"I Will Seek Refuge in the Shelter of Your Tent" (Psalm 61:4)

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Photo Credit: Dr. M. Richard Mendelson © 2015


My Father's Tallis from the Holocaust

By Annette Keen*

I grew up in a small farming community in southern New Jersey. There I attended a tiny Orthodox synagogue that my father and other war refugees had built nearby so that they could walk to services. As a little girl, sitting behind the curtain in the women's section made me restless and so my mother would send me out to my father, who was leading the service as cantor. I would scramble up to the bima and stand quietly at his side while he prayed.

One Shabbat, as I stood with my father at the bima, he drew me close to his side and lifted over our heads the large black and white tallis that he, a Holocaust survivor, had carried with him across Eastern Europe. It was the companion in all his wanderings and the solace in all his deprivations. It was the one thing he had not lost, which came to represent all that he had lost. And for that he cherished it all the more.

Beneath this hallowed tallis, in my father's tent, he chanted the Shemoneh Esreh as I studied the specs of dust dancing above me in the yellowish light filtering through the tallis. I breathed in the warmth of my father's breath, enchanted by the whispering prayer that filled our tent, the rise and flow of its cadence drawing me along in its surging current. It was a rarified moment in an elevated universe, imprinted in the soul of a child as it waits patiently to be awakened in the adult.

When my father died in 1998, the tallis disappeared. I assumed that it had become his burial shroud.

But then during one of my visits home, my mother turned suddenly to me and said, "I couldn't find your father's tallis for the longest time, but now I remember what I did with it. I gave it to you." I didn't correct her. I had begun to notice Mom's memory lapses and there was no point in further distressing her.

"Yes," I reassured her. "It's with me."

She smiled and patted my hand. "Good. Daddy wanted you to have it."

Still, I continued to believe that the tallis was with my father in his grave.

My mother died last spring. Following the funeral, my husband and I began to clear out her small apartment, bursting with all the paraphernalia of her slow decline. We wheeled out walkers, wheelchairs, and oxygen equipment. We threw out a bewildering array of medications. Photographs were removed from the walls, boxes of loose photographs were sorted, and albums arranged.

Then we turned to the furniture, wondering which could be sold, which should be given away. I sat at the dining room table, engulfed in memory. I saw my father standing to recite Kiddush over the Shabbas wine, my mother's beautiful face still radiant from the candle lighting, as she stands at his side. Together they created a sacred choreography that has enriched my life.

I combed through the contents of drawers and sorted through overflowing closets. It was silent, heart-breaking work, deciding what to save, what to dispose of, touching my mother's things, burying my face in them and breathing in the sweet scent of my mother, still stubbornly clinging to them.

Finally we came to the most daunting project, emptying the storage room overflowing with, who knew what. We dragged out countless boxes of moldering clothing, scuffed shoes and discarded pocketbooks, odd pieces of flatware and dishes, pots without lids, lids without pots, broken coffee makers, malfunctioning toasters, burned out light bulbs, mops without handles.laughter was never far from tears.

With all the boxes removed and dragged outdoors to the dumpster, we arrived at the back wall of the storage room. Here and there, on a teetering metal rack, odd pieces of battered luggage had been thrown. One by one, out they went.

Then I saw that an item was wedged into a corner, trapped beneath the collapsed end of a heavy shelf. My husband forced his shoulder under the supporting end, and sliding towards the fallen end, he managed to lift it, as I crouched down to take a look. A strap protruded so I pulled at it. A small, fairly new suitcase sprang free. I fell back onto the cold stone floor, launching a blizzard of dust. Something was sliding about inside the suitcase. My heart began to thump.

I hunched over the suitcase. Sitting in a cone of yellowish light filtering down from the ceiling fixture through the choking dust, I unzipped the flap and began to sob.

My father's tallis had found me.

Annette Keen is a freelance writer in upstate New York. A retired editor, her stories and essays have appeared in ESRA Magazine, Jewish Magazine and United Synagogue Review. She is the text author of the award-winning cookbook, "Divine TM Kosher Cuisine."

Dr. M. Richard Mendelson is a retired nuclear engineer and avid photographer.


from the 2015 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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