Saturday, September 22, 2007

Zeide’s Tallis

Rabbi Sokol told the story of his zeide’s tallis this evening just before Neilah. His Zeide had been a European-trained rabbi, a talmid chacham. When he died, 37 years ago, R’ Sokol was learning in Israel, and attended the funeral, on a cold February night, on the Mount of Olives.

When a man is buried in the United States, he is buried in his tallis. So he was prepared for burial wrapped in his old, yellowed tallis that he had worn for years. It protected him on his journey to Israel. But in Israel, they don’t bury in a tallis, so he was put into the ground without his old familiar protection. Instead, the tallis made its way back to R’ Sokol’s mother (amu”sh) in the States.

Then the question arose – who will wear Zeide’s tallis. Nobody wanted to wear it, since it had been wrapped around the dead body, so it went into Mrs. Sokol’s trunk of precious things. And there it sat, for 37 years.

On the first day of Rosh Hashanah this year, R’ Sokol’s uncle died. Nobody could find his tallis for burial, but Mrs. Sokol remembered her father’s tallis sitting in the trunk. Finally, it was buried, albeit not with its longtime owner, with its owner’s son, where it should protect him as his father had.

R’ Sokol went on to speculate about everyone’s tallis and how they reflect one’s personality, stained with tears from years of tefillot, twisted from someone who was under tension, unused from someone who never went to synagogue. He expanded on this theme, that each of us has, on Yom Kippur, the chance to reweave our talleisim, to reconstruct and redirect our lives, particularly as we draw to the close of Yom Kippur.

* * *

What of my zeide’s tallis? I have it, after all, in the closet.

My zeide, for one, was never called zeide. His first language was Yiddish, he had a solid cheder education in Europe – 75 years later, he still could recite the first page of Elu Metzios. But he had cut off his payess at his bar-mitzvah, and by the time he married (his first cousin) and arrived in the States two years later, they had shed all Jewish practice. My father never went to shul with his father, which led to the confusion over my being a Levi. In America, they decided, we will speak English. So Dad never used Yiddish in the home. He had to learn it to speak with his other relatives who didn’t hold the same policy. But to me, they were always Grandma and Grandpa Beckerman.

After they died, in 1985, Dad and Uncle Max cleaned out their condo. I had visited them once there (they moved to Florida in 1975, after Grandpa’s bout with double pneumonia the previous summer); the apartment was basically their one-bedroom in Boro Park transplanted – the same furniture, the same plastic dustcovers, but the food was worse. Grandma’s mind was starting to go, and she had stopped cooking, so Grandpa suddenly had to learn how to cook at age 90. He didn’t do so good. He could still play clarinet, and one of the highlights of the trip was getting to play some duets (Pleyel) with Grandpa.

So anyway, while cleaning, they found Grandpa’s tallis. It must have been the one from their marriage in 1912 in Berdichev, in the Ukraine. It’s an odd design – lined, like many frum talleisim meant to go over the head; a strip down the middle to protect the fold, and no atarah. Not even a cloth strip, just two intertwining lines of stitching to mark the top. Regular Ashkenazi tzitzis, though, even though the only atarah-less talleisim I know of today, are Lubavitch, and they have a special way of tying their tzitzis. My parents, as the more-religious children, brought it home, and put it away, figuring I would use it eventually.

Meanwhile, on a trip to Israel, my parents bought two very nice, colorful (mine has red & silver stripes, my brother’s has multicolored stripes) talleisim for us when we should grow up and marry. I still use that tallis as my main tallis. And Mitch finally got his, marrying (at the ripe old age of 38) last September.

When I got married, I thought of Grandpa’s tallis, sitting in the closet, which I had sometimes used if I were leading services in my parents’ shul. I wanted it to be at my wedding. And so it was, it was the chuppah at my wedding. My grandparents were long gone, but a reminder made an essential part of my wedding.

* * *

So there can be life after death, not only death after death. For Rabbi Sokol, whose zeide was a talmid chacham and a tzaddik, the zeide’s tallis was only useful after death for another death. For me, my zeide’s tallis, while not so useful during my grandpa’s life, because he kept it as a reminder of his wedding, from house to house to house, it became used to start another generation in a wedding. Where his wedding may have been the last religious thing he did for decades, the tallis he had then, came to us, to start us out right building a bayis ne’eman beyisrael.

It’s wearing out now, the squares of fabric at the corners are frayed, so I don’t wear it for davening much any more. But it’s still there in my closet, a bit of my Grandpa with us forever.

1 comment:

Lion of Zion said...

my grandfather was buried in bet shemesh a few years ago. he expected to be buried in his tallis, but of course the hevrah kadishah demurred. at the last minute they let my father place the tallis by his side in the grave.