the writing and photography of Neil Kramer

Tag: Rosh Hashanah

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?

Two Rosh Hashanah Services


Over Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, I attended two services at two very different synagogues, each with a completely different orientation towards Judaism.

On the first day of Rosh Hashanah, I went to a “secular” Jewish service in lower Manhattan with a congregation that focuses on the social justice tradition of Judaism rather than the religious aspect.  The Torah wasn’t read during the service and the term “God” was used sparingly, and only with quotes around His name.   The prayer book was self-published, and included a mixture of traditional prayers, songs by Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, and passages by Nelson Mandela and President Obama.

In the middle of the service, the spiritual leader, an attractive woman with fiery red hair, asked the members of the congregation to share their successes from the past year.  How did they made the world a better place?

One by one, the congregants stood up, telling stories of their commitment to the outside world.  One young man, dressed casually, and sporting a tattoo on his neck, spoke of volunteering at a homeless shelter.  A well-heeled couple said they quit their corporate jobs to start a charity to help sick children in Africa.   An older woman mentioned her work at the Central Park Conservancy, planting trees.  At the end of the service, the congregation left the temple with a concrete message — there are good people out there, role models, who inspire us to do better things with our lives.

On the second day of Rosh Hashanah, I attended a Modern Orthodox temple in the Upper West Side.  The members all seemed to be professionals — doctors, lawyers, and students at Columbia University — individuals comfortable in the modern world, but still attracted to the traditions of the Orthodox world.   A cloth barrier in the middle of the room separated the men and the women, right and left.   Since this was a forward-looking group, there were attempts to modernize the ways of the Orthodox movement.  While the rabbi read from the Torah on the men’s side of the barrier, it was a female spiritual leader who made the traditional Rosh Hashanah sermon from the woman’s side.

The main difference between the secular service and the Modern Orthodox service was that here — God was everywhere.   His name was repeated over and over, his power lauded and praised.  The Jewish New Year was a serious business of repenting and asking for forgiveness for our sins, in preparation for the holiest of the Jewish holidays – Yom Kippur.

One of the central High Holy Day prayers is a recitation of all of the possible sins that happened during the year, from small to large, spoken out loud, simultaneously, as a group. Everyone asks for forgiveness for all the sins, some as serious as murder, even if the individual is not directly responsible, as if the entire community is held accountable for the break in the fabric of society.

Day one, at the secular service:  There is no God.  Each individual aims to become a role model to inspire the others.

Day two, at the Orthodox service:  There is a God.  Until the world is perfect, we are all responsible for the sins of man.  We look within to see our our failings, and share it with the larger community.

Which of these is a better way of viewing the world?  In many ways, it is a question I ask myself every day when I write on my blog.  Do I want to appeal to your aspirations, positioning myself as a teacher or authority figure out to inspire you with my thoughts and good actions (I donated to the Red Cross; you should too!), or do I want to share with you my failings, letting you feel comfortable with your own imperfections (I am fearful; are you?)

Rosh Hashanah 5771

I cast my sins in the guise of bread, something so simple, so fundamental to life.

Bread.   I like that.

As it says in the Bible, “Within every bagel, there are too many carbs.  Within every good person there is sin.”

Let the birds fly away.  May 5777 be a year when the sun sparkles in the Pacific each and every day.

The Tashlich Prayer

Who is a G-d like You,
who pardons iniquity
and forgives transgression
for the remnant of His heritage?
He does not maintain His wrath forever,
for He desires [to do] kindness.
He will again show us mercy,
He will suppress our iniquities;
and You will cast all their sins
into the depths of the sea.
Show faithfulness to Jacob,
kindness to Abraham,
which You have sworn to our fathers
from the days of yore.

More about Rosh Hashanah (from 2007)

I Went to Temple in Cincinnati

There was some discussion about Sophia coming to New York for Rosh Hashanah, but I said I wasn’t in the mood, because when she is here, it requires a big readjustment in my mind, so we ended up being separated during the holidays — again.  I was home with my mother during Rosh Hashanah, and was too unorganized to find a temple to go to for services.  Luckily, I follow a female rabbi on Twitter of all places, named @RabbiBaum, who is involved with an organization named .  During the High Holidays this organization video streams Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services from Congregation Beth Adam in Greater Cincinnati .  So, for the first time in my life, I (and my mother) participated in Rosh Hashanah services via the Internet!  Talk about being geeky with God!

Conservative or certain religious Jews who won’t be thrilled with this concept of a streaming service.  It is not exactly “kosher” to be making a video of a live service on Rosh Hashanah or on Shabbat.   This temple’s brand of Judaism also wouldn’t be everyone’s cup of Manischevitz.   This is a temple serving “Judaism with a Humanistic Perspective,” and the first thing I noticed is that most of the men were without yarmulkes.  Over the Torah ark were stain-glass windows, which isn’t unusual in a synagogue, except when one is an image of the Big Bang, signifying the congregation’s adherence to science over Biblical thought.

I’ll let others get involved in the religious arguments.  I thought it was a cool and generous gesture on the part of this unorthodox temple, and it brought a bit of Rosh Hashanah into our home when otherwise we would have just ignored the holiday.  And that is a mitzvah in itself.

If you are Rabbi Baum and you are reading this post, you might want to skip the next paragraph.  No, I changed my mind.  You should read it.  You might as well know the true story of how we experienced your temples’ unique experiment.

As we all know, whether you go to synagogue or church, there is a social dimension to attending a religious service.  There is the connection to God or something bigger in ourselves, but there is also the human contact, which elicits the eternal questions about our fellow congregants, ranging from, “What type of shoes is HE wearing?” to “”She’s pregnant AGAIN?!”   Normally, you save all this gossiping until you get back home, or at least into your car.   When you are watching a service in a streaming video, the experience is more akin to watching the Oscars on TV, and you feel you have the right to talk about Nicole Kidman’s latest gown.

“No one is wearing yarmulkes in this temple.  They must be very reform.” said my mother.  “I don’t like it.”

“There’s a guy in the front row wearing a yarmulke.”

“Good for him!”

My mother is not religious at all, but she seems to be stuck in thinking that only those doing things the old-fashioned ways are the “real” ones.  The choir began to sing.   One of the women in the choir was wearing a sleeveless dress.

“She shouldn’t wear that dress to temple.”

“Why not?”

“You don’t show your arms like that on Rosh Hashanah.”

“She’s not wearing a bikini.”

“It’s just disrespectful.”

“She’s in temple singing in a choir, and we are sitting here eating breakfast, and SHE’S disrespectful?”

Oh yeah, I forgot to mention, even though we had already finished our real breakfast, we were munching on toast and jam, and drinking coffee as we were at “services.”

“Did you know when I was in Rome…” continued my mother, “…before you go into the Vatican, if you are a woman who is sleeveless, they give you a shawl to cover your arms?”

“I thought you never made it into the Vatican?”

“I heard about it from some other couple on the ship.”

“This temple is not the Vatican in Rome.  It is in Cincinnati.”

Eventually, the woman in the choir put on a sweater.  Either she was cold or she felt the evil eye of my mother on her from the streaming internet.  Whatever it was, it made my mother happy.

The synagogue had two rabbis, Rabbi Barr and Rabbi Baum.  Rabbi Baum read from the Torah.  In the temple, this is a time when most of the congregation is quiet, listening intently.

“So, this Rabbi Baum…” asked my mother. “Is she single?”

“I don’t know.”

“I thought she was your friend.”

“I follow her on Twitter.”

“So you don’t know if she’s single?”

“Do you know all the details of everyone you talk to on email?”

“Yes.  Isn’t that the normal way?”

There were about 330 people following the service.  We know that because there was a counter on the video feed.   Sometimes the counter went up, and sometimes the counter went down, especially during a lull in the service.   This made my mother chuckle.

“Uh-oh, the rabbi better tell a joke,” she said.  “We just lost two viewers.”

Thank you Rabbi Baum and Congregation Beth Adam for letting us participate.   There were other virtual congregants on Twitter during the service, which was somewhat odd, but added to a sense of a community.   I hope my talking about the experience in a true, and somewhat humorous manner, doesn’t take away from the feelings of gratitude.   The sermons about the Torah passage were inspiring, and the choir was excellent.   It was a innovative and refreshing high-tech religiously geeky experience, and actually made me WANT to attend your service in real life!

For a good year — here’s a repeat of my fake Hassidic tale from August.

Shana Tova


A Happy and Healthy New Year to all my Jewish blogger friends.

Here’s a little Rosh Hashanah primer for all you hot shiksas out there who don’t know the difference between Rosh Hashanah and Rush Limbaugh — (from Wikipedia)

“The traditional greeting on Rosh Hashanah is “Shana Tova,” Hebrew for “A Good Year,” or “Shana Tova Umetukah” for “A Good and Sweet Year.” Because Jews are being judged by God for the coming year, a longer greeting translates as “May You Be Written and Sealed for a Good Year” (ketiva ve-chatima tovah).

During the afternoon of the first day occurs the practice of tashlikh, in which prayers are recited near natural flowing water, and one’s sins are symbolically cast into the water.


Many also have the custom to throw bread or pebbles into the water, to symbolize the “casting off” of sins. The traditional service for tashlikh is recited individually and includes the prayer “Who is like unto you, O God…And You will cast all their sins into the depths of the sea”, and Biblical passages including Isaiah 11:9 (“They will not injure nor destroy in all My holy mountain, for the earth shall be as full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea”) and Psalms 118:5-9, 121 and 130, as well as personal prayers.

Rosh Hashanah meals often include apples and honey, to symbolize a “sweet new year”. Various other foods with a symbolic meaning may be served, depending on local minhag (custom), such as tongue or other meat from the head (to symbolise the “head” of the year). Other symbolic foods are dates, black-eyed beans, leek, spinach and gourd, all of which are mentioned in the Talmud. Pomegranates are used in many traditions: the use of apples and honey is a late medieval Ashkenazi addition, though it is now almost universally accepted. Typically, round challah bread is served, to symbolize the cycle of the year.”

And of course… the sound of the shofar —


Turning Over a New Leaf


I fasted today, but I didn’t go to temple for Yom Kippur.  I just didn’t feel like going.  On Yom Kippur, there is an important memorial service, and it would have been the first time going to the service for my father, and I just didn’t want to do it.  So, instead, I just broke all the rules.  I went to CVS pharmacy, bought myself a $3.99 disposable camera and walked to Hermosa Beach.  It felt very spiritual walking around the beach looking for photos to take.  Or then again, it could have just been hunger.

If you have any interest, you can see the photos here.  One warning:  the photos are not THAT interesting, and I’m not in any of them, so don’t get too pissed at making you do an extra click of the mouse for nothing.   If you’re never been this this part of the country, maybe you can get a sense of the “sleepy” beach community I’m living in right now. 


I’ve grown to like Southern California, but I find October depressing in the dry West.  I love FALL.  I love what it represents — a new beginning.  I think the time of the Jewish New Year makes a lot more sense than January 1st.   I love the change of the weather and the leaves and the new school year and the new TV season, and everything new that goes with Fall.  As I was taking my walk today, I realized that today’s weather in Los Angeles was not that much different than it was on July 4th!  Where’s the change? 

Most of my blogging friends do NOT live in California.  I know you sometimes laugh at us for being weird and electing actors to be governor, uh – TWICE.   But try to remember that the State of California has enhanced your life in many ways:  the birth of the internet, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, California Pizza Kitchen, and the word “gnarly.” 

Now it is your turn to pay us back —

Could someone help a Southern Californian who is homesick for Fall and email him a photo of a leaf or tree changing colors?

A Year Ago on Citizen of the Month:  Man in the Mirror

Yenta the Matchmaker for the Day


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) 

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

She might bring someone wonderful—-

Someone interesting—-

And well off—-

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. 


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 Month:  A Shanda (Yiddish for Shame)  (I really get Jewish at this time of the year, don’t I?)


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

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