Tuesday, May 21, 2013

The Temple as Religious Junkyard

People die; you can't stop them. A sad part of death is when the relatives are cleaning out the house or apartment and come upon old prayerbooks, old tefillin, yarmulkehs, talleisim, even chatchkes, and don't know what to do with them-- no one has put on tefillin in years; no one can read the books-- they're in Hebrew or Yiddish. So they call the temple, call the rabbi: "Rabbi, we found these things-- could you use them?" As if the shul has been in some kind of time-warp, and we're just pining away for these old things. But what can you say? Someone died. So you say, "Sure, bring them over." 
Or they just appear. Sad old things, in an old, brown paper shopping bag. I almost hesitated to touch them-- not because the scent of death was on them: no-- it was because they hadn't been used for so long. The tefillin might have been really nice, a really expensive pair-- you could almost imagine the user, so proud that he had this really big, enormous pair of tefillin, the kind that would last a lifetime (well, they did, after all), and now they're just two old, sad, crumbling relics. People don't realize that tefillin, being leather, are the original organic prayer devices: leather is from an animal-- it's meant to lie close to the skin; it's meant to absorb our bodily oils. It keeps the leather firm and supple. And the worst thing you can do with tefillin is to stash them away in a dresser drawer, or, worse, in a basement or attic. The tefillin just pine away with neglect; they actually die their own, quiet, little spiritual death there.
"Can you give them to someone else, Rabbi?"
Well, no; these tefillin are beyond repair; these tefillin can only be buried. It's sad, really; sadder than sad.
My father, let him rest in peace, had his own tefillin repair program. My father had this friend from the 8am minyan, his friend Dovid. Dovid was the go-to guy for everything Dad needed-- everything religious, and then some. Dovid was a short, dark, bullet of a guy, from somewhere in Poland-- or, maybe, Hester Street. And he could get Dad anything Dad wanted. 
A tallis, wholesale price? Dovid.
A pair of tefillin? Dovid.
My mother wanted pearl earrings? Dad would tell her, "I'll ask Dovid."
A nice diamond, emerald cut, not too big, not too small? "Dovid."
We used to joke that if Dad needed a pound of heroin, Dad would say, "I'll ask Dovid." 
And Dovid would come through.
So Dad would take these sad, little tefillin, and Dovid would bring them to his friend, and his friend would rehab them. And then Dad would pass them on to me, and I would give them to deserving young Jewish boys whom I thought would put them on.