Sandell Morse's piece "Papa's Tallit" originally appeared on Ruminate's online space The Waking on August 11th, 2020.
Papa, my grandfather, stands in front the sink as if it were an altar. I press my back to the wooden door frame. Papa kisses each side of the collar of his tallit, and as he spreads the prayer shawl high above his head, I see an angel’s wings. Papa has already wound tefillin, leather straps, the first seven times around his forearm and hand, and the second around his head. There are two leather boxes, one on his biceps, another on his forehead, each holding a tiny parchment with verses from the Torah. Papa recites the blessing he must say before wearing his tallit, and like most Hebrew blessings, only a few words at the end change. I chant along inside my head saying the only words I know: Baruch atah Adonai eloheinu… Papa runs the tzitzit, knotted ritual strings tied to the four corners of his tallit, through his fingers, a reminder that he must observe God’s commandments.
I am eleven, and I have been watching Papa wind tefillin and wrap himself in his tallit since I learned to toddle and stand beside him. I will learn much later in life that for all those years, we were breaking God’s commandments, one that prohibited me, a girl, from watching Papa pray, and another that forbade worship in a toilet. It was also a good thing I had no idea what Papa was saying because every morning he thanked God he was not born a woman.
Now, as Papa davens, I fall down into his prayer, and the music of centuries enters my body. I sway back and forth along with my grandfather. It is what Orthodox men do, bowing over and over to what is holy.
I see our reflection in the mirror, my blue-green eyes and curly light-brown hair, Papa’s soft-brown eyes and gray comb-over. I smell the sweet scent of the apple tobacco he keeps in a pouch in his pocket. We are both living inside a house where the air is thick with my father’s anger. My father screams, yells, and puts his face up close to mine: “You’re no good, you hear me? No good.”
I am Papa’s angel. I think Papa and I pray in a toilet because my father does not disturb us here.
My friend Carol is learning Hebrew and studying for her Bat Mitzvah. It’s new, so girls can have a ceremony like boys. I want one. “No,” my father says. “You’re Reformed, not Orthodox.”
“Carol’s Conservative,” I say.
“I don’t give a damn,” my father says. “None of that mumbo jumbo.”
He means Hebrew. The words “mumbo jumbo” are also racist, but I don’t know that.
Now, Papa is long gone; I am a grandmother myself, and I am shopping for a tallit. At sixteen, Raina, my granddaughter, will become a Bat Mitzvah. I followed my father’s path to assimilation and a minimal Jewish identity. None of my three sons went to religious school or had a Bar Mitzvah. Raina’s dad, my second son, does not practice. Her mother calls herself a lapsed Catholic. No religious school in that family either, until Raina surprised us all and set her sights on a Bat Mitzvah. Her parents joined a nearby Reform synagogue in Denver, Colorado, and Raina began her studies. At thirteen, she memorized her Torah portion, but she could not make meaning out of the text. This commentary is essential to Jewish learning, for in becoming a Bat Mitzvah Raina was asking to join a community that had argued with the text for centuries. Her Bat Mitzvah class graduated without her. Determined, she continued her studies with Cantor Regina Heit, a woman who tucked Raina under her wing. Cantors sing the prayers, and I would guess that Cantor Heit and Raina connected through music. Raina has a clear soprano, and she loves to sing.
Inside Kolbo, a store in Brookline, Massachusetts that sells fine Judaica, tallitot are arranged according fabric. I remember the rough wool of Papa’s tallit and the string tzitzit. Here, on this rack, the tallitot are pure silk. Raina has blue eyes, light-brown hair, and a smile that lights her face. She will wear an ivory-lace dress. I choose cobalt-blue with a hand-painted scene of the heavenly city of Jerusalem along one border. On the plane from Logan Airport in Boston to Denver, I open my oversized purse again and again. Yes, the tallit is there.
In a room adjacent to the sanctuary inside Temple Emmanuel, Cantor Heit wraps my granddaughter in her cobalt-blue silk tallit. Raina traces the outline of a golden dome. “Grammy, it’s unbelievably beautiful,” she says.
Cantor Heit recites the blessing, first in Hebrew, and then in English. I catch words: “time,” “space,” “holiness.” I feel them all, the time of generations, the space of mystery, the holiness of this moment.
I am seventy-four, becoming a Bat Mitzvah. I am a writer, a teacher, daughter, wife, mother, grandmother, friend, and lifelong learner. There were two other times in my adult life when I began my studies for a Bat Mitzvah, then failed to follow through. When my dear friend Rabbi Lev told me that a Bat Mitzvah for a seventy-four-year-old grandmother did not have to look like a ceremony for a thirteen-year-old, I was on my way. I studied Torah in English; I thought and wrote about values I wanted to pass on, integrity, honesty, compassion. My grandchildren and I read and emailed about the books we chose, all with themes that touched on family, ethics, and overcoming obstacles. Because my granddaughter Nina and her father lived with us, she and I recreated an old recipe my father remembered from childhood. He’d called it velvet pudding, and the internet yielded. My Bat Mitzvah was about family connection over generations. It was about passing on Jewish values which are human values.
My ceremony takes place just three weeks after Raina’s Bat Mitzvah in my home in Maine. I read my Torah portion in English, and as my midrash, I read from a short story I wrote that interprets the story of Adam and Eve through a feminist lens. Raina wraps me in my tallit, and I feel the weave, the generations of women who did not get to wear one, the men who did. A tallit is God’s warm embrace; it is our community’s warm embrace; it is my granddaughter’s warm embrace.
I am among family and friends, some Jewish, some not. My sons are here, one divorced, two with their wives. My three granddaughters and my grandson are here. It is a Saturday evening, time for the Havdalah service that ends Shabbat. That afternoon, my grandchildren and I filled small mesh bags with whole cloves, whole nutmeg, and cinnamon sticks. Now, my grandson hauls back and tosses those bags into the crowd, and his small rebellion brings a smile to my lips. He is ten, and all weekend, he has been trying to find his place among my three vibrant granddaughters, all older and more outgoing than he. I hold a spice bag to my nose and breathe Shabbat’s sweetness along with the scent of the spices. The apple scent of Papa’s tobacco hovers as if carried on an angel’s wing.
Sandell Morse’s nonfiction has been noted in The Best American Essays series and published in Creative Nonfiction, Ploughshares, the New England Review, Fourth Genre, ASCENT, Solstice, and Tiferet among others. She has won the Michael Steinberg essay prize, been nominated for Best of the Net, and two Pushcart Prizes. She is the author of The Spiral Shell: A French Village Reveals it Secrets of Jewish Resistance in World War II, a memoir. She lives in Maine. Her website is sandellmorse.com. You can order her book here: https://sandellmorse.com/the-spiral-shell/.
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