My Grandmother's Prayer Shawl

Oct 31, 2012 | Updated Dec 31, 2012

It's been five years since your bat mitzvah. In your bat mitzvah state of mind you read trope cues as easily as ABCs. You teased out meaning from your Torah portion, which recorded the life and death of Sarah. And your wore a tallit or a prayer shawl you picked out in Jerusalem. If you had done any of these things at the Western Wall in Jerusalem the Israeli police might have arrested you and me, the mother who allowed you to commit such a crime.

I must confess to you my dear daughter that I've never felt that any of the rituals your Dad and I gifted you with were truly mine. But in light of Anat Hoffman's recent arrest for wearing her tallit at the Wall, your Bat Mitzvah was as much a political statement as it was a rite of passage.

When I look at your tallit -- pink and silk and uniquely yours -- I think of my grandmother whom I called Abuela. Abuela was born in Greece at the dawn of the 20th century and went to a school there funded by the Rothschilds. She learned the minimum Hebrew to recite the blessings over the Sabbath candles and did needlepoint to fill in the rest of her life.

Nobody wielded a needle and thread like my Abuela. With deft rhythm and mesmerizing patterns, she conveyed a life story of painstaking work and imposed silence. After she arrived in Cuba, Abuela sewed late into the night to make ends meet. She made my mother and my aunt frilly dresses between the sewing jobs she took in from neighbors. Abuela also crocheted her husband and her son's tallitot (prayer shawls) for which she carefully tied the ritual fringes with sore fingers.

In America Abuela fashioned a kind of tallit for herself when she pulled the wool shawl she wore year-round closer to her chest. In her small apartment she sat in a chair with stuffing peeking out of its arm that she was too tired to mend. The few times a year that she ventured to a synagogue, she stood when the ark was opened and blew kisses toward the bimah or altar as if greeting a lover. In a hoarse voice she muttered the Kaddish or the Mourner's Prayer with her hand firmly on my shoulder so that I could not stand up and tempt fate.

When I was 12 my mother lugged a reel-to-reel tape recorder home, which she borrowed from the high school where she taught Spanish. She had planned to record Spanish lessons for the kids that she tutored on the side. But I quickly seized the recorder. The microphone that came with the machine transformed me into a roving reporter. I walked around the house inventing news about my mundane summer days.

Abuela spent most of that summer sitting on our porch, staring through the slats of the new jalousie windows. I felt that I was doing something important in the way that she intently watched me playing with the reel-to-reel. And then one day I got the idea to interview her. "Talk about anything," I told her. Recipes, sewing, childhood stories. But mostly I wanted her to sing again. When she was a young girl she played the lute and sang Ladino songs in a lilting soprano. Her father forbade her to sing when she turned twelve.

My grandfather, Abuelo, was more than willing to take Abuela's turn at the tape recorder. He dressed for prayer, winding the straps of his tefillin around his left arm and placing the leather boxes on his forehead and in the crook of his left arm. Abuelo wore a tallit that he snagged from a local synagogue -- he had to leave the one that Abuela made him with the rest of his possessions in Cuba. He sang the shacharit, as if offering that morning liturgy as his personal history. His voice started off as wobbly as the plastic reels spooling the shiny brown ribbon of tape.

His voice was stronger after he gathered the tzitzit or fringes of his tallit to recite the Sh'ma, Judaism's central prayer. Eyes closed. Voice pleading. I joined him at the microphone. It was thrilling to sing about listening for and loving God with all of my heart and my soul and my strength. In that moment I blurted out that I wanted to be a rabbi.

Abuelo stopped singing and the only thing audible was the squeaking of the reel-to-reel tape recorder, making me cringe as if I heard nails scratching a blackboard. He dropped his tzitzit and said, "Eso es muy feo" -- that is so ugly. Abuela looked up.

Suddenly, finding her voice, Abuela said to me, "You can be anything you want." Abuela could have been anything she wanted too, only she wasn't allowed to think that way. If she were born in a different time, she might have used her voice to defend Anat Hoffman.

I'm sure she would have been inspired by you as you happily wore your tallit and celebrated your coming-of-age by reading from the Torah about every woman's life.