I held my breath as my grandfather
wound the tefillim’s narrow leather strap
around his bicep to hold the small
black box in place, encircled his arm
from shoulder to wrist
until the strap looked like a winding
mountain road. He centered the second box
on his forehead, directly between his eyes,
and then he davened,
chanting Hebrew words I did not understand,
moving his body slowly as the words’ rhythm
carried him forward and back.
Sunlight through the window blinds,
turned the blonde wood of my grandparents’
bedroom furniture to gold.
“You shall love the Lord your God…
take these words…bind them for a
sign upon your hand and as a
frontlet between your eyes.”
I was ten years old, happy for the rare sleepover
at my grandparents’ house, my grandfather
all to myself—my grandmother in the kitchen.
I saw my grandfather, as he was, whole,
a child in Russia, a young man escaping his village in
a haywagon to evade conscription by the Tsar’s army.
He never spoke Russian again.
He learned to speak, read and write English,
but always favored Yiddish, the language
of poets, of bold emotion, of common folk like us.
We kept Kosher
—never ate pork or shellfish—although my mother
ate bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwiches
in restaurants every now and then.
Every Sabbath, dinner at my grandparents’ house.
Roast chicken and potatoes, every Friday night.
I went to High Holy Day services,
sat through Passover seders where I sipped
sweet wine that tasted sour. We lived in a neighborhood
with other Jews; I knew no one
who was not Jewish.
I went to university, filled my life with people
born in countries all around the world.
I studied history but was really studying anthropology.
I knew I was Jewish. I did not engage
in any religious rituals, nor thought I had to,
nor wanted to.
“It never took,” I said for 50 years, thinking whatever
I had learned about being Jewish had left me.
I turned 70.
I remembered watching my grandfather
put on his tefillim. I watched him. I wondered why
the memory had not left me, why it grew
more important every day.
I remember the muscles in his shoulders.
In my family, only he had muscled shoulders.
I remember how prominent were the veins in his arms
as he wrapped the tefillim. I remember how he
strode to work at my father’s store,
down Sixth Street from Dunsmuir to Curson,
his body thrust forward as if
walking into the wind.
He was a Jewish man. He had given up his mother,
his father, his family to come to America.
Who were they? I never knew.
He had married my grandmother. They had raised
two children. I was the seed of one
of those children. Was it all going to end with me?
To remember is not an accident, the rabbi says.
It is the impulse to act, as in re-member: Putting
something back together again for greater wholeness.
My grandchildren know little about being Jewish.
How could they, when I, the only one
who could teach them, had nothing to give.
In the book of Exodus, God re-membered (va’yizkor)
the covenant with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, and
saved the Israelites. If I act on my re-memberment,
can I hold together the small world that is mine?