Oct. 7, 2011
Safe in a father’s tallis
A Yom Kippur from childhood retains its hold.
by JENI WRIGHT

     Smells can stir up old memories. Long-forgotten and sometimes wistful memories that we wish would remain buried. It was like that one Yom Kippur, when I took some solitude away from the main synagogue and quietly slipped into the small silent sanctuary, where only a few were deep into quiet prayer on one of the holiest days in Judaism.

     There were tallitot (prayer shawls) and prayer books by the door entrance and I picked up a tallis. Having grown up in a strict Orthodox home, a tallis was something I was accustomed to seeing on the men in our religious community, but never on a woman, so it was with some uncertainty that I slowly and carefully wrapped the tallis around my head and shoulders. I sat on a bench and the tallis encompassed me. I felt safe and protected. Here, one could forget about life’s many demands and hectic schedules. Alone with one’s self, with no distractions – a time to delve into the inner soul. Particularly on such a holy day.

     The only sense that seemed to be operating for me at that time was smell. As I breathed in, I caught faint whiffs of the tallis’ scent. Tears welled in my eyes as I connected with it.

     My father’s tallis. I’m five years old and I’m hiding in my father’s long and plentiful tallis. My father is standing, davening (praying) in unison with many other men. Some are my uncles. Nearby is my brother. Also vying for tallis space. My mother, sister and aunts are upstairs peering down at the service below. I am permitted downstairs with the men because I am little. Who can see me anyway?

     Nestled comfortably between my father’s chest and tallis, I am content. The tallis feels like the wings of an angel. No harm can ever happen to anyone in here, I think to myself.It is a lengthy and monotonous Shabbat service for a five-year-old, so I stay in there and play with the tzitzit (fringes), wrapping them around Dad’s and my fingers and braiding them. There are 613 knots and wrappings on them, signifying the 613 commandments. I’m amused for a long, long time.

     Then, my father is called to the bimah. As a kohain (priest) he has a special honor and is called upon to bless everyone. The tallis is hastily pulled away from me, as I watch him hurriedly walk to the bimah and cover his head and hands with the tallis. The kohanim must be covered when they are calling for the holy presence of G‑d.

     I know it’s my father up there, nevertheless, these gentle people transform into ghostly mummified figures swaying vigorously from side to side with arms outstretched. In contrast, the soothing overtones of their deep, melancholy humming is as calming as a lullaby and my fears evaporate.

     We were not allowed to look towards the kohanim at such a holy time, but we kids always did, in the hope of catching a glimpse of angels or even G-d. There is a hushed silence in the congregation, as all listen and feel blessed by these men.

     My father returns to his bench and I to his tallis. He pulls a snuffbox out of his pocket and sniffs it. It has a strong, overbearing smell but somehow it blends into the tallis, along with Judaism, synagogue, my father, brother and uncles. The service finally ends.

     With utmost care, my father folds up his tallis. Perhaps with more care than he would fold a shirt. I’ve enjoyed a special time with my father, but, eager to play, I join my mother, sister and friends.

     What did my family do with that tallis when my father died one year later? I wonder as I sit in the sanctuary. More than likely, and according to Jewish law, it was buried with him.

     Now, some 50 years later and 7,000 miles from my hometown, I am wearing a tallis that is public property. It, too, may have such a story, or stories. It could have sheltered many an adult and child. The history may have been brief, but it is universal. Its familiar cloth and tzitzit will always be family.

Jeni Wright is a singer, music therapist and freelance writer.

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