Quintessentially Jewish miracle: Torah, candles, tefillin, me

September 18, 2017
The two silver candlesticks brought from Russia by the author’s great-grandmother Rebecca Photos courtesy of Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson.

At this sacred season, Jews around the world will focus on Rosh Hashanah, the renewed year, and Yom Kippur, a day of introspection. These ancient holidays celebrate the planet and its capacity to sustain, and our interiority and its capacity to renew. These gifts are not ours as solitary individuals, but as part of an endless flow of humanity, those who have gone before us, and those who will come after us. So, let me share a few relevant memories, not because my stories are so different than yours, but because, I imagine, we all have similar stories.

The first is the story about my maternal great-grandfather, David Friedman. David came as a young man to the United States, a country full of promise and great challenges, at a time of extensive bigotry and great economic hardship. He settled in Bridgeport, Conn., where at the time there was no thriving Jewish community. His first venture was to go to Manhattan to procure a sefer Torah, a Torah scroll, for the princely sum of $100. He brought that Torah scroll home and, for some 25 years in the wilds of Connecticut, he created a minyan in his living room. In time, he gave that scroll to my great aunt Ruth, who moved to Los Angeles. Her Conservative congregation continues to use David’s Torah scroll. His decision touched the future.

A second tale: My paternal great-grandmother, Rebecca, came to the United States from Russia. She brought with her two silver candlesticks as a connection to the world she left. Those candlesticks went into the possession of my great aunt, who was very involved in a Jewish community in Miami. On her deathbed, knowing of my love for Judaism, she bequeathed those candlesticks to me. My wife, children and I continue to bring in every Shabbat and Yom Tov with my great-grandmother’s candlesticks.

Perhaps the most inspiring of the three tales: Throughout my childhood in San Francisco, I was an atheist. I did not celebrate the Jewish holidays regularly, certainly not in any traditional way. On Yom Kippur, I went to school, ate the nonkosher food in the school cafeteria, and ended the day by “breaking the fast” at my aunt’s house.

I grew up in an elegant Reform congregation. Prayer for me was a matter of majesty and decorousness — which is to say, from my juvenile perspective, boring. (I have been back as an adult and now find those services uplifting and inspiring).

In college, for the first time, I encountered more traditional ways of being Jewish (and I was older, hence more open). A close friend’s mother died, and he needed someone to join him in reciting the Kaddish prayer for her. I had never attended a morning minyan, let alone an Orthodox one, so you can imagine my shock as a secular kid from San Francisco walking for the first time into a room in which the men and women were separated, and the men were wrapping leather boxes and straps around their arms.

The author with his great-grandfather’s tefillin.

My friend, Lee, explained that these boxes, tefillin, contained verses of Torah and that the men wrapped themselves in these boxes as a way of saying how much they loved God and Torah, physically binding these words to their bodies. I was so astonished and moved that when I returned home for winter break, I told my grandmother about these quaint leather boxes and how beautiful that tradition seemed. She left the room, went into her hallway closet and started rummaging. On the top shelf, she found a paper bag with her father’s tefillin, which hadn’t been used in the 50-some years since he had died, and gave them to me. A few years ago, a colleague took them to a scribe in Jerusalem who specializes in making old tefillin kosher for use. Now, every morning that isn’t Sabbath or festival, I bind myself to words of Torah with the exact same tefillin my great-grandfather cherished.

I tell these stories of a Torah scroll, candlesticks and tefillin because I believe I am the recipient of a recurrent and quintessentially Jewish kind of miracle: two, three and four generations ago, someone cradled something precious and then lobbed it across the generations to me, and I caught it.

Someday, I will bequeath it to my children and they to theirs. But this miraculous gift across the generations is but the physical symbol of just how much we have been given by those who have gone before us.

Think of the beauty and the wisdom in our Jewish traditions and values: a Torah that asserts the sanctity of life, the dignity of human beings and the beauty of the world; and that teaches us through stories and precepts how to elevate our lives and to re-engage the world. Think of the people who have brought us to these Holy Days of possibility, how they sacrificed so that we could receive an education. Think of what a value education has been for our people — and humanity — across the millennia, and the sacrifices our ancestors made to provide wisdom, perspective and morality. Think of the wonderful stories shared by loving parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, and how much those stories shape our identities. Think of the places and people we’ve never met who are part of our breath.

Most precious of all, think of how most of us grew up with the sense of being loved and lovable. We had people who embraced us, who held us when we cried in the night, who fed us when we were hungry. Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra, the great medieval Bible commentator, noted that “… a person who has a family is like a branch that is attached to its source.”

We are, all of us, mishpachah — family. No Jew is ever really alone.

Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson holds the Abner and Roslyn Goldstine Dean’s Chair of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University in Los Angeles.

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