SAGE

My Father’s Tzitzit

When I was a little girl, I went to synagogue with my father. One of my earliest memories is being young enough to sit on his lap in the men’s section, where we shared two special games. The first he called “Find theAleph,” the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet. It may sound easy, but believe me, looking at a sea of black Hebrew letters and finding every alephon the page was quite the challenge for a child of three or four. This game was designed to keep me quiet, but unfortunately it had quite the opposite effect, since every time I’d find one I’d cry out, triumphantly, “Aleph!”

And so he devised the second, far quieter game.

My father taught me to braid his tzitzit. I don’t think he ever braided my long brown hair, but he taught me how to plait the strings that hung from his soft, white prayer shawl.

I didn’t always understand his words or his ways, but I understood his hugs

You are probably thinking: why is this significant? Of course a man can make a simple braid, and why shouldn’t he be able to impart this basic skill to his only daughter? You see, it’s that my father was an immigrant. He spoke many languages, some better than others; I didn’t always understand his words or his ways. Still, I understood his hugs, the way he tickled me under my chin, and the hard candies he always had in his pocket. And somehow, I understood his silent instructions. Over, under, over, under—the braid took shape as my little fingers learned the lessons of his big, gentle hands.

As I got older, there is very little else I remember my father actually teaching me. After all, what could he teach a girl who got straight A’s in school and wanted to go to an Ivy League college? Who valued her secular education more than any old-world folk wisdom he could possibly pass on?

And yet, today, what I remember from college seems like a big blur of intellectual trivia compared to the simple lessons of my father: he taught me to say theShema before I went to sleep, and the Modeh An when I woke. He taught me the blessings for bread, for wine, and even for the occasional Scotch. I may not remember to always say these prayers, but I know them all by heart. The way I know my social security number . . . and my Jewish name.

When my father died after a short illness, peacefully in bed, at the age of eighty-two, a man from the Jewish burial society, the Chevra Kadisha, came to prepare his body according to Jewish law. He asked me if my father had a tallit he’d want to be buried in, as a shroud. Of course he did, I said, and I went to get his same old and treasured prayer shawl from its familiar worn velvet bag, beside his bed.

As this physical connection was broken, a new bond was formed

The man from the burial society—whose name I don’t remember, but whose kindness I will never forget—asked me a question then that, in my shock and grief, I wasn’t even sure I heard correctly. He asked if I would like to keep one of the tzitzit. I stared at him, dumbfounded, and almost laughed with sudden joy and a wave of unexpected relief. “I can really do that?” I asked, amazed that the strict laws of Jewish burial ritual would permit such a sentimental but meaningful gesture. He assured me they would, and asked for a scissors.

I got it, and tensed as he prepared to cut the cord. At that moment one of my dad’s last links to the earthly world was cut, and I felt an almost umbilical severing of the bond between the father who had filled the days of my life and the one who would come to inhabit my memory. And yet, as this physical connection was broken, a new bond was formed.

Today, every time I touch the tzitzit, it is as if I am touching my father. The braided cord—for it is, indeed, a braid I made—is a tangible reminder of one of his sweetest lessons. In the braids of his tzitzit are the cords of his life, the temporal entwined with the spiritual, in a special, private link that remains long after his soul departed. The tzitzit is now a bookmark in my prayerbook, and as I turn each page I find the alephs and remember my father, whose quiet wisdom I hope to honor every time I touch his final gift.

BY JESSICA KLEIN LEVENBROWN

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