the writing and photography of Neil Kramer

Rosh Hashanah 5775


It was a rainy Rosh Hashanah in New York City. It was the second year I was attending a progressive service in Manhattan, one in which God’s name was rarely spoken and there was discussion about getting a vegan shofar made of plastic for next year, instead of the one used by Jews for thousands of years, made from a ram’s horn.

Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, is a time of reflection. Jews look back on the past year, and prepare themselves for being “inscribed into the book of life” on  Yom Kippur, when the “book is closed.”  Jews — they are into metaphors involving books.

Halfway into the service, the rabbi turned her attention to the congregation.

“How have we all used our time over the past year?” she asked.  “Have we done good deeds? Have we been of service to society?”

One congregant immediately rose her hand.    Clearly she was once the teacher’s pet in third grade.

“I volunteer at a homeless shelter twice a week and joined the Central Park Conservancy executive committee.”

The rabbi nodded in approval.  The rest of us clapped, honoring her service.

A younger man stood next; he wore a yarmulke colored like the LGBT flag.

“I directed a film for marginized teenagers.  It was shown in the public schools throughout New York City schools, and I believe it has helped many overcome their personal shame.”

More applause.

The next two sharers helped run a successful fundraiser for a cancer clinic at a hospital and organize last week’s People’s Climate Change March on Wall Street.

The mood in the room took a surprising silent dive after these four congregants shared their good deeds.   There was a tangible feeling of embarrassment about our own accomplishments over the last year.  The moment reminded me of that feeling you get on on Facebook when you read about someone’s exotic vacation in Costa Rica, and you don’t want to tell anyone about your low-key Thanksgiving at your Aunt Mildred’s home in New Jersey.  How can you compete?

“How have we all used our time over the past year? Have we done good deeds? Have we been of service to society?”

These were the questions of the rabbi.  Good questions.   Questions aimed at making us think about how we treat our fellow man.   But the first four responses sounded more like references you would add to your college application.

It took an older woman to break the ice. She stood up to face the rabbi.  She was wearing a green wool dress that added color to her short gray hair.

“Well, just last night, a friend called up and said she was having an anxiety attack about her granddaughter in California, so I got dressed, took the cross-town bus over and talked with her until she calmed down.”

Some of us giggled, because it was a rather absurd example in comparison to the others, but then we all applauded, sensing her wisdom. She had expanded upon our definition of a good deed, so it included the small and personal as much as those larger actions that are part of the public record.

And suddenly others stood up, energized by the older woman.  One by one, congregants  mentioned minor actions, decisions, and choices that would never make the newspapers or news, but made their past year one of good deeds, their existence worth living.

Last week, I watched the PBS documentary on the Roosevelts.   Their accomplishments were fascinating.  FDR was Governor of New York and President of the United States. He created the New Deal and Social Security. He led us out of the Depression AND World War 2.  But would FDR have taken the cross-town bus to calm down a friend having an anxiety attack?  I don’t think so.

Lyrics from Seasons of Love from the musical, Rent.

Five hundred twenty five thousand six hundred minutes
Five hundred twenty five thousand moments
Five hundred twenty five thousand six hundred minutes
How do you measure, measure a year?
In daylights, in sunsets
In midnights, in cups of coffee
In inches, in miles, in laughter, in strife
In five hundred twenty five thousand six hundred minutes
How do you measure, a year in the life?
How about love?


  1. Jana A (@jana0926)

    I’d rather be the person who did a million small good deeds than one big one for the accolades. Wishing you a wonderful new year filled with happiness and good deeds (for you and by you).

  2. Veronica

    I truly believe in the power of small acts of kindness. I tell my kids (and their friends) that if you want to change the world, start by doing good where you are, with the people right in front of you.

  3. Ms. Moon

    I love this. I frequently feel embarrassed and ashamed because I don’t do Big Good Deeds. I don’t feed the homeless or work at any shelters. I don’t donate hours to work for the disenfranchised or the marginalized or the needy. I used to volunteer endless hours in the children’s classrooms and do all of that mommy sort of stuff but no more.
    I know what I have done and will do to show love, to give of myself, to try and allow others who may be in pain a place to be, to speak, to cry. To laugh.
    None of the things I do will ever be on a resume or a college application. They rest where they should rest. In my heart and in the heart of others. There are many ways to give, to be of service, to do good deeds. I don’t always do the best I could, but I do try. I think most of us do.

  4. grandemocha

    I’ve done bigger good things than I am now. I try to a small good thing everyday. I believe that because I have been given a lot, I have to give a lot. Happy New Year!

  5. Jett

    Maybe not, but Eleanor sure as shit would have.

    The Eleanors of the world help keep us from being savages.

    • Neil

      Absolutely. Eleanor would have been there.

    • leila

      yes! i was expecting to read your takeaway of Eleanor’s accomplishments. my kid’s middle name is Eleanor, partly as homage to her. but i loved this vignette, Neil! of course. it’s right up my alley.

  6. Roxanne

    It’s too easy for me to forget the small deeds I have completed and focus on the big ones I have not. This was a great reminder. Thank you Neil. L’Shana Tova!

  7. Kizz

    I wish that the rabbi had used the word Community instead of Society. It might have opened up the discussion sooner. We all do good things for our community or we lose the support of it.

  8. notk8

    You never know how much a small gesture can mean to someone: a mild compliment, opening a door for someone with a stroller, giving a well-timed thumbs up. It can mean an enormous amount to someone having one of those days or one of those decades.

    Acting locally is great. But it doesn’t do shit for communities without resources. Doing something good is better than doing nothing but doing something for someone who looks like you or speaks like you is usually going to be easier than doing something for someone who isn’t like you.

    I guess the ides is to do what you can, and if you can do a little more, do that too.

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