A Tallis Unfurled from Milwaukee

During a summer visit to the States in 2019, my wife and I spent Shabbos with old friends in Milwaukee, and I won’t soon forget my introduction to Rav Michel Twerski’s welcoming, inspiring, profoundly serious community there. I particularly enjoyed his son Rav Benzion Twerski, whose classes and Shabbos morning drashah I attended. He taught brilliantly, weaving stories into his divrei Torah to bring home his message, clear and provoking – yet it’s very often the little things people do, the quiet things and the hidden things that leave the greatest impression.

At some point in the evening after Shabbos, I noticed a crisp, shining white tallis neatly folded upon a bookshelf in my host’s living room. “Is that yours?” I asked my friend.

“Yes, it is,” he said.

“But it’s brand-new. You recently bought yourself one?”

“No,” he said. “Rav Benzion gave it to my wife one Sunday morning after the women’s shiur and said, ‘Please give this to your husband.’”

“Because mine,” he continued, “was a little….”

“Bedraggled?” I offered.

“Yes,” he said, and we laughed, knowing how he was the type of person who could be oblivious to such things.

“One second,” I said, needing to process this information. “The Rav gave you a new tallis? Just like that?”

“Yup,” he said.

I couldn’t believe it and struggled with why I found it so difficult to believe. It wasn’t the act of giving itself, but the presumption that one could give in this way that staggered me. Something had mattered to Rav Benzion, enough for him to reach out into another’s personal realm and brave the possibility of unintended insult. Wishing to tread softly, of course, he gave it to his wife – but tread he did. I was awed.

This bespoke a communal reality very different from the “No Trespassing” aloofness prevalent back home in Jerusalem, a cultural norm that is the price, perhaps, of “life in the big city,” where one can’t possibly count the shuls, much less the people who pack them – yet where, of a consequence, the people of any given shul have forgotten how to truly “count” one another, how to trespass, if you would, upon one another’s personal territory and reach past the superficialities of surname and social rank to seek out a fellow Jew’s inner world.

And we can’t begin to reach for someone’s inner world if we don’t even know his name. It’s true that every person enjoys acquaintances and friendships within his inner circle, but what about someone standing beyond that parameter, even within the walls of the same shul? Is it okay, I often ask myself, that we don’t know one another, or worse, that we’re contented to not know one another?

Of course, if you want communal intimacy, some might challenge, then move to Milwaukee, implying that the big-city cultural norm is normal for us as Jews. A difficult fact of life. A big, bitter pill. Man up and accept it. Or leave. Yet I differ. It may well be what has now evolved in our exile, but is it our norm, who we are at the core, or something quite far from that core, from the single-hearted unity at Sinai from whence we come and for which, with the geulah sheleimah, we are destined? And as something so far and foreign, ought it not be fought, or questioned at the very least, rather than blindly manned up to and swallowed whole? Indeed, ought we not hunger for the intimacy cultivated in Milwaukee expressly here, in holy Jerusalem, the seat of our redemption, of our inexorable return to our true, organic norm?

I returned to Jerusalem transformed in my determination to bring some of Milwaukee back with me, and it was not only my friend’s pristine tallis and the compassionate trespass by which it was given that drove me, but much of what I had experienced there. It was the very frum-looking woman who uninhibitedly crossed the street to welcome my wife and hear who we were as we pulled up on Friday afternoon and unloaded. It was dancing and singing around the shul after davening Friday night, my hands upon the shoulders of the man in front of me, another’s hands upon my shoulders from behind. It was Rav Michel Twerski’s inquisitive yet piercing gaze as we met and my sense that it had just taken an x-ray. And it was the older, very tall and distinguished man who said to me with great pride late Shabbos morning: “Let me tell you something about Rav Michel Twerski.

“Years ago, a secular Jewish couple presented in civil court for divorce, and during the proceedings, it somehow emerged that they were Jews. ‘One moment,’ the judge interrupted. ‘Have you people spoken to Rabbi Twerski about this?’

“The couple looked at one another in surprise. ‘Who’s Rabbi Twerski?’ they probably wondered. ‘No, we haven’t,’ they told him.

“The judge tapped his gavel and said, ‘Okay, I’m postponing these proceedings until these two speak with Rabbi Twerski.’”

Such a tightly knit community, such centralized and far-reaching rabbinic authority were foreign to me, an anonymous Jew in a sea of anonymous Jews, led by anonymous rabbis of anonymous kollels and shuls. Though this explosive population surely embodies the glory of Jerusalem, saturated as it is with talmidei chachamim and ovdei Hashem, it also presents a formidability. If we subconsciously assume that our presence amidst the masses is insignificant and, perceiving others as reflections of ourselves, project that internalized insignificance upon our fellow Jews, we are left challenged to truly care about one another and, ultimately, rendered susceptible to coldness, mistrust, and baseless hatred.

Perhaps trying to care would be the shoot of Milwaukee I could plant anew here at home, to reverse this trend within myself with doses of communal intimacy and real attempts to imbue others with significance – to see people not as competitors or mere obstacles in my path but as, dare I say, brothers and sisters. Of course, we profess our commitment to just that in every sefer kodesh and prayer, yet it’s easier said than done when you’re shopping for groceries or sitting in traffic – and as Ramchal warns, the greater our acquaintance with certain truisms, the more pervasive our forgetfulness (Mesilas Yesharim, Introduction).

I would try, I promised myself. I would try.

Then, I saw him in shul. While abroad, I had forgotten about him, but there he was, just as before. I didn’t even know his name. I had never bothered asking him. No one knew his name, actually, or why within the past year he had suddenly started davening in our shul. He was a stranger who, people said, came over from the Ma’alot Dafnah or Shmuel HaNavi neighborhoods across Eshkol Boulevard. He was Israeli, tall, middle-aged and, as I gathered from hearing him on his phone, Yiddish speaking. He would appear in the early morning to daven with us at sunup and then disappear. He would then return again for the early Minchah, still in tallis and tefillin, and daven with great fervor next to the aron kodesh. He often stayed until night, going through Sefer Tehillim again and again, oblivious to the avreichim learning in kollel all about him.

Long accustomed to not caring, apathetic to another’s inner world and, certainly, blind to difference as an allurement, I had nurtured a profound mistrust for this man. Tallis and tefillin all day! Humph! Saying Tehillim all day! Nebuch! I know why he’s here in our shul, I would muse. Because he knows that he can get away with such shenanigans in this relatively young, strongly American community. Try this anywhere else, and the Yerushalmim would throw him out on his ear! He knows exactly what he’s doing, exploiting our weakness! I watched him very closely, waiting for him to slip up and ready to show him the door.

But there was never a slipup. Just tallis and tefillin, prayers and Tehillim. Though characteristically aloof and, indeed, a little odd, he was well-behaved. His bushy, graying beard and peyos were somewhat askew, but he seemed quite clean, his white shirt always fresh, albeit half untucked. “Well, somebody loves him,” I would sigh, seeing that he was clearly cared for. That tallis, however, had seen better days, worn as it was without relief. It was more yellow than white and quite frayed. Nu, nu. What can you do? We would just have to live with him.

Now, here he was, still the same after our trip. That tallis, however, had taken a turn for the worse. It was filled with broad, dark yellow stains which seemed to have somehow hardened and then cracked opened, revealing everywhere the black suit jacket beneath. After Shacharis, he rose from his seat and moved in my direction toward the door, and without thinking, I clasped his arm in my own and drew him close. “What am I doing?” I thought, horrified by so blatant a breach of personal space. I didn’t know what I was doing. I just cared too much to care.

“My brother,” I said in Hebrew, “what’s happened to your tallis?” It was the first time I had ever spoken to him.

“Oh!” he exclaimed. “We put some special cleaning agent on it, to spruce it up a bit, but it seems we’ve destroyed the material altogether!”

“How awful!” I said, and he nodded in dismay. He then continued on and left.

The next morning, the tallis had deteriorated even further, and it was clear that he lacked the means to buy a new one. In the afternoon, I got on a bus to Geulah and bought a new tallis in the Mishkan Techeilis branch near Kikar Shabbos. 440 shekels. No small purchase. As the clerk bagged it, a fear suddenly rose up inside me. “You know, this isn’t for me,” I said. “It’s for someone in shul whose tallis has reached its end. What if he’s too embarrassed to take the gift?”

Atah makir oto? – Are you acquainted with him?” he wanted to know.

“No, not really,” I said.

He looked at me strangely. “Listen, you have 48 hours from the time of purchase to get your money back.” He gestured behind him toward an enlarged return policy pasted to the wall.

Okay, 48 hours, I thought, reassured.

The next morning and throughout the day he didn’t show up. Okay, 24 hours, I thought, somewhat less assured.

The following morning, he came in before dawn wearing his suit jacket over his tallis to conceal its catastrophic state. My heart swelled with pity. He was embarrassed. The poor man! As Shacharis concluded, I positioned myself by the door and waited, the fancy Mishkan Techeilis bag surreptitiously in hand. I was nervous and unsure of myself. I had rehearsed possible responses to his refusal, but it all seemed very flimsy now in the moment.

He got up and approached the doorway, and we stepped outside together. The new morning was fresh and tranquil. “Excuse me, what’s your name?” I heard myself ask.

He stood still, a little apprehensive. “Dov,” he said softly, his eyes averted.

“Dov,” I repeated. What a beautiful name! How could I not have known such a beautiful name? “Here,” I said, awkwardly offering him the bag.

Aval zeh lo sheli – But this isn’t mine,” he said in surprise.

Zeh ken shelcha,” I insisted and pressed it into his hand.

He peered inside and then closed his eyes in disbelief. “Ooo-ah!” he softly exclaimed. He looked at me, struggling with emotion, and finally blurted in Hebrew, “This is so timely! Truly, a groise yeshar koach! I didn’t know what I was going to do on Shabbos!”

We stood there in a half-embrace, patting one another on the back. We were almost giddy with happiness, myself overjoyed that he had received, he overjoyed that I had given. He then showered me with blessings in a flurry of Yiddish and Hebrew, much of which went over my head. Something about a groise chuppah, the light of the tallis, and the light of the mitzvah of tzitzis and arba canfos.

Amein! Amein! Amein!” I exclaimed, and then he was off, to wherever it was he lived, beyond the boulevard.

I doubted that I would ever know where he actually lived beyond the boulevard, not because I couldn’t have found out, but because I didn’t care. Ma’alot Dafnah, Eretz Cheifetz, Shmuel HaNavi, Beis Yisrael…. It’s all too vast and overflowing to care. For now, that’s just the reality here, something I couldn’t possibly overturn – even, apparently, within myself.

In light of such deep-seated apathy, lingering in the background like a disease in remission, perhaps I’ve spoken too freely of being transformed while abroad. But that’s what the yetzer, the undermining inner inclination that would undo us all, wants me to think. In reality, none of us is ever fully transformed, no more so than any of us is ever completely fulfilled. Life is a process, never an arrival, and true change is always incremental and, at that, born of the simple will to change.

In Milwaukee, the desire to change was planted within me, and it did take root and flourish here, albeit under different cultural norms. Here, a Jew is largely left to himself, with his own neighborhood amongst many, his own kehillah amongst many, his own rebbe, yeshiva, and kollel amongst so many – and that means the perceived fences delineating personal territory are high and tight.

Yet just as I had marveled at the crisp new tallis upon my friend’s bookshelf and Rav Benzion’s bold breach of fence by which it was received, I daily glanced at a mysterious Jew’s new gleaming tallis and marveled at how I could also reach past a personal boundary and, as a result, render at least one aspect of who I had been transformed. I had a new friend. Dov. What a beautiful name. In his eccentricity, he remained a bit removed, but it was up to me to interpret where that was coming from. He was wrapped up in his avodah, in his tefillin and Tehillim. Do not disturb. How special that was! Where was my dislike, my mistrust, my vigilance for some sign of devilry?

I couldn’t have cared less.

About the Author
Born in Boston, Pnuel Perry is a writer, editor, and translator who lives in Jerusalem with his family.
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