I remember, as a girl, sitting in shul (we belonged to Agudas Achim then) next to my mother's father. His name was Dr. Isaac Epstein, though family and coworkers alike called him Eppie. I remember his tallis: blue and silver and white, as most were in that shul in those days. But his was bigger, and silkier, than the ones made available for members to use. Best of all was the long silky fringe along the bottom edge. The four corners had the requisite long tassels, with a waterfall of soft threads in between. I used to comb my fingers through the fringes as he prayed, savoring how the silk felt on my skin.
I remember sitting beside him in shul a few years later, following along diligently in my siddur. I remember knowing that he was proud of my Hebrew skills. It made him happy that I could zip through the Shabbat morning service the way he did. Even then, I remember fiddling with the fringe on his tallis a little. If he noticed, he didn't say anything; I guess he didn't mind.
When he was buried, I remember his brothers from the Masonic lodge placing
a blue and white tallis over his simple pine coffin. But that was a plain donated
one, not the one he'd used in life. His soft silk tallis went to
his oldest grandson, my oldest brother. This fall, when I was in Texas, my brother gave it to me.
At my shul we say kaddish at Shabbat for our loved ones whose yarzheits will fall in the coming week; this morning that list included Eppie, whose yarzheit is 26 Kislev, the second day of Chanukah. Eppie, thoracic surgeon, reared in smalltown Russia, married in Prague. Eppie who almost became a rabbi, but chose the path of secular learning and medical school instead. Eppie whose stories expanded my horizons in a way that continues to shape who I am and who I want to become. (I've blogged about him before.)
I had the privilege of leading services this morning. For the first time
since I became bat mitzvah in 1988, I did not wear the bone-on-bone
Phyllis Kantor handwoven tallit which my parents gave me as my bat mitzvah
gift: I wore Eppie's tallis, instead. Throughout the service I kept
touching the silk, marveling at its texture. When it came time to
gather the four corners of the tallit together (as we recited "Bring us
in peace from the four corners of the earth...") I let the fringes slip
through my fingers for an instant, like I used to do.
I thought about how proud Eppie used to be that I could davven shacharit with fluency, and how proud he would be to see me now. Wrapping myself in a prayer shawl always feels to me like enfolding myself in a tangible manifestation of God's presence; today, the tallis felt a little bit like a tangible touch from my grandfather, too.