Monsters in the Closet and Other Scary Stuff

“I can’t sleep with the closet door open.”

I made this statement on one of the rare occasions when the entire Kramer family was gathered together. My mother looked at me as if I was completely insane and said, “Really? You’re kidding!”

“No, I’m not. I’m afraid of monsters in the closet. I know they aren’t really there, but I can’t help being afraid.”

My mother continued to scoff.

Much to my surprise my older sister (Deb) who you haven’t met often, and my older brother (Steve) who you have, jumped to my defense.

“I know exactly why she’s afraid,” Deb said. “It was because of Grandma’s house.”

“Yeah,” Steve agreed. “The door with the glass doorknob.”

My mom looked at us all strangely. “What are you talking about?”

So we explained.

When my grandparents were alive we would go visit them in Belmar, New Jersey. My grandparents passed away within a few months of each other when I was about 6 years old, so my memories of them are limited. My sister is 5 years older than me, so she probably has clearer memories, but we rarely talk about them. Perhaps we should.

When we visited my grandparents the kids all stayed in one room. A small double bed filled one side of the room, and a cot lay opposite for the third little body. We alternated who would sleep in the double and who would sleep in the cot. You might think we all wanted the cot, but you would be wrong. Why?

Because the cot was right next to the scariest door in the world. The one with the glittery, diamond-shaped door knob.

 

I’m not sure where the door led. I always thought it led to the attic (shudder) but someone told me it was just a closet. When it was my turn, I would lie in that cot, the door knob inches from my non-sleeping eyes convinced that at any moment the door knob would turn from unseen hands and open to suck me into a terrifying nightmare.

We were all afraid of the door knob.

“Why didn’t you say something?” Mom asked. “Grandma would have done something.”

“We were kids, Mom,” My sister answered.

But I think it was deeper than that, I think we didn’t say anything because nobody would have believed us anyway. We would have received the same reaction then as we did on this day, nearly 40 years later.

I am convinced that my grandparent’s house had its ghosts, even if they were simply the ghosts of our imagination. I am also convinced that, if I have ever really been visited by ghosts, the visitations have come from my grandparents, my nana (Dad’s mother) and possibly a man we called Cousin Lou who may or may not actually be my relative. All I remember about him is the giant red teddy bear with the flowered belly that he gave me after winning it from the fair.

When did they visit? I will try to remember some of the occasions that add to my belief in the power of spirit, as I discussed yesterday.

  • When Nana passed away, a bird got into my brother’s tiny bedroom somehow. My mom claims the window was open, but I remember it being closed. Even if it was open, this had never happened before. Birds, in Jewish folklore, can represent a “winged soul.” This particular bird was extremely important as it got into the room a few minutes before we got the phone call saying Nana had just passed away. I will always believe Nana came to say good-bye.
  • I used to have a recurring dream that took place at my grandparents house. Sometimes we would go down into the basement of the house (a basement that I really don’t have a memory of). Usually my grandparents aren’t there, at least not visibly, but I hear their voices talking to me and telling me something. I might just pass these off as dreams except for something I learned much later in life, Deb and Steve both used to have similar dreams.
  • In a similar way, Cousin Lou often visited me in dreams of my Nana’s house, although not as often.
  • There is one day that I know all my ancestors were with me in spirit; the day I became a Bat Mitzvah. I remember the day starting out cloudy, threatening rain. This upset me, as I wanted a beautiful day. But, by the time the Friday evening ceremony rolled around, the sun shone in glorious April beauty. A gift from my loved ones. When I stood on the Bima to read my haftorah, my stomach jiggled with a million butterflies. There was a certain part of the complex Hebrew text that always sounded like something else to me. I can’t remember exactly what, but it was something like “we love you” or another comforting phrase like that. It was early on in my chanting, and as soon as I hit the phrase my heart filled with warmth and I knew that the people who would have most celebrated that day (my grandparents were Orthodox Jews) were there with me, with glowing golden smiles on their faces. My Mom said she saw me smile then. I continued with a strong voice, and was even invited back to repeat the haftorah the following year.

Of course, this could all have been the workings of a very imaginative child, but who knows? Most bumps and creaks in the night can be easily explained away, but once in a while you experience a mystery that adds to the awesome complexities of life.

So forgive me if I close my closet door before I go to sleep. You never know when something unexpected might come out.

Juxtaposition of J’s

seems to be an important letter in my life. It stands for so many things that have made me who I am today. Because of this juxtaposition of J’s, I am listing some of the important ones here, along with links to some older posts that help explain the significance. I don’t ask that you read all of them, but if you are interested in something specific please visit these posts.

Japan: The country that changed my world by making it a little wider. In that land I learned to love. I learned to live. I embraced challenges. I survived difference. I learned a language. I learned darkness. I learned flexibility. I learned about my own prejudices. And I truly lived.

Judaism: the religion I was raised in, the culture I claim, and the traditions I follow (usually). I am no longer a religious Jew. I’m not sure what I believe. But Judaism still plays a role in my belief system–in the idea that we should do good in this life simply because it is the right thing to do. Also, as a Jew, I learned about prejudice and hate and the craziness of disliking someone for being different.


Journeys: My life has been an interesting journey and I still have a road to travel.

Photo by Steve Kramer

Jesus: Wait, you are thinking, how could Jesus play a role in my life when I am a Jew? Because much of the world is guided by Jesus. I am sure that, whether or not he was the son of God, he would be crying real tears at what has been done in his name. I have been told I will go to hell for not believing in him, but I wonder what he would really say to that.


Justice: Every day I see the injustice of this world, and I try to change that even in a small way.


 

Jealousy: One of my biggest flaws, and the one I struggle with on a regular basis, is feeling jealous of others. I often envy the success of people I know, because I struggle to see the success of my own life. I am working hard to overcome jealousy and to find joy in the happiness and success of others at all times.


 

Joy: I may not always see it, but I relish the moments, the people, and the experiences that bring joy into this world.


Jasper: My dog. He has cost us a lot of money. He escapes whenever he can. He steals toys and makes messes. And yet, he looks at me with loving eyes and tries to give me hugs, all with the true Joy a dog can bring. How can I not love him.

He's not smart, but he sure is cute.

As I was looking for a picture of Jasper I found a picture of my other dog, Lizzy, who was my first baby. I include it here (despite her name beginning with L) because I believe it will bring you some JOY.

"Look, I'm sitting pretty. Now you have to give me a treat."

There you have it folks! A true juxtaposition of J’s.

Fighting Bias

 

The gym creaked with the wandering feet of swimmers, families and friends socializing between races at the weekend-long swim meet.  The air was heavy with the smell of chlorine oozing out of the pores of all the swimmers.  Some wandered with huge smiles after winning their races.  Others moved slowly with aching muscles and fatigue, damp towels draped around their necks or wrapped around their waists.  I was usually one of the latter, feeling the exhaustion of a 100 meter butterfly or a 500-freestyle race.

The multi-colored bathing suits and sweatshirts that represented various teams mingled in a damp rainbow as swimmers took this opportunity to flirt with strangers from other teams.  I was no exception, but being shy and uncomfortable in my blossoming thirteen-year-old body, I tagged along with Brenda and Dawn rather than venturing out on my own.  Both girls were younger than me but fully confident when it came to interaction with boys.  Brenda’s petite frame and deep brown eyes that glistened with flirtatiousness behind thick black lashes made boys melt.  Dawn showed the confidence of the champion breaststroker she was reflected in the movements of her tall lean body.

We managed to attract the attention of Paul and his friends, boys from a competing team.  Paul had brown hair with a wave bordering on curly and deep hazel eyes.  I loved eyes and still do.  Nothing could send a thrill deep into my stomach like eyes that seemed to go on forever, especially if they were a unique color.  Paul’s had the magic.  He was my dream guy of the moment and I was thrilled that he included me in on the conversation.  I wasn’t just a hanger-on, but I was part of it.  We all told jokes, laughed, and had a great time.

“This is really fun,” Brenda said.

“Yeah, you girls are cool,” Paul replied.

“We have to get ready for our next races,” I reminded everyone, always the responsible one.

“Do you want to hang out again later?” Paul asked.

We all readily agreed until he said one more thing which made my stomach churn, “You girls are cool and we don’t want to hang around with any Jews.”

I felt my face go pale, and couldn’t respond out of shock.  Brenda and Dawn looked at me and must have been afraid I would say something to ruin their chance with the boys.  Dawn grabbed my arm, pulling me away.

“Just leave it,” she hissed, “they’re so cute.”

Brenda used her most flirtatious voice to say, “We’ll catch you later.”

As we walked away from the smiling boys, Brenda and Dawn wiggled their bottoms and I tried not to be sick.

I remember the internal struggle I fought then, one that I have fought many times in my life.  I was the only Jew on the team, and usually one of the only Jews in my class.  I didn’t always get included with everyone because sometimes I had to leave early to go to Hebrew School.  I was accustomed to feeling left out when I had to miss practice because of the High Holidays. I was accustomed to being singled out when I had to present something about being Jewish on international days at school. I had accepted this element of my being different. I had also already experienced people hating me because I was a Jew. My mother was beaten up by a woman in front of my brother, while he was held at knife point by the woman’s son. I had been pushed off my tricycle. Being ostracized for Judaism was a part of my life, but I was also at the age where I recognized how wrong that was.

I wasn’t often flirted with by such cute boys, or at least I wasn’t aware of it.  But could I ignore the obvious hatred in his voice?  Were hormones more important than family, prejudice, history?

When I saw them flirting again I was going to ignore them, but as I walked by I heard Paul telling a Jewish joke.  I couldn’t stop myself.

In my sweetest voice I said, “It’s been really fun hanging out with you guys today.”

“Yeah,” Paul said.  “You girls are really cool.”  (I think at this point I realized what a limited vocabulary he had.)

“So then we’re friends?” I asked.

“Yeah,” Paul answered.

“So you like me?”  Paul just nodded looking puzzled.  “Well,” I paused for emphasis.  “I’m Jewish.”  I walked away with the quickest glance back that revealed shocked looks on all the faces, Paul’s in particular.

I was alone when Paul caught up with me and stammered an apology.  I gracefully accepted, feeling like a queen who had taught her royal subjects an important lesson while keeping their adoration and respect.  But we never really talked again, and I still had my own lesson to learn.

Flash forward ten years to a bar in Okayama, Japan.  I had been in Japan for two weeks, and was hanging out at Desperados with some students.  Behind me some gaijin (foreign) men played pool, the clack of the balls emphasizing their conversation held in loud American and Australian accents.  During my three years there, I could never decide who was louder, Americans or Australians (with the occasional Irish or English thrown in) but it was definitely not the Japanese (unless they were very drunk) who held quieter conversations at the darkened tables around me.

I sat across from Akemi, one of my best students who would later become one of my best friends.  Her thick long black hair surrounded the pale beauty of her Asian face that held extra character from the slight sprinkling of freckles across her nose.  Her easy smile was brightened further by rosy pink lipstick, and her laugh was one of the loudest I ever heard from a Japanese woman, sudden bursts of volcanic noise that broke the silence of even the most somber tea party.  We were playing Othello™ a game few people could beat me at in the U.S.A.  But Akemi was winning.

I remember thinking:  This is so normal.  I didn’t know they played Othello™.  I didn’t know they were so much like me.  I didn’t know they were so civilized.  I didn’t know they were so intelligent.

My thoughts echoed in my brain, berating me with the brutal reality that I too was racist.  I had somehow absorbed into my subconscious thought that Americans like me were more intelligent, more civilized and more . . . something than this unformed blob of “other” or “they,” anyone who lived a different life from my own.  I was shocked at my own bias and from that moment on have lived more fully conscious of my prejudices, fighting against them whenever they dare to make an ugly appearance.  Or at least I have tried to.

How far removed was the young woman in her early twenties, educated and exploring the world, from the adolescent Paul spouting hatred that he probably learned from his parents?  Sadly the two were related by ignorance rather than by the stronger connection of humanity.  I learned my lesson in the dim light of that foreign bar.  Did Paul learn his in the fluorescent squeakiness of a high school gym?

In Search of Faith

 

Observing the shabbath closing havdalah ritual...

Image via Wikipedia

 

Questions without answers

burn in the flame

of the Havdalah candles.

Twisted wax of blue and white

drip to the end of the Sabbath

sung out with the strum of a guitar

but my questions remain.

What does it mean to be a Jew?

Racial history of a tribal people

etched into stone

and into the flesh of an arm.

Pain of rejection

and loneliness

as you fast,

light candles,

eat special food off of pink glass plates

learn a language nobody speaks

celebrate holidays nobody knows.

Christmas carols come from other homes

but our menorah plays

Ma ozur Y’shu a ti

eight candles flickering flames

of pride

announce to all

“Jews live here.”

Always a symbol of difference

the yellow star

the pointed hat

the tallis.

But that was years ago.

My search continues.

A search that started on a cool spring night

running with friends to find

Elijah.

He never came.

We never found him.

I chanted to the memory of grandparents lost

on the bima of adulthood.

I became a woman

through the words of my haftorah

but they took on more meaning the following year

asked to repeat my performance

with no ceremony attached.

I sang with pride.

Where did my pride go?

Rejected by my community when we could not pay;

rejected by a Rabbi who could not see the value

of a star and a cross printed on the same t-shirt,

not on top of each other

but reflecting the value of

differing beliefs.

The circle of equality in difference.

Was I still a Jew?

Judaism rediscovered in the middle of Japan

a Passover celebration with Israelis

bonded by a ceremony

a language

a song.

Rejoicing over non-kosher food

and a smoke that brought us closer to heaven

floating from spirituality

and community.

Am I still part of that community?

Being a Jew is

contradiction

confliction

reality

confusion.

It is kinship and isolation.

It is daunting and authentic

It is who I am.

I am a Jew

but I am also a Buddhist.

I am a Hindu.

I am a Wicca.

I am all religions and I am no religion.

I am belief and disbelief.

I search for answers

in a world of prayer and ceremony

in spirituality that feels

beyond my grasp.

I want to dance in glory

a circle of holiness and faith,

celebrate love and essence,

rejoice in community.

I want to honor both earth and spirit.

I am Apache

I am rebel.

I am black.

I am white.

I am outsider.

I am Jew

I am lost.

I am found.

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