As a child snoop, I was well acquainted with the contents of my parents’ dresser drawers. This came in handy often, like the night before a trip when my mom panicked because she couldn’t find her passport.
So, I’m not sure how I didn’t find the(prayer shawl) until my father died.
My sister Laurie was waiting for me when I arrived. Through her tears she apologized, “I’m sorry. You just missed him; it’s my fault, I told him he could go. He should go. He died about 15 minutes ago.” My brother Hal strode toward me and wrapped me in his arms as I dissolved.
Before going upstairs to see my father’s body, I hugged my mother, who sat on the couch stunned, dry eyed, and wordless.
I can’t think of that day without seeing his feet poking out from the too-short white sheet. I understood why the family was downstairs; it was too hard to see his empty, emaciated body. “I’m terribly sorry for coming late,” I told him. He couldn’t absolve me of this one last daughterly transgression.
Jewish tradition requires the body be accompanied until it is buried, but the hospice nurse was too upset to stay with him. So, I sat, quiet, hot tears streaming as I held his hand one last time. Staring at his feet I realized that they were identical to my own. “How didn’t I realize that before now?” And took comfort that I could walk with him forever in that knowledge.
When it was time for the undertakers, Hal asked me to finish putting together Dad’s clothing. His gray slacks and navy blazer, a crisp white shirt, and favorite tie were already laid out. “What else could Hal possibly mean?”
Realizing no underclothes were included, I opened the top drawer of his dresser. Briefs, socks, undershirt. Check.
Behind the underwear was an unfamiliar bag. In all my snooping years, I’d never seen it. It held a child-sized tallit and tefillin (phylacteries), both careworn. I’d never seen my dad wear either.
Daddy grew up, as far as I knew, in an Orthodox community in Roxbury, Massachusetts.
He used to say that he “converted twice,” once when his family changed synagogues and a second time to Reform Judaism, when he married my mom, who had grown up in a Classical Reform congregation.
But tefillin and a tallit? Secretly held on to since childhood? I knew that it is traditional for Orthodox Jews to be buried wrapped in their tallit. The one I found was too small to wrap him in. And it wasn’t our tradition. Plus, how could we part with this mysterious family heirloom? We decided that the tefillin should go with him but held onto the tallit.
Not long after my father died, the tallit fluttered above my head, draped across the front of an otherwise unadorned chuppah (wedding canopy), as my husband and I spoke our Jewish wedding vows. When the rabbi wrapped us in his prayer shawl, I glanced up at Daddy’s, knowing he was with us as we started our Jewish life together -- just as he’d gripped my arm at our civilian wedding shortly before he died.
A few years later, the rabbi covered our daughter in Daddy’s tallit as she was welcomed into our Jewish community. We gave her the Hebrew name “Shaula” in honor of her deceased Papa Paul.
Through his tallit, Daddy has lived to see his four youngest granddaughters as they became b’nai mitzvah.
He has been blessed to be at two of his oldest granddaughter’s weddings.
He has hugged one great-granddaughter as she was named in the same chapel where her mother, Julie, had been held by my sister, his eldest daughter, when she entered his cherished Jewish community more than 30 years earlier.
When the image of Daddy’s feet poking out from that white sheet threatens to undo me, which is more regularly than one might think after 21 years, I think about the tallit. Its silky fabric, faded blue strips and long braided fringes remind me that Daddy is still with us, always.
He’s here on Shabbat when we sing the, any time I make French toast or pick up warm bagels, when I yell at the rabbits eating my garden, and every time my kid tells me I’m weird. With the tallit in mind, I see his feet at their best, walking beside me on the beach.
I will never know why he held onto his bar mitzvah prayer shawl or what it meant to him, but I am grateful that we have it in our lives.