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.
Still, it was a gradual progression. I still put my tefillin on at first, but maybe just said a few prayers, or rushed through davening, or waited until the last possible moment before sundown. It was once so clear to me why I put them on; symbolism this, God that, heaven this, divine retribution that. But at some point, it became a chore. The warm pulse-pounding feeling in my arm no longer felt comforting; it felt distressing. When I reached to scratch my head and the armpiece hit me in the eye, I no longer shrugged it off as an inconvenience, but instead allowed myself to mutter, “Shit, that hurt!” because, come on, it did.
Eventually, toward the end of my junior year of high school, it reached a point where I almost completely stopped wearing them. They would sit at in my school’s beit midrash where they would go untouched for months at a time. When I did show up for davening—which was hardly regularly—I was usually 20 minutes late and would throw them on, without any of the accompanying prayers.
That’s where things stand now.
My parents know what is going on with me. They wish they could change it, but they realize it is out of their control. A few months ago, I made a deal with my dad: He let me to go a public-school prom that fell on Shabbat, and in exchange I promised that I would put on tefillin every day for the rest of the summer. I have been trying to follow my word, but I usually forget.
My dad wants me to take them to Israel with me, where I will be spending a gap year to take a Young Judea course starting in a few days, now that I’ve graduated high school. He wants me to “redevelop some sort of a connection.” But what sort of connection is there to form with cowhide and parchment? I used to know, but I just don’t feel that connection anymore. My old friend Woody has been replaced by my new shiny Buzz Lightyear; books like Christopher Hitchens’ God is Not Great, and Richard Elliott Friedman’s Who Wrote the Bible? These are the treasured things I take off my shelf these days.
But this might not be the end of the story. I come from a family of searchers. My parents went through various levels of religious commitment and thought before they settled on Orthodoxy. My three older brothers all went through similar ordeals, and they all eventually returned to the path. The only thing I can do is keep on open mind.
So, even though I’m not using my tefillin much these days, I’m keeping them on the shelf in their army-approved carrying case, because I might not be done with them quite yet. If you saw Toy Story 2 and Toy Story 3, you know that eventually Buzz gets outgrown, too.
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