the writing and photography of Neil Kramer

The Rosh Hashanah Challenge


MC: It’s The Rosh Hashanah Challenge, the game show where you decide the winner! And here’s your host, fresh off her third-failed game show, former MTV star Kennedy!

Kennedy: Thank you. Welcome to The Rosh Hashanah Challenge. You know the rules. We bring out two contestants and they each tell us about their Rosh Hashanah, and the one with the most wild, exotic story wins. And you’re the ones who vote for the winner! So, let’s meet our two contestants. He’s a blogger from Los Angeles — Neil Kramer. And she’s a Russian dialect coach from Redondo Beach who is separated from her husband but still debating her next move — Sophia Lansky! Welcome, Neil and Sophia. Now, we flipped a coin before the show and Neil gets to tell his Rosh Hashanah story first.

Neil: Well, Kennedy, at first, I didn’t have anything special to do on the Jewish holiday, so Danny invited me to go to temple with his family. It was a very nice gesture, but the really surprising twist was — listen to this — they attend a gay and lesbian synagogue! Even thought they are straight, they like the rabbi and the service. When I heard about this “gay synagogue,” I was too excited for words. What a blog post I was going to write! What funny stories!

Kennedy: Oh, wow! Talk about a wild and exotic Rosh Hashanah. How were the rabbi and cantor?

Neil: Very nice. They were both women.

Kennedy: Oooh-hooo, do I hear make-out session during the service?

Neil: Actually, they were both pretty conservative.

Kennedy: What about the choir? Were they dressed like the Village People?!

Neil: No, they were normally dressed. They had very nice voices. It was a very pretty service. One of the best I’ve attended.

Kennedy: I guess all the crazy Queer Eye for the High Holy Days activities took place in the congregation?

Neil: No, everything was pretty much the same as every other Rosh Hashanah service I’ve ever attended. If you walked in, you wouldn’t even know it was a gay and lesbian congregation. My biggest surprise was how “normal” the whole thing was.

Stained Glass at Beth Chayim Chadashim

Kennedy: That’s the story?

Neil: Pretty much.

Kennedy: That’s the wild and exotic story about going to a gay and lesbian temple for Rosh Hashanah?

Neil: Yeah.

Kennedy: (sighing) OK, let’s now turn to the second contestant, Sophia Lansky. Tell us about your Rosh Hashanah in New York.

Sophia: I also didn’t have anything planned, but Neil told me about this temple on the Upper West Side that was supposed to have a very nice service. I was sure they didn’t have any tickets left, but I asked Neil to find me the phone number online. He ended up mistakenly gaving me the phone number of one of the TEMPLE MEMBERS rather than the temple itself. So, this is how the phone conversation went:

NY Woman: Hello?

Me: Hi, I’m visiting from Los Angeles and I’m looking for somewhere to go for Rosh Hashanah. I was wondering if I can still come to you.

NY Woman: Uh… sure. That would be fine.

Me: Great! What time do things start?

NY Woman: I would say around 6:30.

Me: O.K. Could you do me a favor and just give me your address.

NY Woman: Yes. We are on XXX 79th Street, Apartment 3D.

Me: Apartment 3D?

NY Woman: Yes. Just ring the buzzer downstairs and take the elevator up.

Me: I don’t understand. Am I calling Congregation B’Nai Jeshurun?

NY Woman: Huh? You’re calling me — Millie Schwartz! Are you asking to come over for Rosh Hashanah dinner?

Sophia: After we both laughed about the misunderstanding, Millie and her husband invited me over for Rosh Hashanah dinner anyway! So, I went to a stranger’s house for dinner. It was amazing. There were a whole bunch of musicians there, and after dinner, everyone took out their guitars and started to sing.


Kennedy: What a terrific story! It’s just too bad that you never made it to that synagogue!

Sophia: Oh, but I did. That same day, I was working on the film and someone mentioned that one of the actors was a member of this temple and that he could help get me a ticket! What luck. So, I went over to the actor to thank him, and I took one look at him — and I instantly recognized him as the actor who played billionaire Alexander Cambias on All My Children, my favorite soap opera. So, I went to temple using a ticket given to me by a character on All My Children!

Billionaire Alexander Cambias Sr. (aka Ronald Guttman)

Kennedy: This story get better and better!

Sophia: While at temple, I sat next to a woman who happened to be, of all things, a Spanish court interpreter! So after services, she invited me to accompany her to dinner at another person’s home! So, off we went, to a home of two young opera singers/students — after I kissed the cheek of the actor who played Alexander Cambias for helping me get a ticket to temple!


Kennedy: Holy Moses! That story blows my mind.

Neil: Uh, gay temple over here! What could be more wild?

Kennedy: Yeah, right. Now it is up to you — the audience. The Rosh Hashanah Challenge. Which story is more exotic and wild? Neil’s story of the “gay” temple where nothing “gay” happened or Sophia’s tale of dinner at the homes of strangers and her kissing Alexander Cambias from All My Children? You decide!

A Year Ago on Citizen of the Month: Ode to the Coffee Shop


  1. anne

    Stars and strangers in one go…?! I have to go with Sophia here.

  2. LisaBinDaCity

    I like Sophia’s version better mainly because I think that Alexander Cambius guy is hot.

    They never should have killed him off!

  3. Pearl

    Sorry, Neil. Sophia wins hands-down. It wasn’t even the synagogue ticket acquisition from the soap star, but the initial phone conversation with “Mrs. Schwartz” that reeled me in. It brought to mind the famous skit “A Call from Long Island” on the “You Don’t Have To Be Jewish” album from the late 1960s.

    Neither your nor Sophia’s Rosh Hashana experiences may be truly exotic (no lions or crocodiles involved), but the stories are certainly worth repeating/blogging about!

  4. fringes

    Great post, Neil. I think this proves again that New York on any given day is way more exciting than Los Angeles.


    Nobody likes to be one-upped.

  6. 3rdtimesacharm( 3T )

    Uh-ohh. Well Neil, your Rosh Hashanah was showing support for a community that deserves and needs support. (Lame comment, sorry)

    Oh Hell! Sophia’s was by far the most interesting. But I admire you for going to a gay and lesbian temple, Neil.

    I also should state, that though New York may be far more glamorous and interesting and exciting than Los Angelos. Los Angelos trumps New York by far, with two words. No snow.


  7. Jody

    Sophia wins – especially with the mismatch china, the wrinkled tablecloth, the backward place settings and the fluke with the Millie Schwartz story all contributed to a story that will be told for a very long time.

  8. Alison

    Wow. Kennedy looks hott.

  9. s@bd

    It’s Rosh Hashanah?

  10. Dagny

    Sorry but Sophia wins — per usual. And I’m with Pearl. I think Sophia won from that first phone conversation. The rest was just icing on the cake.

  11. danielle

    I would opt for the gay temple personally, but Sophia’s experience sounds like it was a great one. It is fun to play things by ear and go with the flow, especially when you end up surrounded by creative people.

  12. kapgar

    Definitely siding with Sophia on this one. Sorry, Neil.

    But Kennedy? Really? I was so happy not having thought of her in a decade and a half. Thanks for ruining blissful ignorance for me. 😉

  13. wendy

    Sophia..for sure..But a few questions..from the Catholic Peanut gallery… need tickets to get into(i almost said church)synagogue?? I know that this is a big DRAW Easter for Catholics. But here’s how the Caths do it…All bunch in..sit at the end pews..refusing to budge. All the “regulars” casting disapproving, guilt producing looks at the Johnn come Holidays…Fist fights, well almost, in the parking lot. But no tickets. That wouldn’t be Christian. With the Love one another commandment..and all..

    Also, Dorky question…really..are there stain glass windows in synagouges??

    As for A gay/lesbian synagougue..the thought of a Catholic equivalent..makes me roll with laughter…though..if you looked in the rectory and the’de pretty much have a packed house, right there!..(just kidding..GOD, don’t smite me)

    I enjoyed this glimpse of your holiday very much.

  14. EEK

    I liked the “Billionaire Alexander Cambias Sr. (aka Ronald Guttman)” part. That was a nice touch.

  15. Neil

    Wendy — Synagogues get their biggest turn-outs for this holiday, so if you are a member you get a ticket to temple.  But if you’re not a member, you have to buy a ticket for Rosh Hashana  — since there are very few available seats.  Sometimes, a ticket to a big synagogue can cost as much as a Broadway show.  Even thought it is a bit annoying, this is one of the ways the temples support themselves.  There are always other places to go for free, but on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, most of the big temples are standing room only.

    As for stained glass windows and choirs — you think Jews are only going to let Christians steal good religious ideas? It’s payback time!

  16. Dana

    Millie, Millie, Millie! Way to turn an awkward situation into an opportunity for hospitality. What’s Millie’s number? I’d love a nice home-cooked dinner out in NY. Assuming it was good.

  17. Neil

    Oh, and Lisa B — You didn’t hear it from me, but even though Alexander Cambias is “dead” — that doesn’t prevent him from returning in a “dream sequence.”

  18. Tara

    Sophia had me at, “Hi, I’m visiting from Los Angeles…”

  19. Roberta

    Pearl, I also immmediately thought of “You Don’t Have To Be Jewish”.
    Does that mean you’re not coming?

    Truly, both stories are lovely. I love stories that debunk the New-York-as-unfriendly-place myth. I doubt you’d find that kind of warmth anywhere else in this country. And I really love Jews with guitars… I really do.

    I am glad you both celebrated among friends.

  20. Danny

    Hey, Neil, come to our synagogue next March for the megillah reading and GLBT Purim costume contest and you’ll have plenty to write about! Let’s just say Queen Esther never looked so good.

    Shul with “All My Children” stars beats all.

  21. ekramer

    point of information. reform temple
    membership includes tickets for holidays
    conservative even if you pay for membership you still have to pay for tickets for the holiday.

  22. bookfraud

    i’ve been to a gay & lesbian congregation for the holidays and they were far more interesting (and fulfilling) than typical rosh hashanah(& yom kippur) services.

    but sophia’s story rules. i didn’t think new yorkers were so nice. who knew?

  23. Pearl

    Re. Orthodox congregations: some memberships provide tickets, others require extra payment for High Holiday seating.

    Assigned seating is the best; first come first served seating can make for chaos.

  24. Kelly

    Sorry, Neil, but Sophia’s story wins. It makes me want to celebrate Rosh Hashanah!

  25. rach2

    Maybe it’s not that New Yorkers are so nice (they were, in this case) – but that Sophia is so engaging that people are drawn to her?

  26. Neil

    New Yorkers are the nicest people on Earth — until you actually move there.

  27. Sweet

    Just another vote for Sophia. Although both sound like interesting holiday celebrations to say the least!

  28. better safe than sorry

    i don’t know if it’s fair that sophie’s story wins, after all, if you hadn’t looked up the phone number and given it to her, she wouldn’t have made that call. i think you should get credit for that. in the end, i think it should be a tie.

  29. sara lee

    Sophia definitely wins…I too have a real thing for jewish men who can play a guitar!

  30. thephoenixnyc

    Shana Tova.

    I have to go with Sophia’s Story. Yours was good Neil, but, alas, as you kept emphasizing. “It was like any other Rosh Hashana” service.


  31. Bama Girl

    Sorry Neil, Sophia wins this one. I think it’s really brave to go to a stranger’s home for dinner, let alone twice! She’s brave and had a great time. You get the consolation prize though!

  32. scott

    Looks like Sophia’s winning shofar.

    Hello, Neil.

  33. Therese

    Poor Neil. How could you possibly have known she’s follow up with something better than: “I went to this gay and lesbian synagogue this one time, but you wouldn’t know it, except, I totally did. Cause someone told me that it was.” ?

  34. Rhea

    I loved both stories, but the awkward telephone conversation Sophia had with Millie Schwartz, the host-to-be, was a riot! It was like something out of a movie. Are you sure you didn’t make that up?

  35. Ellen Bloom

    I’ve been to Temple Beth Chayim Chadashim…it’s in my neighborhood. We’re not gay, but we’ve always found the services to be insightful and for EVERYONE.
    I have to agree with the majority, Sophia’s story is the ultimate. The story illuminates the friendliness and compassion for people who are alone. Just calling someone and asking to be invited (unknowingly) to Rosh Hashonah dinner is priceless. I love Millie Schwartz! Also, if you meet someone in Temple, they really aren’t strangers.

    Love your blog! Just found it thru Crazy Aunt Purl!

  36. deezee

    either of your experiences could be used to recruit jews who have strayed from holiday observance, tho Sophia sure knows how to turn it all into a party.

  37. Celina

    I think both storied are great, because y’all just seem to have such interesting lives! As I don’t have any close Jewish friends, I don’t believe that I am qualified to judge this contest. That, and the fact that I am fascinated by the idea of buying a TICKET to go to “church.”

  38. Think Frustrated

    I’m giving Neil a mercy-vote because his story was so lame, although it definitely had potential.

  39. V-Grrrl

    I love the thread of acceptance and hospitality tying these stories together–but I have to confess the ticket thing blows my mind. I’m imagining my Episcopal bretheren jumping on the ticket idea and offering package deals that include Christmas, Easter, and coupons for free Starbucks coffee. We could even have a dress code for ticket holders that bans tacky holiday attire…

  40. Neil

    Scott — That shofar gag was terrific. I have to tell the rabbi that one.

    Celina — Yes, the ticket thing is odd if you’re not used to it. But then again, there is no passing around of the hat during the rest of the year. And someone needs to pay for the nice stained glass windows.  Like I mentioned earlier, there are places to go for Rosh Hashana for free or reduced amounts, but I’ve never been a fan of the ticket system. I think it intimidates some people from coming to temple. Of course, on any regular Saturday, there is never a need for a ticket. Some temples are so happy to have people show up, that they’ll grab you from the street and offer to buy you lunch.

  41. Danny

    Let me just say in defense of the ticket-buying procedures for the High Holy Days, it’s usually one of the main fundraising tools for the year and everyone expects it BUT there is no way that anyone would be turned away from my or most synagogues because they couldn’t pay.

    Also, while I love the realization that Neil came to that our gay and lesbian service was perfectly “normal” and like other services anywhere, I’ll also add that he is not the most observant person on the planet. Believe me, if any of my homophobic ultra-orthodox relatives were there, they would have gone apoplectic at all the same-sex touching, caressing, and kissing during the course of the evening!

  42. Dustin

    Neil, don’t feel bad. You can’t compete when Sophia works on a movie set. Although the Gay & Lesbian Synagogue was a nice try. As my coach used to say “You get an ‘E’ for Effort.”

  43. Neil

    Danny — Thank you for explaining the tickets better. Sophia already scolded me, saying my explanation was “bad for the Jews.” Yes, you wouldn’t get turned away without a ticket (but you might get nasty looks by the Temple treasurer).

    As for the same-sex kissing and caressing during the evening, why didn’t you elbow me and tell me? I thought that was just some new type of Reform movement prayer! (this is an example of an in-group joke that many of you won’t understand, but take it from me, it is funny)

  44. Deborah

    You threw the fight on this one … of course Sophia is the winner. Duh!

  45. modigli

    I love Millie Schwartz! She didn’t even ask who Sophia was, just said “Sure! Come on over!” 🙂 That is so cool. Who ever says New Yawkers are “mean” or “cold” needs to read this story.

    BTW, you seriously need TICKETS to go to a service at a temple?!

  46. Blonde Vigilante

    Neil, your story started out with a bang, but it fizzled out there at the end. Sophia wins in my book. I mean…who could top that?

  47. Scarlet

    You should have embellished, Neil.

  48. Viscountess of Funk

    I knew Sophia would win after I ready your “crazy” story, because I’m a Lutheran girl from Seattle and even I’VE been to a gay/lesbian temple. Several times. Pft.

  49. Jody

    Neil, I don’t know about your family but my family is totally the touchy-feely-kissy-kissy type. It takes 20 minutes just to say goodbye because everyone needs a hug and a kiss. So that synagogue (even though it was established for gays and lesbians) is no different from my heterosexual family. 🙂

  50. Becky

    Just found your blog from Crazy Aunt Pearl. LOVE this post and the comments. (shofar! har!)

    I cast my vote for Millie Schwartz. She total wins the contest for Sophia…that and the guitar accompanied sing-a-long after dinner. (what we lutherans miss out on in Minnesota!!!)

  51. kristen

    Ok, I didn’t even recognize the LA version of Kennedy and yes, she still bugs. Sophia’s holiday was spent in a way that I would never in a million years be able to pull off but how impressive and what a fun time she seems to have had. I love the story of Millie and especially, that she invited Sophia anyway.
    Even with temple tickets, I didn’t go to services (although my husband did a real shocker). If I go twice for Yom Kippur than I’ve covered all my bases right?

  52. Neil

    Before you vote, could I make you believe that this is a photo of Danny, myself, the rabbi, the cantor, and the two ushers!

    Oh, and this was sort of  “gay” — when I was in the bathroom, one guy complemented another on the color of his yarmulke.

  53. communicatrix

    Not only does Sophia win, she gets her own reality TV show.

    Damn! This beats All My Kids any day of the week!

  54. mckay

    yeah, that ticket thing confused this lil catholic gal, too.

    this is so hard for me to comment, because i can’t spell any of those jewish words.oy.

  55. amanda

    wow, too much! i thought sophia’s new york rosh hashanah was a joke until i saw the obvious camera phone photo of the musicians. what a way to party!

  56. deannie

    awww! The contest winners here were both of you for having gone in spite of potential roadblocks!


  57. Rabbi Seinfeld

    The only contest in life is between you and yourself. As New Yorkers, it’s no big deal to go to a service, and as Californians, it’s no big deal to crash a party. The question is – did you get the most you could out of this service and that party? Did you learning anything about yourself, or did Rosh Hashana teach you ANY lasting lesson?

  58. Rabbi Seinfeld

    Neil, if the service was like any other Rosh Hashana service, how did you manage to stay awake?

  59. Akaky

    So, let me see if I’ve got this straight: Neil offers a highly nuanced look at the troubled interplay between homosexuality and Judaism, examining the moral tension inherent in the Epicurean enticements of the fleshpots of Egypt and the soteriological demands G-d placed on the Jewish people at Sinai, and all you people are interested in is that Sophia gets to sing Kumbaya in Hebrew with people she doesn’t know? For once Neil stops letting his penis get the better of him and offers the reader not the usual frothy confection we’ve all come to expect, but a serious examination of how Judaism’s millennia old call to righteousness resounds even among those whose personal behavior orthodox Judaism traditionally finds abhorrent, and how those people try to navigate the morally ambiguous situation their sexual orientation and their religious faith places them in. And yet, having tapped into this new vein of material, you people reject Neil’s new gravitas as a commentator on the religious and sexual mores of modern American society and want yet another rerun of the old Neil and Sophia will they get back together again and why can’t you get good kugel in Los Angeles soap opera? Feh, I say…in fact, I like saying that so much I’m going to say it again: Feh! So take that! Such shallowness.

    As for tickets, I must point out to the Papists here that the sale of tickets to church services is not entirely unknown amongst the denizens of the Holy Roman Catholic and Apostolic Church; try getting into St. Patrick’s for Christmas Midnight Mass or on Easter Sunday without a ticket and you will shown to the door by a friendly member of the Knights of Columbus. Tickets are not such a bad idea, though, especially for Mass on Palm Sunday when all the once a year Catholics show up to get their free palms. If we sold tickets to Palm Sunday Mass and offered something else to go with the free palms then maybe the church could keep more parochial schools open. I haven’t thought of what might go well with the free palms, although Tupperware and tuna casserole come immediately to mind, for reasons I’m not sure I fathom at the moment.

  60. maitresse

    all I did on Rosh was get drunk with my goyische boyfriend on montepulciano vino rosso in a restaurant in capri. But reading your blog makes me feel like a better Jew. Thanks.

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