My Grandmother’ Tallit

It’s been five years since my daughter Anna had her bat mitzvah. In her bat mitzvah state of mind she had read trope cues as easily as ABC’s. She teased out meaning from her Torah portion, which recorded the life and death of Sarah. And she wore a tallit or a prayer shawl she picked out in Jerusalem. I’ve never felt any of the rituals my husband and I gifted her were truly mine, but my daughter didn’t think twice about accepting them. Her Bat Mitzvah was as much about her rights as a Jewish woman as it was her rite of passage.

When I look at Anna’s tallit—pink and silk and uniquely hers—I think of my grandmother whom I called Abuela. Abuela was born in Greece at the dawn of the 20th century and went to a school there funded by the Rothschilds. She learned the minimum Hebrew to recite the blessings over the Sabbath candles and did needlepoint to fill in the rest of her life. Family lore claims that she and her siblings made their way to Cuba after Greek soldiers kidnapped her sister and held her for ransom. Her father and brothers delivered the ransom on horseback and when the exchange was complete, there was just enough money left for passage to Havana. Abuela was a young teenager when she arrived in Havana.

Even in Cuba, nobody wielded a needle and thread like my Abuela. With deft rhythm and mesmerizing patterns, she conveyed a life story of painstaking work and imposed silence. Abuela sewed late into the night to make ends meet. She made my mother and my aunt frilly dresses between the sewing jobs she took in from neighbors. Abuela also crocheted her husband and her son’s tallitot—prayer shawls—for which she carefully tied the ritual fringes with sore fingers.

In America Abuela fashioned a kind of tallit for herself when she pulled the wool shawl she wore year round closer to her chest. In her small apartment she sat in a chair with stuffing peeking out of its arm that she was too tired to mend. The few times a year that she ventured to a synagogue, she stood when the ark was opened and blew kisses toward the bimah or altar as if greeting a lover. In a hoarse voice she muttered the Kaddish or the Mourner’s Prayer with her hand firmly on my shoulder so that I could not stand up and tempt fate.

When I was twelve my mother lugged a reel-to-reel tape recorder home, which she borrowed from the high school where she taught Spanish. She had planned to record Spanish lessons for the kids that she tutored on the side. But I quickly seized the recorder. The microphone that came with the machine transformed me into a roving reporter. I walked around the house inventing news about my mundane summer days.

Abuela spent most of that summer sitting on our porch, staring through the slats of the new jalousie windows. I felt that I was doing something important when Abuela intently watched me playing with the reel-to-reel. And then one day I got the idea to interview her. “Talk about anything,” I told her. Recipes, sewing, childhood stories. But mostly I wanted her to sing again. When she was a young girl she played the lute and sang Ladino songs in a lilting soprano. Her father forbade her to sing when she turned twelve.

My grandfather, Abuelo, was more than willing to take Abuela’s turn at the tape recorder. He held the microphone like a preacher and told me a story from when he was a boy in Turkey. On his way to school he witnessed a Turko soldier stab an Armenian man to death. His family left for Cuba a week later. “Why Cuba?” I asked him. Spanish was easier to learn than English for a Ladino speaker.

The next day Abuelo came back for another recording session dressed for prayer. He wound the straps of his tefillin around his left arm and placed the leather boxes on his forehead in the crook of his left arm. At twelve, I was approaching bat mitzvah age yet had no hope of winding leather straps of my own tefillin around my arm. Abuelo wore a tallit that he snagged from a local synagogue—he had to leave the one that Abuela made him with the rest of his possessions in Cuba. He sang the shacharit—as if offering that morning liturgy as his personal history. His voice started off as wobbly as the plastic reels spooling the shiny brown ribbon of tape.

His voice was stronger after he gathered the tzitzit or fringes of his tallit to recite the Sh’ma—Judaism’s central prayer. Eyes closed. Voice pleading. I joined him at the microphone. It was thrilling to sing about listening for and loving God with all of my heart and my soul and my strength. In that moment I blurted out that I wanted to be a rabbi.

Abuelo stopped singing and the only thing audible was the squeaking of the reel-to-reel tape recorder, making me cringe as if I heard nails scratching a blackboard. He dropped his tzitzit and said, “Eso es muy feo”—that is so ugly. Abuela looked up.

Turko,” she screamed at Abuelo as if he had stabbed me. Finding her voice, she said to me, “You can be anything you want.”

A few years ago Anna had a towel draped around her shoulders. She had been drying her hair. “Look Mom, my tallit,” she joked. I wished I had recorded the moment in memory of my Abuela, in honor of the future. But more importantly, I wished that Abuela could have seen her great-granddaughter happily wearing her tallit and celebrating her coming-of-age by reading from the Torah about every woman’s life.

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