Stories We Tell: My Grandfather's Kittel

Judaism has a deep and rich tradition of storytelling, of passing down stories from one generation to the next. To carry on that tradition, Stories We Tell, from, will share a new story with you every Thursday. Whether you listen while driving to work, preparing Shabbat dinner, or taking your kids to school, each episode will give you a new story to reflect on and discuss with the people in your life. Stories We Tell is a project of the Union for Reform Judaism, a leading voice in the discussion of modern Jewish life.

In the early 1900s, an elderly Jewish man named Shmulik prays at his synagogue on Yom Kippur. He suddenly faints, only for a fellow congregant to offer him his kittel (traditional ritual garb) to keep him warm. The grandson of that congregant, Rabbi Jonathan Biatch, reflects on this story and how it connects to being a compassionate, caring, and dedicated person to those we cherish the most.

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[URJ Intro] Welcome back to Stories We Tell, a podcast from Judaism has always had a deep and rich tradition of storytelling, passing our stories down orally from one generation to the next. And here each week, we do just that, sharing a story with you that you can share with your family, your friends, or just to listen to on your own. This week, we hear the story "My Grandfather's Kittel" from Rabbi Jonathan Biatch, the rabbi at Temple Beth El in Madison, Wisconsin. Go Badgers.

[Rabbi Jonathan Biatch] In the intimate little shul or synagogue where my grandfather worshipped, there was an older man who had left Lithuania years before my grandfather and many of his compatriots emigrated from Europe. His name was Samuel Katz, and they called him Shmuel K. Or sometimes they called him Shmulik. And although he was frail, he was usually a strong worshipper whose resounding voice, often off pitch, could surely be differentiated from among the throng of men who usually prayed in the minyan, the quorum of worshipers needed for Jewish prayer in some synagogues.

Shmulik immigrated to Minneapolis with a wife and some grown children. His wife died of pneumonia one winter, and his children-- they moved to other parts of the city when they got married, leaving Shmulik alone in the heavily Jewish neighborhood where he had originally settled. His children were very good about visiting, however. They venerated him as a widowed father.

It was on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, one year. It might have been the Yom Kippur War just prior to the end of World War I. There was great commotion in the shul that day. It was quite crowded.

Many of the young soldiers who had gone off to war would soon be reunited with their families. That was the news that had come down, and the young heroes who died in battle-- they were remembered in tears and sorrow. So it was a day of great emotion and anticipation.

Naturally, Shmulik attended the synagogue. And although it was cool outside, inside the shul, it was quite warm and close. And Shmulik found his traditional place to pray in one of the room's corners. That day, however, his voice was not very loud, but no one paid him much notice. There was a lot on everyone's mind.

During Shacharit, which is the name of the morning worship service, Shmulik was called to the Torah for one of the aliyot, one of the honors of coming to the reading table and, before a section of Torah was presented, offer a public blessing thanking God for the privilege of Torah study. In that shul, such things were auctioned off before the holiday, of course, and Shmulik could never afford it. It was, however, one of the wealthier men who bought the honor and, for some reason, felt some pity on poor old Shmulik and gave the honor to him. So Shmulik was particularly happy that day.

In the early part of the afternoon and all of a sudden, Shmulik fainted, passed out, collapsed, and fell to the floor. When the other men came to check on him, he was conscious, but shivering as if in deep throes of fever. No one knew what to do except to summon a doctor and hope for the best. They did not even want to move him, lest someone be liable for hurting him.

My grandfather came over to him, worried about his friend. He saw Shmulik shivering-- not a bad sign, or so my grandfather apparently thought, but Shmulik needed help. So my grandfather decided to cover Shmulik with his kittel, the white linen robe which my grandfather received on the day of his wedding and which he wore on High Holy Days and Jewish festivals. My grandfather's kittel had grown faded from use and had this large wine stain down the front of it from when he, as a nervous groom, spilled the wine from his wedding on it.

Anyway, my grandfather removed his kittel and placed it over Shmulik to help warm him from his chills. Someone else came over to offer some brandy. They found some in the closet, even on Yom Kippur, and somebody else brought some water from the rain barrel outside.

Slowly, Shmulik recovered and was able to sit up and thank his friends. He eventually rose to his feet and began his short walk home, still using my grandfather's kittel to keep warm and protected. His fellow worshipers watched him as he walked down the road toward his small apartment home.

That Yom Kippur afternoon was the last anyone saw of Shmulik alive. You see, he had gone home, prepared his meager evening meal to break his Yom Kippur fast, and then gone to bed and died peacefully in his sleep. When they needed a minyan for the next afternoon and evening worship, they came to his apartment and discovered him in his bed and still wearing the kittel that my grandfather had provided for him as a warm coverlet.

My grandfather did not ask for his kittel in return, but not for the reason you may think. You see, he suggested that his kittel become Shmulik's tachrichim, the special burial garment worn by Jews. And everyone, including Shmulik's children, agreed that this garment, which had been to Shmulik a protection in life, would now serve as a valuable protection to Shmulik in death as well.

And so Shmulik's funeral was the last time that my grandfather saw his kittel, the one with the wine stain down the front of it. But now, this worn, ivory-colored, aged, and yet comfortable robe, which had been used for many earthly celebrations and observances, would serve a necessary and appropriate purpose for eternity.

[URJ Outro]After hearing the story "My Grandfather's Kittel," I am wondering if there's ever something that you've given away that you didn't want back because you knew it was right where it needed to be. If you want to share that with us, we'd love to hear about it on social media. You can find us at, and on Twitter, our handle is @ReformJudaism.

And thanks for listening to Stories We Tell. If you enjoyed this week's story, please subscribe and rate and review us on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts. You can always find new episodes every Thursday on

And don't forget to visit to learn a little bit more about Jewish rituals or culture or holidays and more. Stories We Tell is a project of the Union for Reform Judaism, a leading voice in the discussion of modern Jewish life. And until next week, L'hitroat!