so the leader said the prayer along with me. But by the last reading, I found my confidence and read it in a strong voice.
When I returned to my apartment, I felt nervous energy coming from my mother and Sophia. My mother was going through a pile of my father’s paperwork. He was a real “paper saver” who kept bills and receipts from decades ago. I showed my mother how to use the shredder I bought my father last year, something he never even plugged in.
Sophia was involved in another matter – our trip home. When we learned that those so-called “bereavement fares” were a joke (and cost more than the regular fares), we used our American Airlines frequent flier miles to come to New York. Earlier that day, we learned that if we wanted to, we could make a multi-day stopover anywhere in the continental U.S. on the way back. Sophia said we could use a few days of rest after the last few weeks of stress and sorrow. We asked my mother to come along wherever we went, but she wanted to go back to work. I went through my list of bloggers, thinking whom to visit, but we decided on Albuquerque because I saw that they are having a world-famous International Balloon Festival next week. We booked the flight, but then we realized the most of the hotels were already filled. So, when I came back from services, Sophia was all frustrated from trying to find a hotel. She asked for my help, but I told her I was exhausted. The week’s tensions were finally hitting me. Until now, we had all been too busy to feel tired. From the minute we arrived in New York, it’s been visits to the hospital, arranging for the funeral, and sitting shiva. I felt my body collapsing and went to my parents’ room and quickly fell asleep.
The next morning, I woke up in the same bed. Sophia was sleeping next to me. My mother was asleep in the living room. It was pretty early in the morning, but the New York City Sanitation trucks were already rolling outside. I had a morning hard-on. I moved against Sophia and she told me to get lost. “We’re separated, remember?” Besides, she was up half the night looking for hotels in Albuquerque and was upset that I woke her up. I went to take a shower.
I turned on the water and stepped inside the shower stall. It was nice to feel the water against my back. I’d been so tense. Still hard, I started playing with myself. I looked down at my penis and laughed — I remembered being in the exact same spot doing the exact same thing when I was fifteen years old. Maybe I was just too tired from the last two weeks, but for some reason, after a few minutes, I lost interest in what I was doing. That would never have happened to me when I was fifteen.
I stepped out of the shower and dried myself off. Through the closed door, I could hear that my mother was now up. I could hear the grinding of the shredder ripping up my father’s receipts from 1995. I could hear that Sophia was now awake also. I could hear her watching the “Alias” episode that she had taped on my my mother’s ancient VCR. Well, for a minute, at least. Then I could hear her telling my mother off for switching channels and taping a Food Channel show and the cable menu instead.
With my cock still up, I couldn’t leave the bathroom… just yet. I wiped the “fog” from the bathroom mirror and looked at myself standing there. While we were sitting shiva, we had covered all the mirrors — as is traditional. Now that the mourning period was over, was my father looking down at me now from heaven? Do I even believe in that stuff? And if he is, couldn’t the same be said for my Grandma and my late Aunt Ruthie? Jeez, are all of my deceased relatives seeing me now with an erection? How embarrassing.
But It didn’t seem weird at all to think of my father as I looked at my penis. After all, the male circumcision is what bonds the Jewish male to the Jewish people. I remember when I was a little kid, I used to take a shower with my father. I remember looking forward to the day when I could have hair on my chest and a man’s penis hanging there, not a boy’s penis. Suddenly, it occurred to me that, as the only son, I’m now the “man of the family.” But what does that mean? My father was so much more of a “man” when he was my age. He had a steady job, a steady marriage, and a son.
“You have none of these.” I thought I heard my penis say to me.
“You’re right,” I said.
"You know it’s Rosh Hashana in a few days," my penis continued.
"The Jewish New Year is the ideal time to make changes in your life. You can start to become the man you want to be."
My wants as a man have so far been pretty simple so far: good Chinese food, the open thighs of a woman, and a subscription to HBO. Maybe it was time to become as accomplished a man as my father. To know what it actually means to be a man.
"You stood up and said Kaddish at the minyan. That’s a good start." said my penis, being encouraging.
"Thank you," I told my friend.
Sophia knocked on the door.
“Hurry up, Neilochka. I need to use the bathroom. And… who are you talking to anyway?”