First Edition features new original works by Northern California Jewish writers. Appearing the first issue of each month, it includes a poem and an excerpt from a novel or short story.
Ed Kramer was an unlikely candidate for sainthood. As an accountant specializing in estate management, his job was to make sure his rich clients kept as much of their money for themselves as possible. His annual donation to the Salvation Army was strictly a clothes-closet-clearing exercise performed close to tax time. As far as his wife June knew he had never contributed to a blood bank, a food bank or even a sperm bank. He hadn’t helped out in a soup kitchen on Thanksgiving, raised funds for charities, read to the blind, tutored inner city kids, or rescued a greyhound, all of which she had done over the years. Although Jews were enjoined to give away a significant percentage of their earnings to the needy (“until it hurts,” said Maimonides), Ed wasn’t the tithing type.
Nor did he enjoy spending money on himself or his family. Recently, when their downstairs toilet wouldn’t flush, he argued against having it fixed, saying that two toilets for three people were more than enough. June was proud of the fact that she eventually bought a copy of Plumbing for Dummies and fixed it herself. For all that he was a good provider and loving husband and father, she had long ago gotten used to having a tight-fisted, bargain-hunting, bottom-line-oriented man for a mate.
So she was surprised when he stopped at one of the charity tables in Temple Shalom’s entranceway to sign up as a potential bone marrow donor. It happened on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year for Jews and one that Ed Kramer looked forward to weeks in advance, fasting rather than feasting being more in tune with his minimalist instincts. It was a time when even those members of the congregation who didn’t really believe in God prayed fervently to be written into the Book of Life for the coming year. (Why take a chance?) June knew that her husband’s gesture wasn’t just a negotiating ploy with the Almighty — he was a man of strict principles, something she had admired about him ever since they had met in art school twenty-five years earlier.
Less so June herself, who had gulped down a surreptitious breakfast of orange juice and cereal that very day. By early afternoon, when her head would feel as empty and percussive as a bongo drum for lack of caffeine, she knew she would sneak out of the service to get a cup of coffee or two — she thought of it as medicine at that point, which was allowed — and maybe a little something else. Fasting wasn’t her idea of a holiday, religious or otherwise. She joked that she was a “lapsed atheist” in modest rebellion against her leftist parents’ fierce secularism. For nearly two years in her mid-teens she had recited the Sh’ma twice a day as prescribed (though not, to be sure, for girls), kept kosher, insisting on separate sets of dishes and silverware her parents couldn’t “contaminate,” as she put it to them, and dressed in long-sleeved blouses and ankle-length black skirts even in summer and at a time when hemlines were becoming downright vestigial — mostly, she knew even then, to scare the bejesus out of them. It had worked. Her parents had sent her to a therapist–they believed devoutly in therapy–but she only relented when they threatened to have her “rescued,” as they put it to her, by a former Hasid turned cult deprogrammer.
The Kramers had joined Temple Shalom after they moved to the suburbs in search of public schools that their son Jeremy could enter without having to be patted down by a cop for weapons. The congregation was relentlessly progressive. The license plate on its gay president’s Porsche read FAYGELE. So June had hoped that among the reforms of such a Reform temple–along with a “modern” prayer book that blessed the Palestinians equally with the Israelis and represented God as feminine at every other mention of His/Her name — might be a relaxation of the injunction to fast. But it turned out that Reform Jews fasted as strictly as their Conservative and Orthodox brethren — for twenty-five hours, in case someone’s watch was running fast.
At least the synagogue — all blond wood, amply-cushioned benches and ribbons of colored light streaming through modernistic stained-glass windows–was comfortable, perhaps too comfortable. The previous rabbi, a tall, silver-haired man who had struck it rich with a best-selling set of how-to-be-Jewish videos he marketed under his own Yidvid label, had recently resigned under pressure, having been caught red-handed (red-penised, to be precise) shtumping the young and, adding insult to adultery, goyishe wife of Temple Shalom’s treasurer on the thickly carpeted bima directly in front of the Holy Ark that housed the sacred Torah. By tacit agreement everyone used the irony-laden Yiddish word to avoid seeming too censorious about voting to sack him. Everyone except Ed Kramer, that is, who found nothing ironical in the situation.
“Oh, come on, Ed,” sultry Helen Baskin, who sold half the homes in their town on a wink and a smile, had challenged him. “The man’s divorced. Cut him some slack. You’ve never shtumped?”
“Location, location, location,” Ed had said, wagging his index finger at her three times.”
If the old rabbi was good-looking in a bland way, as though God was running low on both imagination and clay, the new one, short, fat and pasty-faced, with large ears and, behind thick glasses, novelty-store eyeballs that were all the more striking because his face was the only part of him visible over the pulpit, was clearly an overreaction. It was hard to imagine him shtumping anyone anywhere. He was a Holocaust survivor, the only one of his large Slovakian family to survive, and he led the congregation through the prayer book in a juicy Slavic accent without any of the judicious cuts his predecessor had made to allow some members of the congregation to catch part of the World Series, which inevitably coincided with the holiday and made unlikely martyrs out of the few Jewish players who refused to participate. Ed, Brooklyn-born and Long Island raised, remembered his Orthodox grandmother setting out an extra plate of food on Passover, traditionally for the prophet Elijah but in her heart for Sandy Koufax.
As if he had spied Ed picking up a donor pledge form, in his sermon the rabbi spoke about tsedakah, the Jewish concept of charity. He said that of all the 532 commandments Jews were enjoined to perform, it was the most important. Some of the sages held that in God’s mind it was worth all the others combined, since it alone had the power to cancel sin. “Give even if you don’t really want to,” he quoted one of them as saying, “for if you do your heart will surely follow.”
By late afternoon, with the windows and doors closed for the climactic evening service and the entire congregation pressed together in fervid communion, the room had become hot and musky. Stomachs growled on empty, hemorrhoids acted up, deodorants wore out. Eyes closed, moving his lips to the final silent prayer and rocking back and forth in the ancient way, one of his pants pockets turned endearingly inside out, the rabbi was backlit by horizontal rays of light that transformed his ears into translucent pink conches. Standing, the congregation caught his rhythm, rocking faster and faster and stirring the dust motes that the sunbeams lit up into a growing frenzy. The low rays caught the tips of the two huge floral bouquets in front of the twin pulpits, which were artificial to preserve a scent-free environment but were changed weekly for the sake of appearance. They picked out the gold and silver threads in Ed’s elaborately embroidered pillbox of a yarmulke, a bar mitzvah gift from his other grandmother that he removed once a year from a purple velvet pouch embroidered with a gold Star of David. June thought that the hat made her husband, dark-haired and complexioned, tensile-thin, with a scimitar of a nose slicing between soulful brown eyes spaced closely together, look like the undernourished pasha of a tiny landlocked emirate, the only one without any oil.
“The gates are closing, night is here,” the congregation chanted at the end. “The gates are closing slowly. The gates are closing.”
Afterwards, the Kramers walked in silence to their car, feeling absolved and at peace with the world. Ed broke his fast with one of the PowerBars he stored in the glove compartment for quick energy. Then he stripped off his jacket and tie, unbuttoned his dress shirt to reveal a Superman T-shirt (“Faster than a speeding bullet”) that Jeremy had given him for Father’s Day, bussed June on the cheek and, in the red-and-white sneakers he always wore no matter what the occasion, set out to run home at a brisk pace. Unlike Superman he kept his glasses and yarmulke on.
Richard Michael Levine is the author of the 1982 best-selling nonfiction book “Bad Blood: A Family Murder in Marin County.” He has written articles for many national publications, including Harpers, Atlantic Monthly and Esquire. “The Man Who Gave Away His Organs” is an excerpt from his new short story collection of the same name, recently published by Capra Press. Levine lives in Oakland.