Shiva Guy

I am the Shiva Guy. When a member of my temple’s congregation loses a family member, it is my job to take prayer books to the

house of mourning, where at least 10 people of bar/bat mitzvah age or above pray twice daily. And eat — mostly bagels, lox and cream cheese and fruit, but those particular menu items aren’t mandatory.

Being the Shiva Guy is an odd thing for me to be doing because, as far as religious observance goes, I prefer to observe my religion from afar. Once in a while, however, my wife will ask whether I will be attending services with her in a slightly different tone and, after 12 years of marriage, some of it blissful, I will choose the opportunity to make her happy over “The Daily Show” episodes I Tivoed during the week. And if, in the process, I avoid the days of thick, tense silence that are sure to accompany a no, so be it. At the heart of every unselfish act is a nugget of selfishness.

It was on one such Shabbat where I was sitting in services, my eyelids drooping, my neck bending beneath the weight of my head as the rabbi spoke. I enjoy the content of his sermons. It is the rhythm of the speeches that act upon me like a couple of Ambiens washed down with warm milk. It was at the end of one of these sermons that the rabbi announced that the shul’s Shiva Guy, a friend, was in the hospital. The shul needed a fill-in Shiva Guy. I awoke to find my hand in the air. That is how I became the Shiva Guy.

My job as Shiva Guy entails mostly schlepping. Whenever the need for a shiva arises, I go to the shul and gather up one or two shiva kits. Each kit is housed in a nondescript, black rectangular briefcase — like a doctor’s black bag except, at this point, there’s little hope of saving the patient.

Inside each shiva kit is a stack of yarmulkes and 19 prayer books. Generations from now, archaeologists, numerologists and theologians will ponder the significance of 19 books. What does it mean? Why 19? It is, of course, because, no matter how you stack the books — upright, on their sides, as a tetrahedron — you can only fit 19 books in there. I’m sure that the archaeologists, numerologists and theologians will come up with a better explanation.

I’m also in charge of driving the Torah to the shiva house Thursday and Sunday mornings. I have been driving my only child, the light of my life, for 11 years without giving it a second thought. But put a Torah in my trunk and suddenly I’m a white-knuckled, nervous wreck. Next time, I may put the Torah in the back seat, belted in, and let my son roll around in the trunk.

I transport the kits to the shiva house where I become instantly awkward. I am not very good at talking to strangers. I am much worse at talking to bereaved strangers. After I’ve stacked the books on a table the bereaved usually thank me. I am embarrassed to say that, on more than one occasion, I have responded, “It’s my pleasure.” I’m sure that there are dumber things one could say to someone in mourning. I’m not sure what they are.

One time, I schlepped the shiva kit and the Torah to a morning service. The place was packed. I didn’t know the mourners. I was sitting at the back, uncomfortable. I could just as easily have been sitting at the front, uncomfortable, but I’m more comfortable being uncomfortable at the back. The woman told the story of how her late father had saved someone’s life in World War II. Later, over bagels and lox and fruit, the son-in-law told me about the two loves in his father-in-law’s life and how the man just didn’t have the strength to survive the death of the second one. Being the Shiva Guy has its moments.

I have also discovered some aspects of my personality about which I am less than proud. When someone dies, the temple generates an e-mail with the heading, “Condolences.” It is, in Shiva Guy parlance, the “shiva signal.” When I see this, I immediately tense up. With baited breath, I slowly reach for the mouse and double click the e-mail. The body of the letter gives the name of the person who has died, the time of the funeral, as well as the times and location of the shiva. Sometimes, however, it will say that someone has died in New York or Florida, followed by the words, “No shiva.” At this point, I let out a sigh of blessed relief. It’s sick, I know. But it’s human nature. At least, I hope it is. Otherwise, I may have to be put away. And, if I am, the shul is going to need another Shiva Guy. Any takers?

Howard Nemetz has had a moderately unsuccessful career as a television writer.

Building Up

When I heard his voice on my office voice mail, I knew right away that I’d like him. My girlfriend in San Francisco had just left
a message forewarning me of this eligible divorcé’s phone call.

"He looks like JFK Jr.," she raved.

Though he was extremely geographically undesirable, I decided to keep an open mind.

"Golfboy" (he was addicted to the sport) sounded fabulous on paper: Smart, funny, well-traveled and athletic, he had Midwestern roots and was divorced with no kids (like me), just the right age (three years my senior) and even had two little white dogs (I have one myself) that he cherished. In no time we started to e-mail each other daily, playing a never-ending round of trivia. E-mails were also supplemented by amusing phone conversations where the repartee flowed smoothly.

Golfboy lived in and was raised in a decidedly WASPy milieu. Between the nonstop golf at the country club, a family that celebrated Christmas, an older brother who was a "Jr." and a last name that was unbelievably WASPatized, I wondered if he would or could ever be Jewish enough for me. Conversely, knowing that his first wife was a blonde non-Jew made me contemplate whether this guy could be attracted to me in all my Semitic splendor.

After about three weeks of some sort of daily communication, I arrived at work and received my dream e-mail: My knight in shining armor-to-be was coming to Los Angeles! For an entire weekend? Uh-oh. Two nights and two days with a man that I’ve never even laid eyes upon? Not even a photo? I decided to put my faith in my friend and let the weekend date fall as it may.

As the days grew closer to Golfboy’s impending visit, the e-mails became more and more endearing.

"I can’t wait to see your pretty mug," he gushed. "I have a really good gut instinct about us," and similar sentiments.

I was definitely curious to meet him and loved his enthusiasm, but I wondered, could I ever live up to the image he had created in his mind? I tried to downplay my expectations.

"He’s building you up so much that you can only come crashing down," cautioned my mother, aka "Mrs. Right." "Since when does a 44-year-old, successful, straight man have trouble meeting a woman in a city full of gays?" she inquired.

Yet as the days to our big date grew closer, I noticed I wasn’t alone in the game of high expectations. Many of my friends were being set up and meeting men on the Internet and getting sucked in quickly by this insidious "build-up phenomenon."

They’d have a few great phone conversations and e-mails and then I’d hear, "I’ve met my future husband. I just have such a great feeling about this!"

Is it possible for us mere mortals to keep our feet planted firmly on the ground until we meet these guys in person and get to know them? Or must we immediately project our fantasies and create these perfect men that we so desperately want to meet?

These thoughts competed with my excitement on the day of the date. My excitement turned to nausea and my heart dropped into my stomach as I dialed Golfboy’s room at the Peninsula Hotel (classy!) from the lobby, just as we had planned.

No answer. Did he change his mind?

I turned around and there he was: Not exactly JFK Jr. (who is?) — more like a Jewish George Hamilton sans fake tan. Still, he was cute enough; and anyway, wasn’t I interested in his personality?

But my heart dropped again — this time in disappointment, not nervousness — when I caught his first look at me. It was a look that said, "Less than thrilled."

What did he expect? Bo Derek on the beach with cornrows in her hair? I thought that I had described myself fairly accurately as a Julia Louis Dreyfus type — petite, long curly hair, etc.

That weekend, we stuck to our agreed-upon schedule of activities (hiking, dinners at fine restaurants, massages at the hotel, etc.) and got along famously, as I knew we would. Although he was the consummate gentleman, sadly, it hardly was the amorous weekend that I had hoped to have. As much as I had tried to avoid the build-up phenomenon, it had hit me, too.

I was rather appalled by his perilously high level of self-disclosure (did I really need to know that he has issues of abandonment with his mother on our first weekend together?) and disappointed that throughout the entire weekend he barely made me laugh.

As I dropped him off at the airport knowing that I’d never see this man again, I realized that my mother was right. How could two people who had been fantasizing and building each other up for so long ever satisfy each other?

Next time around, I’m not going to get carried away: Fantasies are great, but there’s no room for them in the brutal world of dating.

Elizabeth Much is a partner with Much and House Public Relations, where she
runs the entertainment division. She can be reached via e-mail at