Taking Off My Tefillin
I used to love putting on tefillin every day, but as I got older, I lost my faith. Now they sit on my shelf.
When I was 8 years old, I went with my father to a crafts fair at a local synagogue in Dallas. Uninterested in purchasing Hebrew Monopoly or any of the Jewish star-emblazoned necklaces, earrings, bracelets, baseball hats, and underwear the fair had to offer, we found the exit earlier than anticipated. But on our way out, as fate would have it, something caught my dad’s bargain-hunting eye: a booth selling tefillin.
These were not just any ordinary tefillin. For starters, there was the case—the same protective carrying case that Israeli soldiers used in the field. It was waterproof, boiling-hot-latke-oil-proof, nuclear bomb-proof, and could survive a fall off the Western Wall. Inside the top of the case was a mirror that could, I don’t know, deflect enemy lasers. Of course, my dad had to buy them for me.
I was offered a choice of three different types of tefillin to put in this amazing case: the cheap kind; the affordable but still socially acceptable kind; or the ultra-expensive, endorsed-by-the-chief-rabbi-of-Israel kind. I didn’t want my dad to shell out too much money on these super tefillin, of which I did not yet quite understand the significance. Also not wanting to insult God by electing the crappy cheap version, I decided to go for the second option, the semi-super tefillin.
Since I was only 8, they languished on my parents’ shelf until the big day came. It was one month before my 13th birthday, the customary moment for me to put on tefillin for the first time. I woke up at 6 a.m. to accompany my dad to morning minyan.
A rabbi who sat next to my dad carefully explained how to put them on. “Put the shel yad on first, but don’t finish wrapping it, and then put on the shel rosh,” he said, leaning a little too close to my face as he steadied the headgear. It was a perfect moment; problem was, he put it on the wrong arm. I was none the wiser until 10 minutes later when my dad asked, “Aren’t you a righty?”
“Yeah, so?” I answered.
“It’s on the wrong arm!” he said louder than necessary, eliciting scowls from those around us. He motioned, and the rabbi came to help me put it on the correct arm, while disappointingly grumbling, “I thought you were a lefty.”
Despite this phylactating error, the whole ordeal ended up a great success. As I looked around the room, I saw the men around me rolling up their sleeves and flexing their bulging muscles, like a group of Jewish Rosie the Riveters, and slowly wrapping their tefillin around their arms and heads. My mom sat in the women’s section, watching with glee as her little boy davened with tefillin. A family friend snapped pictures with a disposable Kodak. As I snacked on sticky doughnuts and orange juice after prayers ended, I felt like I was part of an exclusive club.
It’s now five years later. And at age 18, I must now confess that my tefillin have become for me what Woody was to the boy in Toy Story: They were once my favorite toy, but they have been dumped by the wayside, left to waste away with the rest of my former favorites: Pokémon cards, superhero action figures, my lucky rock. If my tefillin could talk to me, I bet they would say, “C’mon, Ari, put me on one more time. Just like the old days.”
As soon as I became a bar mitzvah, I began praying at the local yeshiva. This, too, made me feel like a part of the special Tefillin Club. I would put on my tefillin in the back row, surrounded by cool high-school kids, and I’d walk out with the extra cool ones for a hot-chocolate break after we finished the shemonah esrei.
Quite simply, I loved my tefillin. Though it was a nuisance to get out of bed in time every morning, putting on tefillin was a staple of my day. Even on days when it was forbidden to put tefillin on, I longed for them and wished that I could. Whenever I would see children my age immaturely hitting each other with the loose straps, I would silently seethe. How could they be so irreverent, so sacrilegious? I would never treat my tefillin that way, I’d think.
Then things changed. I began to lose faith.
I would hear stories of people who had their lives saved by their tefillin. One guy was praying while driving and got into a car accident; the only thing that stopped his head from smashing through the windshield was his headpiece. Another devout man, about to board a plane, realized he left his tefillin at home and missed the flight while retrieving them, and—you guessed it—the plane crashed. It all sounded like a bit much.
One morning, I woke up and a thought fell on me like a ton of bricks. I realized I was only an Orthodox Jew because it was what I had been taught since birth. I knew no other way. If I had been born into a Christian family, I would have been on the Jesus train. If I’d been born into a Muslim family, I would’ve jumped on the Allah bandwagon. If I had been raised in the splendor of the flying spaghetti monster, then I’d have spent my mornings praising his noodle appendages. I was an Orthodox Jew by chance, I realized, and the realization shook me to my core.
I started looking at Judaism as objectively as possible and asking myself, “Does any of this stuff actually make sense?” The answer for me was a resounding no.
In New Kosher Cuisine, one of the doyennes of kosher home cooking takes her fare in a simpler direction