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Tallis, tefillin, and tacos: Tradition in the Netflix-age

Trying to figure out his inexplicable urge to wake up, wrap his arm in leather and face east

I woke up this morning with a remarkable urge. A very strange one. So this morning I got out of my toasty warm bed, draped myself in a fine white linen cloth with strings tied onto its corners, put on a small hat, wrapped leather straps around my arm, placed a small wooden box on my forehead, and consulted my phone’s compass to find East.

Yes, friend, this morning I lay tefillin. For possibly the first time, voluntarily, since visiting the Kotel three years ago.

The reason that this is strange is that I’m not what you might call the most… observant of Jews. Ask my rabbi, he’ll confirm that I:

  • Do not keep kosher in any way. I don’t eat cheese with meat, but that’s because I just think it’s gross.
  • Do not keep Shabbat, and probably use more electricity on Saturdays than any other day of the week, and think that my day of rest is better served napping on the couch than standing in shul.
  • Rarely pray, and I’m fairly certain that I don’t actually believe in G-d. Until I need something, of course.

So here I am on a sunny Sunday morning, wrapping myself in tallis and tefillin, and I’m pretty confused by this point. What drove me to such a thing?

Maybe it was Friday. At a post-work function with other staff, I got the chance to “bagel” someone for the first time in months. For the uninitiated, “bageling” is a term that we used in Hillel to shrewdly determine if your new friend is Jewish. What you have to do is very subtly pepper your conversation with Yiddish, Hebrew, or other Jewish-related phrases. It’s been a while since my last bageling, and meeting someone who understands what I mean when I say “Shande” “sababa” or “Mel Brooks movies” was a thrill. Probably quite annoying to the many goyim in the “Splash Zone” but hey, they stood near the Jews.
But I don’t think that’s why. I’ve bageled hundreds of people, and it’s never made me want to lay tefillin.

Maybe it’s because for the first time since I moved to Ottawa I got to experience something truly Israeli. None of the (abundant) shawarma restaurants serve anything resembling Israeli shawarma. It’s not worse or better, but none of them resemble the flavours of Machane Yehuda, Dizengoff Street, or even the smallest kibbutz. And I have never seen an Israeli pita with the ungodly hydrogenated-oil substance that they call “Garlic Sauce.”

So when Aroma opened up a location a few days ago, I knew I had to get there come hell or two walls of high water. Aroma: it feels like home. When I left, I walked past the manager and threw off a “todah rabah” in passing, only to be greeted with a “Yom Tov.” I didn’t stop smiling for a full 5 minutes.

(By the way, if anyone has good Israeli-like shawarma suggestions in Ottawa, the comments section is below.) (Please, I’m desperate.)

But anyone will tell you, the only Jewish feeling you get after eating a shawarma is indigestion, so what motivated me to lay tefillin and daven?

Come to think of it, I have a hunch on what possessed me this morning. I’m just a few days away from commemorating the (non-Hebrew) one-year anniversary of my grandmother’s death. So my heart decided that I should pick up the tallis that she assembled from stitching done by my aunt, her daughter, and tzitzit tied by her father, my great-grandfather.

There are traditions that we keep because our mothers and fathers did it, because their mothers and fathers did. I’m reminded of the legend of Mrs. Schwartz’s brisket, in which generations of daughter’s sliced the end off of their brisket because, as it turns out, Bubbie’s pan was too small to fit the whole thing.

Then there are the traditions that we reject because our mothers and fathers kept them. A little rebellion now and then is a good thing. It keeps our culture from stagnating. It keeps us from spending our lives blindly beholden to the past. It engages us in our own identity.

Then there are the traditions that we make for ourselves. Whether we create them from scratch, like my mother and her challahs, or adopt something presented to us, like the silence between washing hands and eating the challah, these are the traditions that we own. Whether it’s drinking maple syrup infused whisky and singing “Acadian Driftwood” in the snow with your best friend, singing the birkat hamazon with your cousins on Passover, or something as simple as waking up in the morning and wrapping yourself in linen and leather, tradition is what keeps us connected to our past, and it’s what keeps us ourselves.

So tomorrow, before I take a shower, brush my teeth, drink coffee, and get ready for work, I think I’m going to wake up a few minutes early and try to figure out which way is east.

About the Author
Zack Babins is a Parliamentary Intern in the House of Commons in Ottawa. He graduated from the University of Guelph, where he was a leader in campus Jewish organizations Hillel and Alpha Epsilon Pi. All views are, of course, his own. He doesn't expect many will share them.
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