Several months ago Rabbi Yisrael Lein of Shul East in Milwaukee approached me at the end of morning services and said to me, “Bob, I think it’s time that you bought a new tallis.”
I did not need to take a look down to be aware that my tallis was discolored and ripped. I responded “When a communist gives you a tallis, it is a very special tallis and one should not be in a hurry to discard it.” Rabbi Lein probably thought to himself, “Another difficult congregant to deal with.”
My provocative response to my rabbi set me thinking about my family history and how I got to be wearing this tattered tallis. My tallis was indeed old, given to me in 1981 as a gift from my father’s sister Goldie and her husband Robbie. They had flown to Milwaukee to be with me on my bar mitzvah. I might add that it was a special bar mitzvah as I was 37-years-old. One could say it was a long time in the-coming.
I had been raised in a communist household which meant that a bar mitzvah or anything that smacked of Jewishness was forbidden to me. As a result neither my brother nor I had a bar mitzvah, unlike all of our Jewish friends whose bar mitzvahs we had attended. I think it is fair to say that my siblings and I were left with a weak Jewish identity. When my father died, I was 26-years-old and still very much under his influence.
Following my parent’s deaths in 1970-71, I came to Milwaukee seeking a new beginning. I worked at the Jewish Community Center in their senior adult programming. Rabbi Samuels of Lubavitch House was a regular participant in these programs and before long I trusted him to steer my own Jewish development. After attending a synagogue (Anshai Leibowitz) for two years, I decided that it was time to become a bar mitzvah. Through my entire adult life, I carried a void that, in not having a bar mitzvah, I was missing an important piece of my identity puzzle.
When I told my family back East what I intended to do, they were mystified. They said to me “What in the world do you need that for now?” I knew that my parents, if they had been alive at this time, would have been critical of my plans and that my mother would have been unable to convince my father to come. Thus, I was very grateful when my aunt and uncle from the Bronx said they were going to attend. Knowing they were coming was a great source of comfort to me.
The morning of my bar mitzvah, my aunt and uncle presented me with a wrapped gift. It was too big to be a fountain pen and I had no idea what it contained. When I opened it up, I was stunned to see a folded beautiful black and white tallis. They explained that they had taken a subway to the Jewish section in the lower east side in Manhattan to buy a tallis for their “favorite” nephew.
When I reflect back on this long history, having the perspective of now being a senior myself, I see those days more in terms of generational clashes. My parents’ generation lived through the dark days of the Holocaust and turned to a political belief that promised a fairer world order. In doing so, they too willingly surrendered a major part of their Jewish identity which I so badly needed.
I now understand that the gift of the tallis was a peace offering, fusing our entire family as Jews. Whether we are religious or not, we are all Jews. Needless to say, that on my special day, I was aglow with happiness as I stood in front of the congregation wrapped in my new tallis. And now you know why I am reluctant to replace this aged tallis.
Bob Bruch is a retired Veterans Administration social worker who now spends his time playing chess and taking daily rides on the city bus.