There are two sides to every story. And it is said that the bigger the front, the bigger the back. This is the story of my Tallis that mysteriously went missing, how it turned up and what it meant to me.
My father survived the Holocaust, but lost his wife and I lost my five brothers and sisters, the children from his first marriage. Irene Rosenschein was actually herded to the Ghetto in his small town, her last stop before Concentration Camp. He came from a family of 12 siblings. Only five survived. They made their way to New York City and he met my mother on a blind date in front of Ratner’s on Delancey Street. She changed her mind at the last minute on what dress to wear and he almost didn’t find her. But that’s another story…
He was a great Cantor, and served a large prestigious Conservative Congregation in Washington, DC for 30+ years, from 1953 onward. Our lives paralleled in many ways. My grandfather, whose name I carry, recognized his son’s affinity for Torah study, and disapproved of his inclination towards Cantorial Liturgy. My grandmother supported his inspiration. With me, it was reversed. My Mother deplored my wanderlust, while my father hinted at maybe being able to coerce my mother in coming out with him to see what these Colorado mountains were like. Perhaps it was a longing for the Carpathians of his youth that the Catskills couldn’t quite satisfy. But he never made it out. Shortly after his hint he contracted Lymphoma, and in what seemed like an instant, he was a shadow of himself and then gone.
While his Chasidic two brothers and two sisters huddled in Brooklyn after the Shoah, he set off for wider horizons, and settled with a Shul with no Mechitzah. I’m sure his siblings were aghast! But they all loved each other dearly and stayed very close. With me, my two brothers and two sisters still remain in the east, while I set off for Crested Butte, where I lived for 33 years. I was the “Rav” by default, and my first calling was to say Kaddish for a Jewish victim of suicide at a memorial service in 1977, where I shared a beautiful learning about suicide from Talmud that my father gave me over the phone. It was a tremendous “Kiddush Hashem” and a memory of my father that I cherish.
When my father passed, I inherited his beautiful Tallis with the silver Atarah (neckpiece). The same one he used as Cantor for many, many years. When my uncle saw me wearing it at a family Simcha some years ago, his succinct comment was that over the decades the Tallis had soaked up many tears. He also asked me if it was the only Tallis that I had. When I responded that it was, he committed to sending me another one, so that I could save my father’s for special occasions. He sent me a real Satmar Tallis: big, black and white, straight ahead.
On a Shabbos a few months ago, I left that new Tallis on a chair in the Sanctuary at Bonai Shalom while I enjoyed a lovely Kiddush in the beautiful yard on a gorgeous summer day. I was dismayed to find my Tallis gone when I went to retrieve it. All subsequent efforts towards finding it were fruitless: asking everybody I knew, the office, the lost and found. I wondered: “Who would steal a Tallis?”, assuming the worst. But I tried valiantly to have the Holistic attitude of “Gei Gezuntah Hait”: Use it in good health! I tried really hard to let it go and hope that it would fall in good hands (or that I might recognize it in the future). But I struggled. I’m no Dalai Lama. I wanted my Tallis back. That Tallis and all it represented meant a lot to me. Then I found it. And my struggle really began…
I was honored to be allowed to blow the Shofar at Bonai Shalom on the 2nd day of Rosh Hashanah. But I had a really hard time preparing for it. I have been blessed for decades with a consistent ability to blow the Shofar that my father gave me. That Shofar and I were like a machine. But this year nothing would seem to come out. The failure affected me deeply. Rabbi Marc helped me tremendously but I was so gripped by self-consciousness and anxiety that I turned to our beloved Reb Zalman for guidance and advice. I thought for sure that I would need at least 30 minutes of private time with him to deal with my “tsuris”. But in his loving, inimitable fashion, when I caught him in Shul he said “Let’s talk now, what is it?” And in about 30 seconds he told me exactly what I needed to hear and understand. I blew just fine and had what was a cathartic experience. I got into “the zone”…way into the zone…I think you could call that Kavanah.
I came off the Bima and the first person to approach me was Jason Blau, our Ritual Director. He shared a wonderful, very personal feeling about my Shofar “Blewzin” (as my sister calls it) and in that moment I knew how to resolve my struggle. I was still “way out there”, but I told him: “Jason, I have something for you. I found my Tallis. It’s on the Gilad Shalit chair and I want it to stay there. When he’s free, you can give it back to me.” That was three weeks ago and now he is free after five years.
Now, I am not laying claim for getting him freed, even though that was the gist of my humorous email: “Jason, my Tallis worked!” But, somebody had picked up my Tallis, and maybe it was the size, the traditional style, or maybe the special spirit that it embodied. But they decided that this Tallis should replace the generic one that was draping the Gilad Shalit chair in our sanctuary that has been sitting next to our Ark of Torah with his picture. For five years.
I feel that what that person did, and my decision to donate the Tallis were individual pebbles, along with all the pebbles of all the people that have been praying for Gilad for these years, that built a bridge that carried him from tortuous captivity to the loving arms of his worried parents. That what this experience crystallized was the connectedness of all of us, and the power of good intention and heartfelt prayer.
My Tallis was returned to me ceremoniously last Shabbos at Bonai Shalom on my Hebrew birthday where I shared this story. And what a great personal event: To have a prayer answered on my birthday! And now I have two special Tallaysim! I just hope they don’t fight with each other…
I dedicate this essay to my mentor and Shaman, Steven Young, with prayers for his complete and speedy recovery, a Refuah Sh’Layma. If not for Steven, I might never have had children.