The lines — or maybe they are four-sided equidistant boxes — are being drawn. In another ten days or so the charts will be tacked up on the walls of our shuls, the closest thing for many to having our names up on a marquee.
It’s the time of year for the powers that be in shuls to inscribe us in the book of seating so that we can be comfortable and effectively devote our attention in prayer to being inscribed for another year in the Book of Life.
Until I became an adult, got married, and moved out of the neighborhood and shul that I grew up in, I never fully understood the importance of the seating dynamic in shul. When I was a child, I went to shul with my father and remember sitting wherever there was an empty seat. It was only years later that I began to identify certain people in shul with their seats. That is, if they were sitting somewhere else or if another person was in their seat, something was odd and off-kilter.
Come to think of it, it is not that unusual to see people in shul on Rosh Hashanah sit somewhere other than where they usually sit all year round. And that might be because where you are positioned in shul on any given Shabbos, for example, might not be that vital or even noticeable. But then the High Holy Days arrive and where we are going to sit in shul during the yom tov davening can become an issue. Why is that?
I don’t know how it is elsewhere, but here in New York there is a fungible aspect to yom tov. People move around, move over a seat or two, move up or back a bench or a pew or two so as to be accommodating of others to some extent.
I know I have told this story here previously. About 25 years ago, when I first moved to the Five Towns, the shul I wanted to daven in on yom tov was kind of sold out. The older gentleman doing the seating sat opposite me; he looked at his diagram and then back up at me, all the while shaking his head from side to side, indicating to me that there were just no seats.
I wasn’t sure what I was going to do but then he suddenly said that I should wait a minute. I felt a sense of relief that the shul-seating volunteer had now discovered a seat for me and for my son who was 13 at the time. He pointed to one of those boxes that had a name scribbled inside it. “This person comes very late to shul,” he said. He then added, “You can sit in his seat until he arrives and by that time someone else will have left and you can sit in that seat.”
Doesn’t sound like much of a plan today, but somehow back then it seemed OK, or at least workable, so we went with it. If you remember what happened next, that’s good; if you don’t, maybe I will tell the whole story someday soon. Or if you really don’t know you can ask my friend Meir Krengel who asks me each year if I am going to repeat this story. So the answer to that question this year is yes and no, I suppose.
Each year, the portion of the Torah that is read prior to Rosh Hashanah is Nitzavim, which begins as follows: “You are standing firmly today, all of you together before G-d, your G-d.” Isn’t it interesting that the Torah describes us all as standing before G-d as an allusion to Rosh Hashanah, while our main preoccupation at this time of year is all about where we are going to sit?
In the last week we attended two weddings, a Shabbos sheva berachos, and three bar mitzvahs, and they were all wonderful, even fantastic and enjoyable celebrations. But we also attended two funerals, and the passing of these two people, while not connected to one another, is still weighing heavily on me despite the predominance of the simchas.
We lost a great man and a dear friend in Milton Kramer of Far Rockaway. There were a lot of things that contributed to Milton’s pleasant demeanor. I like to think of this generation of ours as the most transitional in the history of the world. There is no doubt that the things we have seen and experienced over these last 70 to 100 years represent a change that the world had not seen in the prior 5,000+ years since the creation of the world.
These last 100 years were really something else, and Milton Kramer, at age 99 and a half, was deep into his 100th year. So he had seen a lot of things and had observed and experienced an immense amount of change in the course of his lifetime.
When I saw the email on Sunday about Milton passing away, it was a jolt, and I was momentarily aghast. And then the next day on Monday, the day of his funeral, I wondered why I reacted the way I did if, after all, Milton was nearly 100 years old, had lived a stellar and accomplished life, and leaves behind a beautiful family.
Then I settled on the idea that the next time I would go to Congregation Shaaray Tefila in Lawrence, Milton would not be there, and the reality and absence will take some time to adjust to. Milton was our friend and always expressed concern when that sentiment was warranted. I experienced a moment of exhilaration when I would see Milton getting into his car after shacharis when he was already into his nineties and driving all the men in their seventies and eighties back home after the daf yomi shiur and the morning minyan.
Milton was always on his game and rarely failed to refer to something written in these pages that he either agreed with or had a different opinion about. So, how close of a friend was I? Well, we shared many of the same interests as well as an affinity and kinship with the worldwide Chabad movement and the Lubavitcher Rebbe. You could not discern that by simply looking at Milton, but I guess you cannot superficially figure that out about me either, and perhaps that was just one of the things we had in common.
I jotted down some notes during the levayah, and it occurred to me that I was indeed a good friend of Milton’s because many of the stories that his children and grandchildren relayed were some of the same stories I heard over the years directly from Milton.
Milton was not just a mainstay at Rabbi Yehoshua Kalish’s daily daf yomi shiur at Shaaray Tefila, but Milton saw to it that he was the first one there each morning to put up the coffee and to make sure that there was an ample supply of milk and sweetener for the attendees.
Milton started learning the daf at the age of 76, almost a quarter-century ago. Milton Kramer served in the U.S. Air Force in World War II, and one of his sons said that he was indeed a great Zionist, a patriot, saw Babe Ruth play baseball, and easily recalled the day Israel’s independence was recognized by the United Nations.
During the Big War he was stationed in Africa. He was probably the only Jew in his unit and certainly the only Orthodox Jew. His 250 comrades, he used to say, did not hesitate to let him know about their disdain for Jews, but that did not stop Milton from putting on his tefillin and davening each morning.
One of the speakers at the funeral recalled how his unit stationed in Algeria came under a particularly intense bombardment from enemy planes that shook his comrades to their core. Some in the unit at the time pleaded with him, “Kramer, put your little boxes on and pray for us.”
One son said that whenever he would call and ask his father how he was doing, his standard answer was, “Good. Percolating.” He that he looked up the dictionary definition of the word and said that it means to be on the move, to be lively and effervescent.
Milton Kramer was all those things and more. As his grandson, Rabbi Moshe Yosef Blond said, his grandfather’s soul is percolating.
Judy Bennett, A’h
Last week, Judy Bennett lost her battle with an impossible illness, and we all lost a very dear and close friend. Judy and her husband, Allen, may he live and be well, were my brother’s mechutanim. We became good friends and big fans of their wonderful family.
Judy was unique and special. She was giving and energetic and, as it was reiterated at her levayah last week, she was never too busy or preoccupied to help out her children, a neighbor, or anyone who needed something done expeditiously.
She was a powerhouse on a multiplicity of levels, and the lessons learned and the way of life that she imparted to her family through her actions will have an impact for generations.
When you were in Judy Bennett’s presence, you felt like there was something extraordinary going on. She exuded an enthusiasm for life, for doing things and getting them done, and that is probably why the loss hurts that much more.
Her absence will leave a void that will be difficult to fill for Allen, the family, and, indeed, all of us. With the shivah coming to a conclusion on Thursday, mourning her passing moves to the next level. If there is any solace, it is that the pain, the suffering, the trips to the doctors and the treatments are now no more. As people of deep and abiding faith, we understand Judy is now enjoying a life on a different and higher realm that we believe in, but one that is difficult to fathom. She led an exemplary life filled with wall-to-wall goodness.
Judy was deeply loved and is sorely missed. May her memory be a blessing for her family, her friends, and all of Klal Yisrael.