A Surprising Tefillin Story

As a child of maybe seven, while exploring the basement of our suburban home, I found a curious item, a velvet bag containing little boxes with long black leather straps attached to them. Hauling them upstairs I asked my father if I could use the straps for a craft project.

He took the package from my hands and drew the objects out tenderly. "I have not used these since the beginning of the war," is what I recall him to have said. He continued: "I used to keep kosher, say the Shema at bed time every night, and pray with these every morning." I regarded this latter statement with surprise. We went to Friday night synagogue together occasionally, lit candles, had a Hanukkah menorah and a Seder, not much else.

"These are called Tephillin," he explained. "They contain hand-written scrolls with verses from the Torah about love and the importance of keeping the mitzvot as a way of showing love. During my term of service in World War II the horrors that I saw following Patton, left me bewildered. Because of my army experience I stopped praying, wearing a tallit kattan and using these."

My father was a first sergeant in the Signal Corps, I later learned, and as a consequence was at a concentration camp during the Holocaust, the day after the camp was liberated. Dad wandered off with the tephillin. We did not discuss them again.

A year later my Yiddish-speaking Grandfather Benjamin came for an extended visit. Every morning he would go to the dining room and mumble for an hour, putting on a similar set of boxes and straps (his boxes are much tinier than my father's) and a tallit prayer shawl. My mother says at first I would watch him intently and after some weeks she found me beside him everyday, with a ribbon wrapped around my arm and a towel over my shoulders.

One day "Pop Pop" turned to me for the first time in the midst of his prayer, took off his Tephillin and wound them properly onto me, uttering urgently in to me incomprehensible Yiddish. He went home the next day and entered a "rest home" not long thereafter.

Due to the issues of certain rabbis in Germany in dealing with the presence and participation of women, all sorts of restrictions got imposed in the 13th century that have only recently been lifted, so I was surprised by what my grandfather did. Often I've wondered, given my pixie hair cut in those times, did he think I was a little boy? Or sensing his mortality and knowing I was the only family member drawn to Judaism religiously, had he made a strategic decision? Or, since he was a scholarly man did he know that many great rabbis have ruled that females can perform this mitzvah? For example Rabbenu Tam, Rabbi Zerahia HaLevi and the Rashba said so and in the Talmud we read that "Mikhal the daughter of King Saul wore Tephillin and the sages did not protest." [Eruvin 96a.]

Pop Pop's Tephillin became my own. One day they even returned to the Ukraine with me, their and his place of origin. The spiral of spirit continues because when I discovered that they are a spiritual tool to help me meditate and connect my heart and head to healthy living, Tephillin practice became an important part of my life. [Except Shabbat, when we don't wear them]. Once Tephillin even got me out of trouble at airport security [I'll post that at the end of this section as a treat.]