Citizen of the Month

the writing and photography of Neil Kramer

Tag: Jewish (page 1 of 2)

The Wealthiest Man in Town

shtetl
(Mayer Kirshenblatt’s “Purim Play: The Krakow Wedding”)

(translated from the Yiddish by Neil Kramer — ok, not really)

The wealthiest man in town went to the village Rabbi and said, “All my life, I worked hard. I have become rich and successful. But now everyone in town feels jealous of me, and I feel like a stranger in my own village.  What should I do?”

The Rabbi pondered this question, like Rabbis tend to do, and then replied, “You need to convince the others, that despite your great wealth, you are the the same as they are, a man of flesh and blood, a man who laughs and cries.”

The wealthiest man in town nodded, understanding the Rabbi’s wisdom.

So, on Shabbos, the wealthiest man in town went to the home of the poorest family in the village and shared their humble Sabbath dinner.  He ate their radishes and bread.  He shared stories, and he laughed and he cried, and after the meal, he announced, “I am just like you,” and then he called his horse and carriage to take him back to his palatial  home on the hill.

The next day, the wealthiest man in town returned to the Rabbi and said the plan was as unsuccessful as getting a donkey to carry a bucket of water with his teeth.  The minute he returned to his home on the hill, everyone hated him again.  Not one person in town believed that he was “just like them.”

The Rabbi stroked his beard and thought and thought, analyzing the situation.  Finallly, he spoke.  “I think our villagers are a insecure bunch with self-esteem issues,” he said.  “Rather than telling others that you are “just like them,” which doesn’t impress them, since they don’t think very highly of themselves anyway, it is better if you say “You are just like me,” so that they will feel ennobled and inspired that you — the wealthiest man in town — see them as equals.

So, that Shabbos, the wealthiest man in town invited as many villagers as could fit into his dining room and offered them a grand feast of duck and beef and exotic vegetables, all brought in from Prague, served on his best Polish dishware.  After the meal, he toasted the group with a glass of wine and said, “You are just like me,” and then the villagers returned home, on foot, down the hill, along the dusty, rocky road, their faces souring like Kosher pickles with each step closer to their dingy village.

The next morning, the Rabbi was already stroking his beard when the wealthiest man in town arrived at the shul.   The Rabbi had already heard the not-so-favorable gossip about his grand announcement of, “You are just like me,” which was as pleasing to the town as the off-key singing voice of the butcher’s wife, who could sometimes be heard warbling Yiddish lullabies as she chased the chickens in the yard before they were killed.

The wealthiest man in town was desperate, and Rabbi was determined to find the answer.  “This appears to be a problem that even King Solomon would struggle with in solving.” he said as he opened the Talmud.  “The villagers were offended when you said, “I am just like you.”  And they were insulted when you said, “You are just like me.”  Perhaps the only solution is NOT to make any announcements at all.  True?”

The wealthiest man in town nodded, and left the rabbi, but in all honesty, he was dumbfounded by the Rabbi’s vague wisdom, but since he was the only Rabbi in town, the wealthiest man in town was stuck with his advice, and figured he better follow it.

So, on Shabbos, the wealthiest man in town suggested that the entire village throw a dinner in the center of town, with each family bringing a dish of their choice.  It was a beautiful sunset and as the darkness covered the sky like a warm blanket, the stars opened their eyes and flickered like candles.   The villagers dined on the large selection of food, from simple beans to expensive fish, which was all spread on one enormous table covered in a pearl white cloth, and the wealthiest man in town ate and drank and danced and flirted and prayed with all of the others until the next morning, and never once did he say, “I am like you” or “You are like me,” and for the first time in years, he felt like he was part of the village, and they accepted him.

Aligning the Planets

I was returning from having a cup of coffee at the McDonald’s across the street when I encountered a white-haired elderly man who lived in my apartment building.  I didn’t remember his name, but I knew him from my youth as the red-haired tenant with ultra-straight posture who would chase the kids from playing Frisbee on the front grassy area.

“You’re ruining the grass,” he would shout.  “Play in the back where you are supposed to!” referring to the concrete slab between the two apartment buildings that created the co-op, a fenced-in area with ground so hard and child-unfriendly that you would scrap your knees if you fell, especially on the broken glass left over from the older kids previous night’s contraband smashed beer bottles.

But time changes, and this tenant now seemed frail and friendly.  Most of the kids playing in the grass had grown up and moved on.  Only I had unceremoniously returned again as an adult.

“You’re Kramer’s son?” he asked.

“Yes.”

The men from my father’s generation, the first group of tenants in this apartment building, always spoke of the offspring in relation to the patriarch.  I am always “Kramer’s son.”  I am never the “real” Kramer.

“We need you,” he said.  “We need a tenth person for a minyan.”

A minyan in Judaism refers to the quorum required for certain religious obligations, such as getting together for a prayer service. The traditional minyan for most cases consists of ten men, which continues to be the position with Orthodox Judaism.   However, Conservative Judaism and Reform Judaism accept women in the minyan.  In this case, I assumed this traditional, old-school guy was looking for a tenth MAN.  Some of the older guys prayed together on Friday night in one of the apartments, instead of schlepping to the temple all the way on Main Street.  In order to make this kosher,  they needed ten men.  And tonight, they were one short.

I was about to opt out, because I had hoped to watch an episode of “Flight of the Conchords” on Tivo, but I didn’t speak up fast enough.

“We’re meeting in Apartment 5C.  They’re sitting shiva.”

The mention of the shiva changed everything, and made me feel guilty about saying no.  In Judaism, shiva is the week-long period of grief and mourning for the seven first-degree relatives: father, mother, son, daughter, brother, sister, and spouse. (Grandparents and grandchildren are not included).  As most regular activity is interrupted, the process of following the shiva ritual is referred to as “sitting shiva.”  Shiva is a part of the customs for bereavement in Judaism.

The group was not only meeting for the Sabbath, but was praying in the apartment of someone bereaved.

I was told to arrive at Apartment 5C at 6PM, and I did.  I entered a crowded living room, a room too small for all ten of us — nine gray-haired, sloppily-dressed men in yarmulkes, and me.   We all looked like we wanted to be elsewhere, but were obligated by religious law to gather.  I recognized the faces of the men, but only knew one of them well, Mr. Weiner, the father of my childhood friend, Barry.

Someone’s husband had died earlier that week.  This was his home.  The widow was in the bedroom.  You could hear her crying.   The grieving son and grand-daughter sat by the piano in the living room, apart from the men. They were not particularly friendly towards us, as if we were a roaming band of gypsies invading their home.    They were probably having this ceremony for the “sake of their mother.”  No one talked, partly because of the solemn occasion, but mostly because the son and grand-daughter seemed like rude assholes.  Couldn’t they at least say hello or “thank you for being with us when you could be home watching “Flight of the Conchords?”

I wasn’t sure who was crying in the bedroom.  I don’t ever remember being in Apartment 5C ever before, although it pretty much looked like every other apartment in the building.    Who was it who died?  Do I know him?  If my mother was here, she would know.   She gossips with everyone in the elevator.  I usually leave the building through the side door so I don’t have to interact with anyone, so I miss all the inside info.

The apartment was not that much different than ours.  There was a couch that once had plastic on it to keep it fresh-looking, and a fake Chagall print on the wall, something the Torah demands of every Jewish household in Queens.

The grand-daughter sat in a director’s chair by the terrace window.  She was in her early twenties.  She looked bored and was staring into space as if she was watching some imaginary movie on her bigscreen TV.  I thought she was dressed inappropriately for the occasion, in a tight T-shirt with cleavage.

“Do you have any prayer books?” asked Mr. Weiner.

The son reached for a pile of black hard-covered books sitting on the piano bench and passed it the grand-daughter.  She dropped one of the books, and bent down to retrieve it.

“My God,” I thought, as I looked down the top of her shirt.  She had the most round and perfect breasts I had ever seen.  I felt like I could spend my life between them.  I was not the only one mesmerized by the sight.  All the men were sitting straighter and looking more youthful, as if they had just had their first true religious experience of the evening.   I think a few of them had the first hard-ons they have had since turning seventy years old.

The grand-daughters amazingly young and full breasts seemed to energize the room, and became the ice-breaker that was needed for the men to start talking with each other.  It was now 6:15 and we were still waiting for some local rabbi, who was going to lead the special service in honor of the deceased.

“Maybe he’s having trouble finding parking in this neighborhood.” said the son, a psychotherapist in New Jersey.  You could tell that he was a snob who looked down on “the old neighborhood” and thought it was over-crowded and unsafe.  “I certainly didn’t want to leave my Lexus in front of McDonalds!”

One of the other men spoke up, a skinny man with pants that were too short.

“Is this Rabbi Greenstein that’s coming here tonight?” he asked.

The son nodded.

“That’s the problem.  Rabbi Greenstein is ALWAYS telling everyone to show up a half hour early so he doesn’t have to wait!  When he says come at 6PM, that means he is coming at 6:30.”

“That’s not nice,” said the grand-daughter, the one and only time I heard her speak the entire night.

Some of the men laughed at her statement about Rabbi Greenstein.  A man named “Ralph,” with glasses and a hearing aide, called this rabbi a jerk.  He gave the son some simple advice.

“Next time there is a death, call Rabbi Goodwin from the “other temple” on Main Street,” he said.

Mr. Weiner, Barry’s father, and a friend of Rabbi Greenstein, disagreed with Ralph.

“Let’s be honest, Ralph.  If Rabbi Greenstein told us to all be here at 6:30, half of us would be walking in at 6:40. so rather than insulting the nice rabbi, I think we should acknowledge him as a clever and intelligent man.   I don’t know about you, but I like that in a rabbi.  You don’t want a dumb rabbi.”

“He has a point,” said the man who initially met me out in the front.  “Say what you want about Obama, but he’s very very smart.  And we need that now in this country.  Would you rather have Bush in office?  Someone dumb?   It’s also good to have a smart rabbi.”

“Bush was good for Israel” said another man, the one conservative in the home.

“Bush was the worst president ever.” said someone Mr. Weiner, and everyone accepted his word, as he was known to read the entire New York Times every morning in the Dominican coffee shop.”

As the men discussed rabbis and Presidents, my mind wandered back to the grand-daughter, and the true land of Milk and Honey calling my name from beneath her shirt.

“How’s your mother doing?” asked Mr. Weiner, bringing me back to reality.

“Good.  Thanks.  Hey, I saw Barry last week.  We took a ride down to see Shea Stadium being dismantled.   He was very sad.   He loved Shea Stadium.”

“How’s the new stadium?”

“It’s OK.  Supposedly it is replica of Ebbett’s Field.”

“Phooey,” said Ralph.  “There is only ONE Ebbett’s Field.  I used to live one block away from Ebbett’s Field.  You could literally hear the crack when Jackie Robinson swung his bat.”

“That’s bullshit.” said the Bush supporter.  “I used to live on Bedford Avenue.  I used to cut school every day to go to the game.  You could not hear the bat swinging.  Maybe you were hearing your mother making gefilte fish in the bathtub!”

The men at laughed at this clever diss.  The party was just getting going, when the clock rang 6:30 and the rabbi showed up at the front door.  The widow came out to join the others.  All of the men got up to greet her.  I stood up as well, out of respect.

I was surprised to see Eleanor, one of the women who played mah jongg with my mother.

“Oh, Neil.  How nice of you to come here,” she said.

“i’m so sorry to hear about this,” I replied.

While I am not terribly close with this woman, she was the first person in the building to know the “real” reason for my return to Queens, after I scolded my mother from keeping my separation a secret out of embarrassment.   I even wrote a post several month ago about Eleanor, and her attempt to revive my marriage by reading her favorite book, “Men are From Mars, Women are From Venus.”

From October 2008 —

Eleanor, the woman who sits in the back with her husband in the wheel chair, is one of those who knows the real story about why I am in New York.   After all, how long can I really be “visiting” for?  But good intentions have bad results.  Since then,  I cannot walk past Eleanor without her calling me over for one of her “helpful” lectures about marriage and relationships.

“I have been married for fifty one years,” she told me a few weeks ago, her husband nodding in the background.  “And let me tell you, it hasn’t always been easy.    But it wasn’t until about five years ago that I truly understood what marriage is all about… what makes a marriage work.  It was all because I read a book.  You must read this book.    This book changed my life.  I don’t know if you ever heard of it, but it is called… “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus.”  Have you read this book?”

I have read this book and thought it was hogwash, so I lied.

“I haven’t read it.   But I have heard of it.  It is about how men and women are different.”

“Exactly.   After reading this book, everything about men and women became clear to me.  This book is as important as the Old Testament.  Let me give you an example of why.    A husband and wife are getting dressed to go to a Temple function.  Everyone who’s anyone is going to be there.  The husband says, “Let’s get going.  We’re going to be late.”  The wife is busy putting on her make-up, wanting to look her best.   The wife asks, “How do I look?”  The husband says, “Fine.  Now, let’s go.”  And then the wife is upset at her husband for the rest of the night because he said she was looking “fine” and not “beautiful.”  “What did I say?” asks the husband.    He doesn’t get it.   That’s because he is from Mars and she is from Venus.  You are from Mars.  Your wife is from Venus.  Always remember that.”

It was her husband that had passed away a few days ago.  And no, I never read the book again after she suggested it.

I also remember another conversation that I had with her in the Fall while I was taking one of my walks.

Only once she did try to be a matchmaker.    She has a granddaughter who is interested in television production, a “beautiful redhead” who is having trouble finding a “Jewish man with a good soul.”

“But she’s just 22, so you are too old.” she added at the end.

“No, she’s not,” screamed my Penis, but the muffled sound from inside my pants never reached Eleanor and her hearing aide.  Eh, her granddaughter is probably a Wo-man from Venus anyway, which does not bode well for our relationship.

Are you saying that Ms. Perfect Breasts is this woman’s 22 year old grand-daughter?!

The rabbi started the prayer service.  He had us face east, towards Jerusalem.  This required that I did a 180 turn, which put the grand-daughter behind me, which was probably for the best.  I was now facing a wall entirely covered by photographs of the family, snapshots of this married couple’s life.   There were fading black and white photos from the old days, Kodachrome shots from the 1970s of their son growing up, his bar mitzvah, his graduation, a trip to Hershey, Pennsylvania, a vacation in Puerto Rico, the son’s wedding, the birth of the grand-daughter who would one day grow up to have these Godly-blessed ample breasts!

Eleanor had been married for fifty-one years.  What a run!  What memories!

After the service, I thought there might be some food, as is usual in any Jewish event, but it seemed that everyone just wanted to go home to their families.  I said good-bye to the unfriendly son and grand-daughter from New Jersey, taking a quick look down the grand-daughter’s shirt one last time before I left, in case I never had the opportunity ever again.

I went over to Eleanor and gave my condolences.   She seemed so grateful that I came for the service.

“Say hello to your mother for me! ” she said.  “The mah jongg game is not the same without her.”

I tried to think of something clever to say, but I drew a blank.  I am terrible at these moments.  What can you say to someone who just lost their husband of fifty-one years?   I hugged her.

“Have you read “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus” yet? she asked.

“No,” I said.  “But I will.   And I will think of you and your husband, because the two of you clearly figured out a way to align the planets.”

Yom Kippur 2008

I take Yom Kippur seriously. Well, somewhat. I’m not going to synagogue this year, but I will fast most of the day. Am I religious? Not really. But unlike the other Jewish holidays, which revolve around food and family, this one is serious and solemn, and that makes me a little scared and anxious.

I kinda like that. You can feel the AWE.

On Yom Kippur, it’s as if the entire world is on your shoulders. The way I see it, on Christmas, Santa Claus may not give you a good toy if you were a bad boy. On Yom Kippur, God might just stick you with a really crappy year for the same reason.

From Wikipedia:

Yom Kippur (Hebrew: יוֹם כִּפּוּר‎, IPA: [ˈjɔm kiˈpur]), also known in English as the Day of Atonement, is the most solemn and important of the Jewish holidays. Its central themes are atonement and repentance. Jews traditionally observe this holy day with a 25-hour period of fasting and intensive prayer, often spending most of the day in synagogue services.

Yom Kippur is the tenth and final day of the Ten Days of Repentance which begin with Rosh Hashanah. According to Jewish tradition, God inscribes each person’s fate for the coming year into a “book” on Rosh Hashanah and waits until Yom Kippur to “seal” the verdict. During the Ten Days of Repentance, a Jew tries to amend his behavior and seek forgiveness for wrongs done against God (bein adam leMakom) and against his fellow man (bein adam lechavero). The evening and day of Yom Kippur are set aside for public and private petitions and confessions of guilt (Vidui). At the end of Yom Kippur, one considers himself absolved by God.

There has been debates FOREVER about the real meaning of this “book of life” and how God seals your verdict. Does God really decide who will live and who will die? What about free will? And during the service, why does every ask for repetenace for sins they didn’t even do – like murder and robbery? Are we responsible for everyone’s sins? And the biggest question of them all — why do bad things happen to good people?

Recently, I chatted with a blogger who is very into “the Secret.” She believes that we attract good things through positive thought. So, I asked her what the Secret said about bad things.

“What if you get hit by a bus?” I asked. “Are you attracting the bus to hit you?”

“In a way you are.”

“Why would you WANT to be hit by a bus?”

“Maybe there is some larger reason you don’t know about.”

I find that nonsense.

Last year, Kyran from “Notes to Self” wrote an interesting post about The Secret after she viewed the DVD. Even though she saw some merit in positive thinking, she came away with the same conclusion about using The Secret on a day to day basis:

What does The Secret have to say about all the bright and hope-filled children in the world who suffer?

Judaism is not The Secret, as much as Madonna might think so. The Secret is mostly about achieving personal success. Judasim is a covenant with God. But both have the same problem that all religions do –explaining the randomness of life, and all the bad stuff that happens in it.

That said, I am too afraid of ignoring Yom Kippur completely. Just in case.

May you all be inscribed in the Book of Life.

The following song about Elijah the Prophet by the Moshav Band is probably more suitable for Passover than Yom Kippur, but even on this holiest of days, it is still my blog, and I can do what I want.

Jokes in Yiddish

Humor is very important. I’d rather hear good jokes than see a naked woman in my bedroom. Of course, if the naked woman was the one telling the jokes, I wouldn’t complain. Especially if she was also carrying a corned beef sandwich.

You see, that was sort of a joke. Not a good one, but then again, you didn’t pay to come to this blog.

Sophia likes to laugh. That’s one of things that keeps us together. Tonight, we watched Bruno and Carrie Ann’s Dance Wars. The song and dance routines were so bad, that we were laughing it up. The show was like a bad high school production, and you couldn’t even blame the writer’s strike. Thankfully, it put us in a happy mood. Who said TV couldn’t couldn’t have a positive effect on personal relationships?

Since I’m on the subject of humor — how many of you have heard a guy tell a real joke in Yiddish? Probably not many of you. I don’t know Yiddish, but I imagine every joke to be much funnier in that language.

Here is a guy telling some jokes in Yiddish. I’d like to imagine that I would be like him if I was born during his generation. Eh, I probably would be too shy. It is much easier writing a blog.

(Mom, if you want to watch this, remember to turn the sound ON)

Yenta the Matchmaker for the Day

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In the old-country, Jewish marriages were arranged by matchmakers.  Perhaps the most famous Jewish matchmaker was Yenta.  Yenta was the name of the matchmaker in Sholom Aleichem’s stories, several of which were collected into what became the musical “Fiddler on the Roof.”   The word “yenta” has taken on negative connotations in the modern word, and it is usually used to describe a “busybody.”

I’d like to defend the good name of matchmakers.  Being a busybody was part of the job.  A matchmaker HAD to sneak around and ask a lot of questions because she was a detective — always looking for clues that would help her make the best match.   In the Jewish tradition, it is also a mitzvah (good deed) to help make a successful match.

(from Matchmaker, Matchmaker — Fiddler on the Roof) 

Hodel:
Well, somebody has to arrange the matches,
Young people can’t decide these things themselves.

Chava:
She might bring someone wonderful—-

Hodel:
Someone interesting—-

Chava:
And well off—-

Hodel:
And important—

Matchmaker, Matchmaker,
Make me a match,
Find me a find,
catch me a catch
Matchmaker, Matchmaker
Look through your book,
And make me a perfect match

I’d like to revive the spirit of Yenta the Matchmaker right here on this blog — on these special days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.   Tomorrow, Thursday, will be a special day on “Citizen of the Month.”  Tomorrow, we shall all become Yenta the Matchmakers. 

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I will be making blog matches between 10 pairs of bloggers.   These are not romantic pairings.  These are pairs of bloggers who I have never seen read each other’s material (I’ll check their blogrolls), but I think should give each other a try.  Using an ancient technique passed down from my grandmother, I will try to match bloggers by their sensibilities and interests. 

Recently I was successful in introducing Danny and Elisabeth to each other.  At first glance, they have nothing in common.  But a true matchmaker realizes that they are both brainy bloggers with a twisted sense of humor.   Now they are on each other’s blogrolls.  

This is not easy for me.  I do have a jealous streak.   I used to get upset when my “blogging friends” became friends with each other.   One day, I’ll be reading Blogger X and I’ll be surprised to see my friend Blogger Y writing a comment.  Before you know it, Blogger X and Blogger Y are taking a trip to Las Vegas together, without even sending me a postcard.

But the week before Yom Kippur is one of reflection and self-improvement.  I’m going to fight my jealousy and spread the love.   So, if I match you up with someone, give their blog a chance.  I know matchmaking is not a perfect science. 

Please join in tomorrow with some matchmaking of your own, maybe even mix and matching blogrolls.   Are you the type who is always saying, “These two bloggers really need to read EACH OTHER!”   If so, tomorrow is your chance to do a mitzvah by becoming a Yenta the Matchmaker for the day.

Update:  The matches.

A Year Ago on Citizen of the MonthA Shanda (Yiddish for Shame)  (I really get Jewish at this time of the year, don’t I?)

 

Mel Gibson Requests Meeting with Neilochka!

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In a move that has taken Hollywood by surprise, Mel Gibson has requested a meeting with a Los Angeles-based blogger, Neil Kramer, the writer of the popular blog, “Citizen of the Month.”

In a public statement, Mr. Gibson stated:

“I am not a bigot. Hatred of any kind goes against my faith. I’m not just asking for forgiveness. I would like to take it one step further, and meet with leaders in the Jewish community, with whom I can have a one on one discussion to discern the appropriate path for healing.”

As a leader in the Jewish blogger community, Neilochka was at first stunned by this request.

“I’m not exactly sure what to say to him. I mean if he’s not a bigot, what’s really the point of meeting with Jews like me? I guess we can always talk about how much I liked “Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior””

Neilochka’s big concern was that if they meet at a restaurant, which of the two of them was actually going to pick up the tab.

“I already have a reputation on my blog for being a bit of a cheapskate, even using half-price coupons at ‘Chicago for Ribs’ with Sophia . I certainly don’t want him to think of this as a ‘Jewish’ thing.”

This would not be the first time Neilochka had some interaction with the famed movie star.

“When I was at USC Film School, I used to do script analysis over at Icon Productions, his film company. I once passed Mr. Gibson in the hall at the movie studio, but we never had an opportunity to talk or trade ethnic slurs.”

Neilochka suggested that the two former co-workers meet at Canter’s Jewish Deli in Los Angeles for their historic meeting.

“I think once he tastes their excellent corned beef sandwich, Mel’s whole attitude towards Jews will change for the better.”

After Mel Gibson’s anti-Semitic rants were recently made public, Neilochka was adamant that Hollywood should blacklist the actor because he’s an anti-Semite and a plain nasty person. However, on hearing about the upcoming meeting with Mr. Gibson, Neilochka’s resolve seemed to waver.

“I still find Mel Gibson a disgusting person. But just in case we hit it off, I’m bringing a copy of an old script to show him. It’s a buddy action/road movie about this gruff New York cop and this crazy rabbi who’s running from the mob. I call it… “Lethal Shlepin’.”

Be of Good Cheer

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During the summer, my father passed away.  My father’s funeral was very beautiful and dignified.  But I was disappointed.  I don’t think it captured my father’s quirky personality. Don’t get me wrong.  Everything went perfect.  Everyone was moved.   It just seemed more for the guests than my father.

After someone dies, everything is very chaotic.  There’s people to call.  Arrangements to make.  The person who died can get lost in the shuffle.

Jewish comedians always make fun of bar mitzvahs, saying that American kids treat them like jokes.  Kids make elaborate parties for their bar mitzvahs, some with crass themes, like baseball teams or Star Trek.   I used to mock these parties myself, but my view is changing.  At least these kids throw a party that reflects themselves.  Why are funerals always so drab.  Why aren’t there any funerals with exotic themes?  

I know this sounds a bit tasteless.  But my father loved the movie "Lawrence of Arabia."  Wouldn’t it be have been cool to have decorated the funeral home like a Arab sheik’s home?  Or an oasis in the Sahara desert?  I’m sure many of the guests would find it tacky and uncomfortable.  But who cares?  My father would have loved it! 

In the Jewish religion, you don’t put up the stone until a year after the death.  Today, my mother called me at home:

"On the way home from work, I bought your father’s stone."

"You did?  It’s only been five months."

"Well, I was in Flushing and I was passing the store. 

"You never can wait, can you?

"It’s going to be a very nice one.   "Kramer" in the middle, and then, "Devoted husband, father, and brother.""

"That’s all?"

"What do you want it to say?"

"I don’t know.  It’s just so… bleh.  It’s like me writing a post that says "Have a Nice Day.""

"We’re not talking about your blodge on the computer.  We’re talking about a stone in a cemetery." 

"How about at least, "Devoted husband, excellent father, and really cool brother?"  I think we can up up with something better for Dad."

"You’re the writer.  You think about it."

I met Sophia at the Coffee Bean.  We sat down to think.  Within thirty seconds, we came up with the exact same solution:

"Be of Good Cheer!"

Be of Good Cheer.  For some reason, my father always ended every phone conversation with that bizarre saying.  I have no idea where he got it from.  I’ve never heard anyone else say it.  It also sounded very 19th Century, like something Sherlock Holmes might say to Dr. Watson.  Maybe my father first heard it in an old movie as a child.

Arthur Kramer, devoted husband, father, and brother.  Be of Good Cheer.

So far, we haven’t sold the idea to my mother.

I know this is a depressing thought, but should we all start thinking about our funerals?  Do you want a traditional  ceremony?  Or something exotic?   Do you care what is written on your stone?  Would you like a certain song to be played?

I always liked "American Pie" from Don McLean:

They were singing,
"bye-bye, miss american pie."
Drove my chevy to the levee,
But the levee was dry.
Them good old boys were drinkin’ whiskey and rye
Singin’, "this’ll be the day that I die."

A Walk Around the Block

Today was our last morning of sitting shiva.  In the Jewish tradition, at the end of the shiva, we are supposed to leave the house and walk once around the block.  None of us knew the reason for this tradition, so yesterday, we asked a few of our visitors.  We received many different "answers," including:

1)  to get some exercise after sitting all week.

2)  to show the rest of the neighborhood that you’re done sitting shiva.

3)  to take all your tsuris (Yiddish for trouble) and get rid of it by throwing it on the first neighbor you meet!
 
Then Sophia looked it up online and found the most convincing answer:

Walking around the block is a symbol of the beginning of a return to normalcy.  Also, there is a belief that the soul of the departed hovers around during the shiva, when everyone is talking about the person that died.  In the old country, the cemetery was located at the edge of the shtetl (a village).  At the end of sitting shiva, the bereaved would "escort the soul" to its final resting place.

So many friends and neighbors came this week and said so many beautiful things about my father.  At times, my mother and I gave each other little glances when the praise for my father went over the top.  It’s hard to think of your father or husband in "saintly" terms.  As kind a person as he was, he also had his quirks, and I’d like to remember those as well as his good deeds.  My father did plenty of things that drove me crazy.  He was a neatnik, a hoarder, an obsessive scheduler, and the slowest dresser that ever existed.   But that’s what made him my father.   I want to remember everything about him, good and bad.

I’m not much of a spiritual person, but even I felt my father’s presence as we prepared to take our post-shiva "walk around the block."  When we stepped outside, it was a little windy, so Sophia asked me to go upstairs and get her a jacket.  As I turned back, a wind blew and the front door of the apartment building flew wide-open.  I didn’t think much of it until I went upstairs and found that we had left our front door unlocked from when we were sitting shiva and the wind from the opening elevator made it fly open, too!  It was a little eerie.  But just in case it was my father’s spirit, I said hello to his photo in the living room, and then returned downstairs with a jacket for Sophia.

We took our walk around the block.  It was very emotional.  But as we took each step, things began to feel a little more normal, as we were moving from a state of bereavement back to a regular life.  As we came around the corner, we approached Shoshana, an orthodox Jewish woman who lives in my parents’ building.  Even though she was wearing an ugly skirt, I said to myself, "She has a really nice ass."  I guess I was feeling a little bit more normal.  The wind blew.  I’d like to think that it was my father, agreeing with me about Shoshana’s ass.

Modern Talmudic Question

If a rabbi comes to make a shiva call and there are no available parking spaces outside so he parks "illegally" in the parking-lot of the next-door supermarket, is he required to buy something from the store or is it considered stealing?

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.

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