Reciting Kaddish, As a Daughter by Judy Bolton-Fasman

The night before my father’s funeral, I found a tattered prayer book from my Yeshiva days. It was small and square, the kind of prayer book I’ve seen women praying with at the kotel. Its filo-thin pages suggested a false modesty that diminishes a woman’s place in the Jewish world. That siddur was also thick with line after line of tiny Hebrew letters. I lay down on my bed and read through the Kaddish prayer for my father, something that was unheard of for a woman to do 50 years ago.

Saying the Kaddish for a loved one used to be an all boys club. No son, no Kaddish — unless you paid a man (yes, there is still such a thing) to recite the Kaddish for the 11 months a child mourns a parent. Recently, there was a case of gender segregation and Kaddish discrimination at an ultra-Orthodox cemetery in Israel. A woman named Rosie Davidian was denied the right to eulogize her father at his funeral. Ms. Davidian took her case to the Knesset to campaign for women to grieve as they see fit. An invitation quickly followed, asking her to read her father’s eulogy on a popular radio show where millions heard her words.

My father was buried on the eve of Rosh Hashanah and I had the honor of eulogizing him. The next day I was part of the overflow crowd — the common folk who didn’t pay for the pricier sanctuary tickets across the hall. One of the rabbis met my eye from the bima. She nodded in sympathy as I said the Kaddish in front of 800 people, so nakedly, so publicly for the first time.

Since leaving Jewish day school, I had wandered through the various branches of Judaism and settled on practicing Conservative Judaism. At the time of my father’s death, I decided to attend a daily Conservative minyan for 30 days to say the Kaddish for him. It was almost Thanksgiving when I realized I had gone long past my original self-imposed deadline. As I wrote in my journal:

I’m both surprised and fulfilled that the daily recitation of the Kaddish has become part of my days. In remembering my father every day, I have an ongoing dialogue with him. I have space and time to contemplate my life as a mother and a wife and a daughter.

My year of Kaddish so deeply impressed me that, ever since, I’m always on the lookout for father-daughter Kaddish stories. While researching my memoir I came upon a story that took place in 17th century Amsterdam. A man with one daughter and no sons planned ahead for his Kaddish. Before he died, he arranged for a minyan to study at his house every day for 11 months. At the conclusion of studying Torah it is customary to say a version of the Kaddish, which allowed his daughter to recite the Kaddish in an adjacent room as the male students responded “amen” to her prayer.

Despite patriarchal obstacles, the Kaddish has always belonged to women. Henrietta Szold, the daughter of a rabbi and founder of Hadassah, was the oldest child in a family of eight daughters and no sons. She declined a male friend’s offer to say the Kaddish in her place when Szold’s mother died in 1916. Szold wrote in a letter that year:

The Kaddish means to me that the survivor publicly manifests his wish and intention to assume the relation to the Jewish community that his parents had, and that the chain of tradition remains unbroken from generation to generation. You can do that for the generation of your family. I must do that for the generations of my family.

During the year after my father died, I visited Rome on vacation. It was there among the city’s more than 900 churches, I went searching for a synagogue. I was determined not to skip a day of saying the Kaddish. I went to Rome’s Great Synagogue where armed policemen surrounded the courtyard. A private security guard asked my husband, not me, what business he had there. I told the young guard, who was wearing a kippah, that I needed to say the Kaddish for my father. “Americana,” he sighed.

Inside, the daily minyan was formal — like walking into a sepia photograph — with the cantor and rabbi wearing traditional robes and hats. My husband and I had to sit separately. A divider, improvised with a row of tall potted plants as stiff as the policemen outside, walled off the women. The women talked throughout the service until I rose to say the Kaddish.

The woman next to me said, “Ladies don’t have to.”

I told her that I wanted to say the Kaddish. Although the cantor blasted through the prayer, I managed to keep up and the women said “amen” to my Kaddish.

Who will tell the women in Rome who magnified and sanctified my Kaddish that their amens were not only irrelevant, but that they could be illegal in a cemetery in Israel? And how dare anyone tell Jewish women in the name of God not to eulogize their dead or say the Mourner’s Kaddish.

This piece originally appeared in the Sisterhood Blog of the Forward as well as the paper’s print edition.

A New Year’s Resolution at the Wall by Judy Bolton-Fasman

Hallel Abramowitz-Silverman has a fervent wish—to see her younger sister Ashira celebrate her bat mitzvah at the Wailing Wall—the kotel. At just eighteen years-old, Hallel is one of the very public faces of Women of the Wall (WoW). For nearly a quarter of a century, the group has been advocating for women to pray as they see fit at the Wall—whether it be wearing tallitot—prayer shawls—or tefillin, or both. The founder of the group, Anat Hoffman, has consistently said that WoW’s goal is not to desegregate the Wall, but to make it a venue for all Jews.

Hallel Abramowitz-Silverman

Hallel Abramowitz-Silverman

In the coming new year Hallel, who lives in Jerusalem, has her work cut out for her. The Israeli government has approved a plan set forth by cabinet secretary Avichai Mendelblit that effectively exiles women to pray “according to their custom” only in the Robinson’s Arch area, a small 400 square-meter space near the southern end of the Wall. Israel’s leading daily newspaper, Haaretz, reports that the proposal departs from Natan Sharansky’s plan to set aside an egalitarian space at the Wall. It also snubs a court ruling, which effectively allows women to read Torah and wear tallitot and tefillin at the Wall

In the interest of full disclosure, I have loved Hallel since the moment I met her. Two years-old at the time, she was an adorable, mischievous tot with outsized glasses that matched her outsized personality. As passionate as I am about the issues attached to WoW, I am equally fascinated by how a young adult grows up to become an outspoken activist. I recently sat down with Hallel while she was visiting Newton. Upon her return to Jerusalem she will serve two years in the Israeli army. College is on the horizon as are opportunities she’ll seek out to help people in Africa.

As Hallel explains, “I’m from an activist family.” She and her family moved to Israel in 2006 from Newton where Hallel had attended the Jewish Community Day School. The family first settled on Kibbutz Ketura in the Arava desert and then moved to Jerusalem three years later where Hallel just completed high school. Her interest in WoW was piqued.

 

 

When I heard that women were not allowed to pray their own way at Judaism’s holiest site, I decided to go and pray with WoW. That was in Adar—last March just before Purim. I fully understood what was happening to Jewish women at the Wall when I saw the violence and the cruelty fellow Jews did to one another. All of this was happening in a Jewish country because Jewish women wanted to wear a tallit.

 

 Hallel has clear role models for her activism. Her father Yosef Abramowitz is an advocate for global solar power through his company Energiya Global. Abramowitz’s own fight for social justice goes back to his days at Boston University when he urged the administration to divest its investments in companies doing business in South Africa. He was also a student leader in the Soviet Jewry movement in the early ‘80s. Hallel’s mother is Rabbi Susan Silverman, who is an international advocate for adoption and has written a memoir about the spirituality of adoption. Rabbi Silverman is one of the faces of WoW, and she and Hallel were among the ten women arrested at the Wall for refusing to take off their tallitot.

 

The women were eventually released and Hallel got to work on brokering a solution for all women who worship at the Wall. “I knew I couldn’t see my nine year-old sister get spat on again. Nor could I allow another friend to get hit with a rock.” She took her fight to the Israeli Parliament and to the press. She wrote an open letter to Natan Sharansky, a former Soviet refusenik and a member of Israel’s cabinet, who was appointed by the prime minister to find a way for peaceful prayer at the Wall. “I am a stakeholder in your decision,” Hallel wrote to Sharansky. “In other words, I am a Jew. A Jew who prays with other women at the Kotel.”

Among Hallel’s solutions was to establish a tri-chitzah. Derived from the word mechitza or divider, Hallel suggested that,

 

 

It only seems fair to divide the Wall into three equal sections; men, mixed and women. And since there is no Jewish ritual for which men get arrested then clearly equality mandates that there should be no Jewish ritual that should land any woman in prison.

Although women have been granted the right to wear tallitot at the Wall, the future for a pluralistic Judaism there is dubious in light of the Mendelblit plan. Yet Hallel is optimistic. “We are a colorful circle among a sea of monochromatic black and white,” Hallel notes. “After the first month it was legal to wear our tallitot, two [ultra-Orthodox] seminary girls came up to me and said we really appreciate what you are doing. If I had a doubt in my mind, it was squashed. I need to keep fighting for these girls.”

 

 

 

Women and the Kaddish by Judy Bolton-Fasman

Last month 15 narrow-minded, hard-hearted men tried to outlaw women saying the Kaddish at the Western Wall. There was so much blowback for these dubious caretakers of the kotel that they were forced to rescind their ban on women gathering to mourn their dead at Judaism’s holiest site. Additionally, last week Jerusalem’s district court ruled that it was wrong to arrest five women at the Wall last month for praying as they saw fit.

Maybe we’ve finally turned a corner and the Wall will truly be accessible to all Jews. But we still have work to do in the realm of Kaddish. I remember the night before my father’s funeral I found a tattered prayer book from my Yeshiva days. It was small and square—the kind of prayer book I’ve seen women praying with at the kotel. Its pastry thin pages suggested a false modesty that diminishes a woman’s place in the Jewish world.

Saying the Kaddish for a loved one used to be an all boys’ club. No son, no Kaddish, unless you paid a man—yes there is still such a thing—to recite the Kaddish for the 11 months a child mourns a parent. A couple of weeks ago Anat Hoffman, leader of the Women of the Wall, told an audience at Brandeis University about that latest case of gender segregation and Kaddish discrimination—this time at ultra-Orthodox cemeteries in Israel. A woman named Rosie was denied the right to eulogize her father at his funeral. Rosie took her case to the Knesset to campaign for women to grieve as they see fit. After her appearance, an invitation quickly followed to read her father’s eulogy on a popular radio show where millions heard her words.

K. Harold Bolton

K. Harold Bolton

My father was buried on the eve of Rosh Hashana in 2002 and I had the honor of eulogizing him. At the time, I also decided to attend a daily minyan for thirty days to say the Kaddish for him. It was almost Thanksgiving when I realized I had gone long past my original self-imposed deadline. I wrote in my journal, “I’m both surprised and fulfilled that my daily recitation of the Kaddish has become a part of my days. In remembering my father every day, I have an ongoing dialogue with him. I have space and time to contemplate my life as a mother and a wife and a daughter.”

I’m always on the lookout for father-daughter Kaddish stories. While researching my memoir I came upon a story that took place in 17th century Amsterdam. A man with an only daughter and no sons planned ahead for his Kaddish. After he died he arranged for a minyan to study at his house every day for 11 months. At the conclusion of studying Torah it is customary to say a version of the Kaddish. Given these circumstances, his daughter could recite the Kaddish in an adjacent room as the male students responded “amen” to her Kaddish.

Another father-daughter Kaddish story: Henrietta Szold, the daughter of a rabbi and the founder of Hadassah, was the oldest child in a family of eight daughters and no sons. She declined a male friend’s offer to say the Kaddish in her place when Szold’s mother died in 1916. Szold wrote, “The Kaddish means to me that the survivor publicly manifests his wish and intention to assume the relation to the Jewish community that his parents had, and that the chain of tradition remains unbroken from generation to generation. You can do that for the generation of your family. I must do that for generations of my family.”

One of my father-daughter Kaddish stories: I was visiting Rome where there are more than 900 churches. But I was determined not to skip a day of saying the Kaddish during my 11 months of formal mourning and I went to the Great Synagogue there. Armed policemen surrounded the courtyard of the synagogue, and a security guard asked my husband—not me—what business he had there. I told the young guard—who was wearing a kippah—that I needed to say the Kaddish for my father. “Americana,” he sighed. Inside, the daily minyan was formal—like walking into a sepia photograph—with the cantor and rabbi wearing traditional robes and hats. Ken and I had to sit separately. A divider, improvised with a row of tall potted plants as stiff as the policemen outside, walled off the women. The women talked throughout the service until I rose to say the Kaddish. The woman next to me said, “Ladies don’t have to.” I told her that I wanted to say the Kaddish. Although the cantor blasted through the prayer, I managed to keep up and the women said “amen” to my Kaddish.

Who will tell the women in Rome who magnified and sanctified my Kaddish, that their amens were not only irrelevant, but that they could be illegal in a cemetery in Israel? I suppose it’s the 15 men of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation who tried to hijack Judaism.

Lena Dunham’s Hannah Horvath Meets Elizabeth Wurtzel by Judy Bolton-Fasman

Last week I was marooned on my couch with a virus and finally watched the first season of Girls, Lena Dunham’s HBO drama about 20-somethings finding their way in New York City. Dunham is very serious about her enterprise, and even the show’s light-hearted moments — which are few and far between — are laden with meaning. At times, watching the series felt more like homework than entertainment.

But I had heard so much about Hannah Horvath, Dunham’s alter ego, that I needed to meet her myself.  Like many women in middle age, I wasn’t resistant to looking back at my youth. I’m not the like the doctor who examines Hannah for an STD, who swears she’d never want to go back to her 20s. If anything, I’m jealous of the limitless sky, the time that drains into more time of your 20s. Maybe that’s glossy hindsight, but it’s also the raw truth.

Lena Dunham as Hannah Horvath

Lena Dunham as Hannah Horvath

I loved that Hannah, who is an aspiring writer, is no wunderkind. She’s so plodding and so damned inexperienced. She spends more time talking about writing than actually tapping out the personal essays she aspires to write. She has feckless boyfriends and a job in a coffee shop tellingly called Café Grumpy (an actual café in Greenpoint, Brooklyn—think Tom’s Restaurant, the real-life Upper West Side diner featured in Seinfeld) that sort of pays the bills. She’s in the quagmire that a lot of 20-somethings are in, but she doesn’t seem hopelessly stuck.

Elizabeth Wurtzel, another writer famous for exploring the 20-something state of being, is a 180-degree turn away from Dunham. At 45, Wurtzel is less nostalgic and more obsessive about being trapped in her 20s mindset. I can’t tell if Hannah’s young adult cluelessness is an object of derision or envy for the middle-aged Wurtzel, best known as the enfant terrible behind the best-selling memoir “Prozac Nation,” which she published two decades ago at the age of 24. The book launched her into celebrity and enabled her to make a “career out of my emotions.”

If only Hannah Horvath were so lucky. If only I had been that lucky (or savvy enough) to profit from my own anxiety and depression. There was a huge advance for Wurtzel’s second book, the one where she appeared topless on the cover with her middle finger prominently extended. What else could the book be called but “Bitch,” a rant about sexually manipulative women? Who wouldn’t be a little jealous of that kind of success in one’s twenties? But then again, who wouldn’t be terrified of losing her edge after peaking so early?

The bottom line is that Wurtzel is a cautionary tale for Hannah and her pals. In her recent [New York Magazine essay](http://nymag.com/thecut/2013/01/elizabeth-wurtzel-on-self-help.html), Wurtzel made it clear that she’s not only afraid of growing up, she’s also terrified of getting older. And who can blame her? After all, at 45, she’s still living in a crummy apartment with a nutty landlady and she’s “always in love—or else I am getting over the last person or getting started with the next one.” The only justification she comes up with for her Never-Never Land existence is that she still fits into the same clothes she wore at 24. I’ll keep my two kids and the extra thirty pounds, thank you.

Hannah thinks she is the voice of her generation. At least that’s what she tells her parents as she appeals to stay on their bankroll. And Wurtzel still thinks she’s the voice of her generation. In yet another sad essay for [Harper’s Bazaar](http://www.harpersbazaar.com/beauty/health-wellness-articles/looking-better-at-45-than-25#slide-1), Wurtzel writes that she wouldn’t have dreamed of going on parental welfare at Hannah’s age. “Even with my Harvard degree, when I ran out of money while writing my first book, I was happier to serve cocktails in high heels than to get money from my mom. And now I walk miles in Marnie’s five-inch platform T-straps.” It’s a shame that the quest for early independence only leads to an ability to tolerate high heels in middle age.

Which brings me to Wurtzel’s puffed-up assertion that she’s in better physical shape than someone “about half my age.” She’s in the kind of shape that comes easily to a woman who hasn’t worried about someone other than herself. She holds up Michelle Obama and Sarah Palin as women who are in “amazing physical condition, and [that] have a personal style and coruscating charisma.” Oh Elizabeth, only you could find that kind of superficial common ground between these women.

Hannah doesn’t glitter or charm in Wurtzel’s world. She’s the 20-something that Wurtzel has in mind when she decries the “slovenliness” of today’s young women. By her own calculation, Hannah is 13 pounds overweight. As far as I can tell, she never blow-dries her hair and she almost always leaves the house without lipstick.

Watching those episodes of Girls back to back, I realized how far women have come from my second-wave feminism to Hannah’s fourth-wave feminism. Hannah doesn’t feel guilty about sleeping around, she doesn’t think that men foisted the sexual revolution on women so they wouldn’t have to marry them and she doesn’t hear even a faint ticking of her biological clock.

Unlike Wurtzel, I don’t think Hannah will indulge in a string of one-night stands in middle age or be stuck in an overheated apartment in “the dungeon equivalent of a neighborhood.” And she surely won’t cling to the girl she once was, because once upon a time she looked and did exactly as she pleased. That’s the true beauty of her generation.

 

Praying With the Women of the Wall by Judy Bolton-Fasman

What passes for contraband at the Kotel—the Western Wall, Judaism’s holiest site—both saddens and flummoxes me. If you are a woman praying on the postage-stamp sized real estate relegated to us at the Wall, you are forbidden to wear a tallit—a traditional prayer shawl or tefillin—the leather phylacteries worn during morning prayer. If you are a woman attempting to pray at the Western Wall, you must do so quietly, unobtrusively, so that even God must cock an ear to hear your petitions.

Once a month a group of women gather together at the beginning of the new Hebrew month—Rosh Chodesh—to reclaim their rights to practice Judaism as they see fit. They are known as Women of the Wall and the most risqué thing they do is to wear religious garments that have escaped a guard’s notice or been handed off to them by men. True, these women are from the more liberal branches of Judaism. Many of them, though not all, are Americans. There’s also inevitability to these gatherings. The women pray wearing a prayer shawl or phylacteries while Israeli police officers cool their heels waiting to arrest them after the service. Arrest at the Wall, interrogation at the police station, and then dismissal of all charges. That’s the drill.

So why was this past Rosh Chodesh ushering in the month of Adar different from previous months? Two reasons. Included among the group of 200 who came for the monthly assembly were some of the paratroopers who recaptured the Wall from Jordanian control in 1967. And this time Rabbi Susan Silverman, a close friend and mentor of mine, and her daughter Hallel, were arrested at the Wall. Along with eight other women they cycled through the usual arrest, interrogation, release rotation with the caveat that they not return to the Wall for two weeks. That means that they will be back just in time for Rosh Chodesh Nisan, the month during which Jews will celebrate Passover, the quintessential holiday of freedom. This irony of timing is obvious, but too tempting not to point out.

Rabbi Susan Silverman and Hallel Abramowitz-Silverman at the Western Wall

Rabbi Susan Silverman and Hallel Abramowitz-Silverman at the Western Wall

 

The question of who is a Jew in Israel has been superseded by the dilemma of how a Jew can pray at Judaism’s holiest site. When Rabbi Silverman was arrested she told the media that her detention was tantamount to “spitting at Sinai.” Specifically, the people spitting at Sinai are the ultra-Orthodox who, with Israeli taxpayer’s money, run the Western Wall Heritage Foundation. The Wall, which belongs to Jews all over the world, is managed by 15 men who presumably have or had mothers

What makes this fight for the right to congregate and pray all the more poignant is that Women of the Wall is not advocating for egalitarian prayer per se. As Anat Hoffman, the group’s chairwoman recently told the Forward, “Women of the Wall is fighting for a change in the ‘women’s section’ at the Kotel. The organization’s petition to Israel’s Supreme Court, filed six weeks ago, would dismantle the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, which controls the space.”

This is an important distinction. Women of the Wall understands that the prayer areas in front of the Wall will remain bisected for the foreseeable future. The men’s side will be boisterous and celebratory while the women silently pray. All the women are asking for is the right to wear traditional Jewish garb if they choose, as an expression of their faith.

I don’t think we can stand idly by anymore in a world where a woman’s tallit is confiscated at the Kotel. We cannot stand for women being arrested because they choose to outwardly demonstrate their covenant with God. A prayer rally is being planned in New York City on Rosh Chodesh Nisan, which falls on Tuesday, March 12. It’s time for Jewish women all over the world to stand in solidarity with our sisters in Israel who will risk arrest and humiliation at the Wall that morning.

It’s time for the Jews of Boston to plan a rally too. Perhaps we can commemorate Rosh Chodesh on the steps of our synagogues or temples. Or maybe it’s as simple as attending a morning minyan that day with kavanah or the intention that things must change for our daughters and the daughters of those 15 men who have hijacked the Western Wall in the name of a God who surely must disapprove of their misogyny.

 

 

*My Grandmother’s Tallit – A Letter to Anna

Dear Anna:

It’s been five years since your bat mitzvah. In your bat mitzvah state of mind you read trope cues as easily as ABC’s. You teased out meaning from your Torah portion, which recorded the life and death of Sarah. And your wore a tallit or a prayer shawl you picked out in Jerusalem. If you had done any of these things at the Western Wall in Jerusalem the Israeli police might have arrested you and me, the mother who allowed you to commit such a crime.

I must confess to you my dear daughter that I’ve never felt that any of the rituals your Dad and I gifted you with were truly mine. But in light of Anat Hoffman’s recent arrest last week for wearing her tallit at the Wall, your Bat Mitzvah was as much a political statement as it was a rite of passage.

When I look at your tallit—pink and silk and uniquely yours—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.

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. After she arrived in Cuba, 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 in the way that she 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 dressed for prayer, winding the straps of his tefillin around his left arm and placing the leather boxes on his forehead and in the crook of his left 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.

Suddenly, finding her voice, Abuela said to me, “You can be anything you want.” Abuela could have been anything she wanted too, only she wasn’t allowed to think that way. If she were born in a different time, she might have used her voice to defend Anat Hoffman.

I’m sure she would have been inspired by you as you happily wore your tallit and celebrated your coming-of-age by reading from the Torah about every woman’s life.

Love,

Mamma

*This piece was reconfigured as a letter to my daughter and published in the Jewish Advocate

 

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.