My Father’s Tallis

Posted on June 14, 2011

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Life in the Boomer Lane’s dad was born in Poland, seven years before the start of World War I.  In addition to the massive upheaval going on throughout Eastern Europe at the time, it was additionally dangerous to be a Jew.  And to be a poverty-stricken Jew at such time indicated the potential for a very short life expectancy, indeed.  Several years after the war ended, he made it out of Poland with a doctored birth certificate that allowed him to enter the United States.

Having survived warfare in general and pogroms specifically, LBL’s father developed an attitude that served him for the rest of his life.  It was very simple: Trust no one.  He lived a small life of even smaller expectations.  From age thirteen, he went to work and he came home.  He ate and he slept.  When he spoke, he did so in a voice barely above a whisper, and he always first made sure the blinds were closed.

The members of the family that left (the ones who would survive the Holocaust) brought few possessions with them from Europe, because they owned virtually nothing.  Among them: several battered copper and brass cooking pots.  A brass pestle without the mortar.  An ornate pair of scissors that LBL’s dad proudly told her, on more than one occasion, a gentile (a non-Jew) had given to his father for some kind of service rendered. And his tallis and tefillin.  The tallis, his fringed prayer shawl, would be placed over his head and then wrapped around his shoulders when he prayed.  The tefillin, his phylacteries, would be placed at his forehead and then wound around his arm.

After LBL’s father died, she put the tallis and tefillin up in the attic, in a box that contained the pieces of her father’s life in Europe.  Yiddish language newspapers that LBL couldn’t read.  Old postcards written in Yiddish, filled with tiny writing that snaked up the side of the card.  Although LBL didn’t understand any of the words, she always felt as though the writer was trying desperately to convey something that space and time would not allow.  Photos of a pre-War Pinsk, cut from other newspapers, showing the sepia world from which her father fled.

Recently, a friend of hers told her about her father’s tallis being misplaced after his death.  His brother had been promised the tallis and was quite upset that it couldn’t be found.  LBL remembered her father’s tallis up in the attic.  She had a moment of protectiveness (How could she give such a precious memento away?) before she realized what a gift her father could give to this man. LBL offered it and her friend gratefully accepted.  She assured LBL her uncle would never know the difference.  LBL gave her her father’s tallis.

LBL’s friend left her a voice mail message the other day to say that her uncle told her how grateful he was that his brother’s tallis had been “found.” LBL’s friend added, “You made an old man very happy.”

LBL put the phone down and she thought about her father.  She’d like to believe that he is finally in a safe place, and can, perhaps for the first time ever, experience trust.  And because of that,  it would make him happy to know his tallis would, for the years to come, be wrapped around someone’s else’s shoulders.

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Posted in: aging, memoir, memories