Over the past two months, I’ve been in synagogue on Shabbat four times, way more than normal, because of back-to-back family bar and bat mitzvahs. I was asked to read from the Torah at two of the services, for the first time since my own bat mitzvah 15 years ago.
It seems only fitting that I received my taped recording of the first Torah portion (I never learned the trop system) just before a trip to my parents’ house. I listened to the tape over and over again on their early-1980s stereo, studying and trying to memorize the passage just as I had a decade and a half ago. It felt like a second bat mitzvah, an adult rite of passage and a chance to start a fresh Jewish life. It felt like a gift.
That night, I couldn’t fall asleep in the antique bed that my great-grandparents bought almost a hundred years ago. I am the third generation of women, after my grandmother and mother, to snuggle into the bed for a night’s rest, but the only one who has ever read from the Torah, learned Hebrew or put on a tallis, or prayer shawl. I realized that just an arm’s reach away, in the matching armoire next to my bed, was my father’s tallis, the same one I wore at my bat mitzvah.
As I turned the key on the armoire, opening the door and carefully sliding open the middle drawer, I thought about how almost every Jewish artifact associated with my upbringing was locked inside this piece of furniture, a piece that was purchased and lovingly preserved by the side of my family that comes from the classical Reform tradition, the Cincinnati heritage of all-English services and the shedding of Jewish rituals in favor of a more moralistic, American civil religious experience. The prayer book inscribed with my name was in there, along with my bat mitzvah speech and paperwork, and the tallis, carefully folded and tucked away inside its blue velvet bag, emblazoned with a gold Star of David.
I wondered if, seeing me in that moment, my great-grandparents would have been disappointed or considered me a throwback, looking for the wrong things from Judaism. But the next morning I showed the tallis the light of day, washed it and pressed it. My father dug in his own drawer and found my grandfather’s tallis tucked in there. The two shawls matched, so they must have been purchased at the same time, probably for my father’s 1957 bar mitzvah.
I chose my grandfather’s tallis for my Torah readings, because it’s a man’s size, my father’s a smaller boy’s. Although it’s not the huge drapery that some people wear, the enormous cocoon that seems to create a little personal prayer pocket, it feels big and comforting to me when I put it on. Kind of like how my grandfather felt to me. Like something a Jewish adult would wear. And, at age 28, I finally felt like a true Jewish adult.
Holly Lebowitz Rossi writes from Arlington, Mass.
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