the writing and photography of Neil Kramer

Tag: shiva

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.


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.”

Man in the Mirror


Every Friday night, a group of Jewish men meet in the apartment building I grew up in and greet the Sabbath.  Most of the men are older or find it difficult to travel to a temple.  Traditionally, you need ten men to form a “minyan,” the group that prays together.  In Judaism, praying in a group during Shabbat is considered more important than praying alone (sorry ladies, traditional Judaism doesn’t count women as part of the minyan). 

I’m not very religious and don’t go to temple very often, but I was honored to be asked to join the minyan for the night.  The leader of the group said it would be a good opportunity for me to say “Kaddish,” the traditional prayer said for the deceased.   I can read Hebrew and know the prayer, but I’ve never stood in front of a group of religious men and said Kaddish out loud in honor of my father.  It was an experience as powerful as my bar mitzvah.   The ancient text praising G-d really leapt off the page for me.  During the service, Kaddish is said three times.  During the first time, my voice was uncertain and croaky, so the leader said the prayer along with me.  But by the last reading, I found my confidence and read it in a strong voice.

When I returned to my apartment, I felt nervous energy coming from my mother and Sophia.  My mother was going through a pile of my father’s paperwork.    He was a real “paper saver” who kept bills and receipts from decades ago.   I showed my mother how to use the shredder I bought my father last year, something he never even plugged in.

Sophia was involved in another matter – our trip home.  When we learned that those so-called “bereavement fares” were a joke (and cost more than the regular fares), we used our American Airlines frequent flier miles to come to New York.    Earlier that day, we learned that if we wanted to, we could make a multi-day stopover anywhere in the continental U.S. on the way back.   Sophia said we could use a few days of rest after the last few weeks of stress and sorrow.  We asked my mother to come along wherever we went, but she wanted to go back to work.   I went through my list of bloggers, thinking whom to visit, but we decided on Albuquerque because I saw that they are having a world-famous International Balloon Festival next week.   We booked the flight, but then we realized the most of the hotels were already filled.  So, when I came back from services, Sophia was all frustrated from trying to find a hotel.   She asked for my help, but I told her I was exhausted.   The week’s tensions were finally hitting me.  Until now, we had all been too busy to feel tired.   From the minute we arrived in New York, it’s been visits to the hospital, arranging for the funeral, and sitting shiva.  I felt my body collapsing and went to my parents’ room and quickly fell asleep.

The next morning, I woke up in the same bed.  Sophia was sleeping next to me.  My mother was asleep in the living room.   It was pretty early in the morning, but the New York City Sanitation trucks were already rolling outside.   I had a morning hard-on.   I moved against Sophia and she told me to get lost.  “We’re separated, remember?”  Besides, she was up half the night looking for hotels in Albuquerque and was upset that I woke her up.   I went to take a shower.

I turned on the water and stepped inside the shower stall.  It was nice to feel the water against my back.  I’d been so tense.  Still hard, I started playing with myself.   I looked down at my penis and laughed — I remembered being in the exact same spot doing the exact same thing when I was fifteen years old.   Maybe I was just too tired from the last two weeks, but for some reason, after a few minutes, I lost interest in what I was doing.  That would never have happened to me when I was fifteen.

I stepped out of the shower and dried myself off.    Through the closed door, I could hear that my mother was now up.    I could hear the grinding of the shredder ripping up my father’s receipts from 1995.  I could hear that Sophia was now awake also.  I could hear her watching the “Alias” episode that she had taped on my my mother’s ancient VCR.   Well, for a minute, at least.  Then I could hear her telling my mother off for switching channels and taping a Food Channel show and the cable menu instead.

With my cock still up, I couldn’t leave the bathroom… just yet.  I wiped the “fog” from the bathroom mirror and looked at myself standing there.    While we were sitting shiva, we had covered all the mirrors — as is traditional.  Now that the mourning period was over, was my father looking down at me now from heaven?   Do I even believe in that stuff?  And if he is, couldn’t the same be said for my Grandma and my late Aunt Ruthie?  Jeez, are all of my deceased relatives seeing me now with an erection?  How embarrassing. 

But It didn’t seem weird at all to think of my father as I looked at my penis.  After all, the male circumcision is what bonds the Jewish male to the Jewish people.   I remember when I was a little kid, I used to take a shower with my father.  I remember looking forward to the day when I could have hair on my chest and a man’s penis hanging there, not a boy’s penis.  Suddenly, it occurred to me that, as the only son, I’m now the “man of the family.”  But what does that mean?   My father was so much more of a “man” when he was my age.  He had a steady job, a steady marriage, and a son. 

“You have none of these.” I thought I heard my penis say to me.

“You’re right,” I said.   

"You know it’s Rosh Hashana in a few days," my penis continued.

"I do."

"The Jewish New Year is the ideal time to make changes in your life.   You can start to become the man you want to be."

My wants as a man have so far been pretty simple so far:  good Chinese food, the open thighs of a woman, and a subscription to HBO.   Maybe it was time to become as accomplished a man as my father.  To know what it actually means to be a man.

"You stood up and said Kaddish at the minyan.  That’s a good start." said my penis, being encouraging. 

"Thank you," I told my friend.

Sophia knocked on the door.

“Hurry up, Neilochka.  I need to use the bathroom.  And… who are you talking to anyway?”

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.

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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