It has been said that there are two marks of a Jewish man. The first is circumcision, and the second one is something that people rarely think of – tefillin. I consider myself not so much a religious Jew; flirting between mostly Conservative and Orthodox congregations. I can’t see being in a synagogue and standing in front of the Ark and not wearing a kippah, so Reform Judaism is out for me. I don’t like the idea of men being separated from women during services, women not being allowed to perform religious functions in the synagogue, being ordained as rabbis and cantors and such. I’m an egalitarian Jew, accepting of all.
I don’t like “rote ritual;” that is, doing things just because you’re supposed to without understanding why or because “you HAVE to.” Reflecting on my childhood background, it would have been unthinkable that I would be writing about Jewish things, and even writing a blog in a Jewish media outlet such as “The Times Of Israel.” Today I am at peace with my Judaism and my relationship with G-d. It was not always so. I am an only child from an Ashkenazi family; Ukrainian, Austrian and Byelorussian ancestry. My dad זייל was a hardworking salesman who came from an Orthodox home, but he didn’t really follow anything.
My mom זייל was a “Holiday Jew” and did the best she could with no formal religious training. Everything Jewish we did in our house was cultural; oral history passed down through my grandparents. Kosher was something we just didn’t do. Christmas Day was celebrated Jewish style – Chinese takeout! When I was about seven or eight years old, I remember going to High Holy Day services with dad. I was going to Hebrew School at the Conservative shul, and I had just begun to be able to read Hebrew. My dad promptly fell asleep during most of the service. We went home about noon and never came back for the rest of the service.
My mom made a holiday dinner for usually the three of us, or sometimes more if my small group of uncles, aunts and cousins came by, or sometimes we went to their homes. I don’t remember if she lit holiday candles; Yahrtzeit candles she did light, for my grandfather Sam זייל. I remember my parents did fast for at least part of the day on Yom Kippur. That was really the only Jewish holiday where I knew that “something” was different.
I distinctly remember as a boy of 10 watching the news on our black and white TV of Walter Cronkite reporting the events of May of 1967; just when the screws were tightening on Israel before the Six Day War. My parents and I were glued to the set. What would happen? Tiny Israel was outnumbered seven to one. I remember the sense of ecstasy and pride in our family and tiny community when Israel miraculously (no other words to describe it) won. For the first time in my life, I became aware of, and in awe of The State Of Israel, and being Jewish.
I was Bar Mitzvahed in an Orthodox synagogue. We had just moved into a new neighborhood when I was 12 years old. My mom couldn’t drive, and all the other denominations of synagogues in the area wanted me to go to Hebrew High School after completing my Bar Mitzvah studies. The Orthodox shul seemed the most understanding of our situation, demanding the least, yet unwittingly performing, at least for me, the most powerful acts of all the other temples. It was within walking distance of our home, and they only asked me to attend Shabbat Services every week, and had an Orthodox student from Queen’s College come over on Sunday mornings to teach me my Haftarah. This was most agreeable, and I felt “a soft spot” for that particular congregation.
After my Bar Mitzvah, I sort of drifted away from Judaism – the religious aspect at least. Culturally, however, I remained Jewish. For example: In high school, “something” drew me back to my Jewish roots: I took Hebrew language classes, I began to read novels and other books on Jewish history. I remember with a sense of awe, books like Chaim Potok’s “The Chosen” and “The Promise.” Leon Uris’s classics “Exodus” and “Mila 18.”
I was self-taught about the Holocaust. I read exhaustively the book by Nora Levin – “The Holocaust,” all of Elie Wiesel’s books; especially “Night,” “A Jew Today,” and “Legends Of Our Time.” The PBS series “World At War,” brought the horrors of the Holocaust into my living room – in black and white. The shows made me angry, yet determined to learn more and more about my heritage, and who I was.
Then came the Yom Kippur War. My high school was predominantly Jewish, and I remember some kids walking around with transistor radios glued to their ears. Again Walter Cronkite giving the grim reports of the first days of fighting. It was a turning point. No longer was the Israeli Army a force of “Supermen” – it was human; very painfully so. Still, outnumbered though she was, Israel won a huge victory. I was in 11th grade.
After that school year, my parents sent me on an eight week trip to Israel, (not without trepidations!) combining touring and working on a kibbutz with another group of teenagers, including three high school friends. This trip kindled a very strong Zionist spark which was to stay with me the rest of my life. I became acquainted with a cousin from my father’s side of the family who would begin his army service that fall. He accompanied my group on our tour; answering questions from the other kids about what it was like to grow up in Israel. On weekends, I took the bus from my kibbutz to Tel Aviv to stay with him and his family. It was nice – trips to the beach and rowing on the Yarkon River on Saturdays. I fell in love with the land; working in the orchard, climbing Masada, hiking through the Arava, visiting Yad Mordechai – The Ghetto Fighter’s Kibbutz, and most importantly, Yad Vashem.
Fast forwarding; after college, grad school, and career; I married a woman who was born in Iran. Her family was Observant, and my father-in-law taught me how to put tefillin on. He even bought me my first pair, showed me how to put them on, and bought me a long, black and white tallit (which I was married under). I had never seen these things before, much less thought about using them. Through my wife’s family, I was introduced to a form of Judaism I never dreamed I would be living. It was nothing spectacular requiring impossible sacrifice; just curious, different and doable.
Our family, now with two sons and a daughter, kept kosher, went to services at a nearby Conservative synagogue, and observed the holidays. My wife became a Hebrew teacher at the temple school. I sent my sons to Israel on Birthright, to Hebrew high school, and raised them in an observant, kosher Jewish home. They know they are Jews, and proud of being so. Most importantly, they were educated and knew how to answer those on the college campus who were antisemitic and full of hate; there was plenty of that.
But something was missing; something important. My body had nourishment but my soul was starving. I had some difficult and painful physical and emotional things to endure in my forties – the prime of life. It seemed that my life was the farthest thing from what I had envisioned growing up. The “last straw” was the passing of my mother in a nursing home down in Florida in 2014. My father had passed away in 1996, and now more than ever there was a gaping hole in my heart, my soul, that needed to be filled.
The answer was never far away. It came in a felt bag with a zipper, and two boxes of hide and leather, with scrolls of parchment inside – the ever present, though mostly out of sight tefillin. The most obvious reason for wearing them is that it’s an obligation for Jewish men, as set forth in Devarim “Exodus.” But I said I’m a Jew who doesn’t like to do things “because you HAVE to” remember? So, what was it that made me take observing seriously, aside from family life?
I needed some closure with G-d; a “peace agreement” if you will. I read some books that tied in donning tefillin with acupuncture. I read an article by Stephen Schram from the Journal Of Chinese Medicine in 2002 called “Tefillin: An Ancient Acupuncture Point For Mental Clarity.” I didn’t pay much attention to the names of the acupuncture points or the nuances of the science or art, but I did pay attention to the following paragraph:
“The acknowledged purpose of the tefillin is to raise the spiritual consciousness of the men who wear it. If we examine where the knots and wrappings are placed . . . It appears that the tefillin and wraps form a potent acupuncture point formula focused on the Governing Vessel and aimed at elevating the spirit and clearing the mind.” (1)
That’s just what I was looking for: a way to elevate my spirit and clear my mind. To find a way to put all my anxieties, troubles and worries out of my mind taking just a few minutes out of my day, yet lasting for the whole day. In other words – to hand them over to G-d, my G-d. Together with my tallit, I had my own personal piece of divinity. It’s hard to feel anything but holy when reciting the morning blessings and wrapped in the tallit and tefillin. During the COVID pandemic, I couldn’t go to synagogue – no minyan; so I made a minyan of one . . . Two, considering that I knew my G-d was with me; and isn’t G-d infinite?
Just reciting prayers I found gives me as much of a spiritual lift as reading a novel or a newspaper (I like the novels much better). But while wrapped in a tallit and tefillin – the feeling is much different. It encourages davening (WOW! I guess I was davening – imagine that!) with what they call “kavanah,” intense feeling.
I found myself wrapped in concentration; at one with the practices of my ancestors – the G-d of my fathers. A story: When my father’s father David Ben Yakov זייל first arrived at Ellis Island by himself at the age of 17, in 1913, he had one cloth sack over his shoulder containing a few clothes and a bag with a tallit and tefillin inside. I imagined him getting a spiritual strength from them – same as me now, but in much tougher circumstances. Alone, young, and in a foreign country where he didn’t speak the native language, he had brought some divinity with him.
This practice, the “wrapped rituals” I perform every day have transformed me in ways that I never thought possible. In Judaism we are taught that our souls, the life force inside of us, is a small part of G-d, the divine. The tefillin with the three holy Hebrew letters: “Shin,” “Daled” and “Yud,” form one of G-d’s seven holy names: El Shaddai – “The G-d of Heaven.” These are the same letters found engraved on the front of mezuzot, placed upon the doorposts of Jewish homes. By donning tefillin, these letters are imprinted on my soul, a piece of G-d’s purity.
When I pray in this manner I feel at one with the Unity of my Creator. I stop in the middle of my prayers and meditate. I let a feeling of calm wash over me, I breathe deep, I am comforted. I feel a strength; teaching me that whatever curve balls life throws at me, I am always safe. My thirst for a spiritual life is being quenched. This is more powerful than any Yoga, that any practice or teaching can give to me – a Jew in devotional prayer. The secret of the Unity of G-d has been described as follows:
“No matter where I take a hold of a shred of it, I hold the whole of it. Since the teachings and all the commandments are radiations of G-d’s being, when we lovingly do one commandment we take a hold of a shred of the unity of G-d, hold the whole of it in our hands, and have fulfilled all.” (2)
Today, as in years past when being a practicing Jew was a difficult thing, getting back to our roots was what kept us all together. It united us and made us strong. Soon, we will be able to pray as a community again. It’s happening now in some places. The rabbi and teacher Manis Friedman said, and I’m paraphrasing: “Whenever ten Jews are together, praying in a minyan, even the angels are afraid to enter the room.” I’m not sure if one Jew, praying alone in a pandemic has the same effect; but I do know that something holy and good happens. Besides, a few angels here and there couldn’t hurt, right?
Photo by Steve Shalot
1. “Tefillin: An Ancient Acupuncture Point For Mental Clarity.” Stephen Schram. The Journal Of Chinese Medicine; 2002.
2. “The Secret” Siddur Sim Shalom For Weekdays. The Rabbinical Assembly. The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.