Thursday, August 12, 2004

A Strapping Young Man

It is unquestionably one of the oddest sights in all of Judaism. I’m talking about tefillin, AKA phylacteries. If you’ve never seen them, it’s pretty jarring. Jet black and square, made of a single piece of leather molded under thousands of pounds of pressure, and worn on the head and arm during daily morning prayers.

To the Western eye, it just looks weird.

Still, when I started becoming more interested in traditional Jewish rituals some twenty years ago, I took on the mitzvah of tefillin myself. And after awhile, it didn’t seem so wacky. I got used to it. It seemed even normal.

Eventually, though, my overall commitment to prayer began to waver, and with it my dedication to putting on tefillin every morning. The reasons for this change are between me and God. Or my therapist, I suppose. But I was OK with it. A little nostalgic, but OK.

Until last week.

You see, my son Amir is about to become a bar mitzvah. At the age of 13, he will be considered a man in the eyes of Jewish law. And religious men (well, most of them anyway) wear tefillin when they pray.

I could have just given Amir my old tefillin. But that would be saying that I’d given up entirely. I prefer to think of it as "taking a break." Like Ross and Rachel from "Friends." Or Israelis who go for an extended trip to North America but, when asked, always say they’re "just visiting."

So off we went to shop for tefillin. That’s when sticker shock set in. I had no idea tefillin was going to be so expensive!

First there’s the leather itself. There are thick ones and skinny ones, and naturally the thicker the better "for everyday use," explained Rivka, the tefillin saleswoman at Oter Israel in Jerusalem’s Givat Shaul neighborhood.

Then there’s the quality of the calligraphy on the parchment that’s stuffed inside the tefllin. There are five pieces of parchment in total, each with lines from the Torah. A top-notch sofer can jack the price of tefillin up to thousands of dollars.

Let me tell you, for a guy who’s ambivalent about tefillin in the first place, that was a lot to shell out. But Amir was into it.

"Why not order tefillin now for your younger son?" Rivka offered. "Lock in the price."

One tefillin at a time, I thought.

$550 later, we walked out with a beautiful pair of perfect, unblemished tefillin

Now, custom holds a bar mitzvah boy may begin putting on tefillin thirty days before the big day.

"Do it with me," Amir said.

My heart skipped a beat. Why hadn’t I seen this coming? Of course he would want me to do it with him. It’s a father’s responsibility. Like teaching your child to swim.

"Abba, do you even have tefillin?" six-year-old Aviv wise-cracked, overhearing our conversation.

"Sshhh..." I said feeling guilty and embarrassed at the same time. Most kids from religious homes catch at least an occasional glimpse of their fathers praying. But what could I do?

We agreed to start bright and early the next Sunday.

Fortunately, there’s another custom where the day a bar mitzvah boy first puts on tefillin, there’s a little celebration. And since we’re Jews, we celebrate with food.

Jody went out and bought a dozen fresh bagels with cream cheese and lox spread from the just opened Tal Bagels store on Emek Refaim Street. That was a nice enough reward.

Or was it a bribe? And for whom?

While Jody laid out the spread, Amir and I got out our tefillin. Amir looked at me expectantly. "Which side goes up?" he asked, holding up the arm tefillin.

I looked at the tefillin hesitated for a moment, then began. "The strap goes towards…the back...yes, that’s right," I said referring to the long black leather strap that comes out of the tefillin box and is wrapped seven times around the arm before making a loop-the-loop on the hand to spell out the Hebrew letter "shin."

"Here watch me," I said.

Amir tried. His tefillin fell right off his arm.

"Pull it here tight enough that it stays on, but not so tight that it cuts off circulation," I instructed.

"Ow, that hurts," Amir complained.

"It will get better. Your straps are still stiff. After a few weeks, the leather will soften up. Like a good pair of shoes. Now continue like this."

And as I started circling the straps of the tefillin around my arm, memory shot back like an Arrow missile chasing a Scud. I guess all those years of tefillin-wearing were like riding a bike. The spokes might get a bit rusty, but you never really forget.

I put on the head tefillin. So did Amir.

"It’s a bit crooked," I said.

"So’s yours," Amir responded.

"It is?" I said, and we picked up a small mirror to examine the placement.

"It’s supposed to rest on the hairline," Amir said, remembering what he’d learned in school.

"I can’t see yours, Amir. You’ve got too much hair."

"I can see yours, Abba."

"Very funny."

We adjusted and straightened and pulled and then after what seemed like a half an hour, we stood opposite each other. Both of us wearing tefillin. A father and his nearly thirteen-year-old man-cub. Suddenly playing on the same field.

"Where do you usually start praying?" Amir asked, opening the prayer book and waiting for a page number.

"I usually..." But there was no "usually." There was only the past...and the future. And as I looked into Amir’s eyes, so eager and full of enthusiasm, so mature and yet so new to all of this, there was only one answer.

"Let’s start at the beginning," I said.

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