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Printed in Every Tallit Tells A Tale
By Harriet R. Goren
On Sundays we’d pile into the ’67 Chevy and head to one of my uncles’ interchangeable apartments—musty furniture, plastic slipcovers, tassled lamps. I was the only niece, and all my aunts and uncles were much older. Everyone complained about sciatica and arthritis, and I had no one to talk to except my cousin Jerry, who was sweet but said little. When I was 9, he had just come back from a year of fighting in Vietnam. He’d sit on the other side of the room in a heavy chair and smile shyly; sometimes we’d play gin rummy. I imagined that his silence accompanied wise thoughts, as he absorbed without complaint all the shrill laughter and babka-scented kisses that swirled around us. There were always whispers, rumblings: Jerry was Not Right. “It’s the war,” said my mother. “Who the hell knows what went on over there?”
One Sunday we were late. My father paced in front of our apartment door as I was getting zipped and swathed into layers of clothing, as if Brooklyn were the North Pole.
The phone rang. My mother ran over and picked up the receiver, and after a moment I saw her body seem to get smaller, her eyes wider.
“What do you mean?” she yelled into the receiver. “How could someone just disappear?” She leaned into the doorway, and I thought she might fall.
“Are we going or not?” my father demanded. “Jerry’s missing,” she answered, in almost a whisper.
My mother and Jerry’s father tried to find him, keeping a few private investigators gainfully employed. They determined he was in San Francisco; beyond that, no clue. Thirty years passed, and I paid the price of having old relatives: my aunts and uncles died, and then my parents. Jerry’s few belongings, including a small, blue velvet bag emblazoned with a frayed, gold Star of David, ended up in a corner of my bottom drawer. Inside were the accoutrements of male Jewish adulthood: a prayer book and a tallit, a prayer shawl, “Pure Silk” embroidered white on white. Except for the picture in my mind of soft eyes and dark hair where everyone else’s was gray, nothing else remained of my cousin.
One hot August afternoon, I checked my answering machine.
“Hello?” said an unfamiliar, twangy voice. “This is the Family Research Bureau in Utah, regarding your cousin, Jerome. Please call back at your earliest convenience.” He left a phone number. Then a dial tone.
I stared at the phone. Shaking, I dialed. Jerry, it seemed, had died a year ago in San Francisco and the small amount of his veteran’s benefits, which had ended up at a company that specialized in tracking down relatives of lonely people who were outlived by their bank balances, had found their way to me.
I looked out the window at the crowds going to lunch and was sad, which startled me. Jerry had long ago faded to a wisp of a thought in my awareness, the tallit bag hidden and buried beneath winter sweaters. Most of my family, these days, existed only as images with bent corners in photo albums and there, or among the anonymous people walking down the street, I had always imagined Jerry would remain.
It was a month later, the second day of Rosh Hashanah. For most of my adult life I had been Jewish in name only, not caring much for a God that left me with hundreds of dollars a year in burial plot maintenance bills. But at the urging of a friend who thought it would be a good way to meet guys, I’d recently joined a synagogue, one rich in music, joy and community. At first I was wary; I had forgotten how to be part of something larger. Gradually I came to love it, and trust in its permanence, and watched my life grow less tentative and more intertwined with others as a result. As I walked to holiday services that morning, I thought of my first connections, my family and the stories from so long ago, and remembered the questions I still had about Jerry. What day did he die? I wondered. I had never asked.
But a few days later, before I could call Utah for the answer, I received an envelope of legal documents. Jerry had been homeless, I read. According to a court report, “He has not likely bathed in years. The social worker stated: ‘He is bright (although very irrational) and has social graces….’ We have not included details about the condition in which his body was found, as it is very graphic.” My tears stained the photocopies as I recognized the kind, lost boy from the back of my mind. He died in his room the previous September, on the second day of Rosh Hashanah—the same day, exactly one year later, that I would wonder when to say the mourner’s kaddish for Jerry and remember his life in prayer along with the rest of our family.
It took me one more year, until the second day of the next Rosh Hashanah, to take Jerry’s tallit from the small velvet bag and wrap it around myself for the first time, and so join with my community in yet another way. It was an unfamiliar sensation, a nice one, and reminded me how he would gingerly hug me goodbye, the embrace of a feather blown about however the world decreed. The Jewish tradition is to be buried in one’s tallit but now, instead, I would rest his memory on my shoulders every time I wore it. And the others, my aunts and uncles, my mother and father, like the fringes bundled together and tied tightly at its corners, would never be far away.
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