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A Sign Upon Your Arm

Why I stopped wearing tefillin—and why I put them on again

Shloimy Notik
March 11, 2020
Illustration: Tablet Magazine
Illustration: Tablet Magazine
Illustration: Tablet Magazine
Illustration: Tablet Magazine

When I was young, my father stood over the table in our dining room, with his sleeve rolled back, and carefully put on his tefillin, the leather worn from how much he had used them, from the daily ritual of donning them that he had never missed.

With his head swaying, Ta’s lips moved as he recited the prayers. His eyes quickly grazed over the pages of a siddur, even though he knew the words by heart, for Ta had been reading these prayers every day since he turned 13.

Each morning, Ta carved out the time to perform this act that—on the surface—looked so archaic and disconnected from modern day. Leather boxes. Parchment scrolls.

Meanwhile, my tefillin sat in a velvet bag with my Hebrew name—Meir Shlomo—embroidered on the outside, collecting dust. Inside, the tefillin remained tightly wound up, the leather straps shiny and stiff from how little I used them.

“Did you put on tefillin yet?” Ta would ask me late in the afternoon.

“Yes,” I would lie. “I already did.” I found it painful to go through the motions of the ritual. I never felt a return on the investment. When Ta wasn’t home, I’d make myself a sandwich and eat it without washing my hands for netilat yadayim. Something as foreign as lulav and etrog I had no patience for. In front of Ta, I practiced the rituals, but even then, I did so absent-mindedly, deriving little value from them.

I remember looking at Ta in awe of his devotion, envious of the enjoyment he took in it. What was he able to see that I could not? I would challenge him: “How can you do something when you don’t even understand why you’re doing it?” More than the ritual itself, I think that Ta believed in the idea of belief. He wanted to teach me that there was value to believing—in and of itself.

“Do we have to know why Hashem asks this of us in order to do it?” Ta would say. His blind faith always reminded me of the words the Jewish people had spoken prior to mass revelation at Sinai, when our ancestors were asked if they were ready to receive the Torah. Na’aseh v’Nishma, they said. First, we’ll obey, and then we’ll understand. Another idea I had trouble buying into.

While I never would have used these words for it back then, as a young teenager I had left Orthodoxy. I stopped keeping kosher, no longer observed Shabbat. I wasn’t ashamed of this. I simply did not see the value in observing. My exodus from Orthodoxy didn’t feel like a single defining moment. Rather, it was slow and gradual. I didn’t flaunt my lack of Sabbath observance. I worked on a magic routine, playing with real coins in the privacy of my own room; turned on lights in the bathroom when everyone else was asleep; listened to music under the covers before bed. When I got an internship downtown, I left the house and removed my yarmulke on my walk to the bus. On lunch breaks, I ate pepperoni pizza and cheeseburgers at the mall. I kept all of this a secret from Ta for fear of hurting him.

At 20, I came out to my parents as a gay man. A few weeks later, on a trip from our home in Seattle to New York, my eldest brother and I met with the co-founder of an organization called Jews Offering New Alternatives to Homosexuality that claimed to be able to cure men of their homosexuality. My parents thought I was confused about my gayness. They found the program and had my brother suggest it to me, since I had first come out to him and he had my trust. I didn’t like the idea that I needed to be changed. To encourage me, my brother said he had a friend who had gone to the program and had found it to be very helpful. I was afraid of what might happen, angry that I had to go. My brother took me so I’d feel more comfortable.

The co-founder could tell I was skeptical and offended by the overall idea. He encouraged me to speak with one of the “life coaches” he worked with—a formerly Orthodox Jew who used to have “same-sex attractions,” and was a survivor of child sexual abuse. As a survivor myself, I was eager to connect with this man to share our stories.

Ever since the abuse in my childhood had come to light eight years before I came out, my family had kept it a secret, speaking nothing of it, for the sake, I think, of protecting ourselves. It led me to question what else might be secret—which parts of Orthodoxy weren’t being exposed. Maybe there were things that the rabbis and shuls and yeshivas were hiding for the sake of protecting their communities?

Magic had taught me that there was always more than met the eye. I never accepted anything at face value.

Even with my apprehensions and doubts about the therapy, reluctant as I was, I desperately wanted my family’s acceptance and agreed to begin. While I had wondered about the connection between the abuse and my sexuality, my “life coach” saw them as inextricably linked. I wanted to heal from the traumas of sexual abuse, and accepted his narrative that my homosexuality was a result of that trauma: Heal from the abuse, no longer be gay.

After a few months of phone sessions with my therapist, I moved to New York and began seeing another “life coach” at JONAH. As part of my therapy, I attended a weekend retreat where I was cradled by an older man to feel the love of a fatherly embrace because JONAH believed that gay men were lacking in fatherly love. I never felt a lack in Ta’s love, despite the fact that after I came out, he had found a number of opportunities to tell me that “gays are second-class citizens.” These comments hurt, but I understood where Ta was coming from, quite literally—religious communities in France, then Crown Heights, Brooklyn. On this weekend retreat, I ran naked through the woods with a group of men to feel unashamed of my body. I took notes during a presentation on “the 4-step pathway out of homosexuality.” While in the program, I dated a woman and strung her along; one minute I wanted to marry her and the next I yearned to live my life as a gay man.

I stayed in the program for more than a year. I wasn’t changing and decided to quit. I was proud of myself for listening to my internal voice, but I felt like I was letting my parents down. Why couldn’t I be like some of the other men I’d met in the program who had gone on to marry women? On the one hand, I was angry about the time I had wasted hoping that change was possible. But also I was happy that I realized it was baloney after only a year and four months. I had met others in the gay Jewish community who had spent years at JONAH before deciding to quit and embrace their gay identity.

Now I was at large in New York, a gay, secular Jew. I still lived in a Jewish community, but the extent of my affiliation was going to my sister’s house for Shabbat dinner. I went to LGBTQ Sukkot parties on the rooftop of the JCC. I flourished in my career as a copywriter, keeping my name when my friends opted for names that wouldn’t tip off their formerly Orthodox histories: Mendy became Jayson, Moishe went by Michael. I attended Shabbat dinners in the city with gay friends, went out to bars after, then cabbed home over the bridge to Brooklyn. I hoped my father would be pleased that I was in some way still connected to a Jewish community, but I don’t think it lived up to his standards.

Six months ago, a decade after leaving JONAH, I got a voicemail from an old friend. I could hear the worry in his voice. “I know this is a little out of the blue,” he began. “My father-in-law had a heart attack on Sunday. We’re trying to do a certain amount of tefillin for him.” Orthodox communities often band together to perform mitzvot in times of need. He explained that he didn’t want to impose—that he didn’t know if I had access to tefillin or if I put them on anymore. We had kept in touch over the years, mainly around the High Holidays. He knew I was no longer religious, that I didn’t observe. But he made it clear that he would really appreciate it if I was able to put on tefillin.

It was a Tuesday morning in Portland, Oregon. I was running around my apartment getting ready to head into the advertising agency where I work. The last time I had worn tefillin was six years before in Union Square, when a Chabad guy asked if I was Jewish. And the last time before that was when I was still a kid—or at least, that’s the last time I can remember.

A few years before receiving this call, in a moment of self-actualization, I stood in the refuse room of my Brooklyn apartment dumping religious artifacts down the trash chute. I did this sadly, mourning the loss of a faith I once had. But also triumphantly, feeling empowered that my actions—ridding myself of these religious objects—were in line with my lack of observance. I suppose I wanted to prove to myself that I no longer had any warm feelings for Orthodoxy, and there was no better way to know for sure than to shove these items down a trash chute, the objects falling, crashing in a dump like worthless, insignificant rubble. I relinquished yarmulkes, siddurim, benchers. But I kept my tefillin. I knew the hefty price tag attached to them. I also pictured a time in the future when Ta would pass on, and I would need my tefillin to go with my brothers to shul to recite the Mourner’s Kaddish.

This friend and I had met as teenagers in yeshiva in South Africa. We were rebels together: When we got in trouble with a counselor for not wearing our tzitzit, we said we’d go back home to fetch them, but instead took the scenic route along the beachfront. We befriended a young couple on the sand who offered us generous swigs from their bottle of whiskey. Then we found our way onto the sweaty dance floor of a dark club. These were not activities yeshiva students were supposed to indulge in.

But my friend and I were no longer rebellious teenagers. He was married with three kids. In the midst of a crisis, he was asking me to return to a Jewish tradition I hadn’t practiced since I was a kid.

On my walk to the office, I thought about my friend’s request. At first, I felt strange being asked to do this, since I’m not observant. I went from being on the fence about God when I was younger, to recognizing my lack of belief as the only thing I could know for sure. I had been a people pleaser for most of my youth, always seeking approval. Would agreeing to put on tefillin simply because my friend wanted me to be regressing to my old ways? I needed a better reason.

Then I thought of Ta and the appreciation for belief he instilled in me. Hey, I texted my friend, sorry to hear about your father-in-law. I’ll dust off my tefillin. Good to hear your voice, unfortunately for this. But I’m sure he’ll pull through. Stay strong.

The next morning, I stood at my dining room table and placed a yarmulke on my head. It all came back to me. I secured the black box against my left bicep and wrapped the strap down my arm seven times, around my hand and middle finger three times forming the Hebrew letter shin. Then I covered my eyes with my right hand and recited the Shema. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. Going through the motions brought me back to a simpler time when I was a child and would put on tefillin to make Ta proud. But here I was not doing this for Ta, not for God either, I don’t think, but for a friend who had requested that I take part in the ritual. I took a photo—as a form of proof, I guess—and sent it to my friend.

Several days later, my friend reported that his father-in-law was doing great. He needed a triple bypass, but the doctors said it was a miracle he was alive and well.

I don’t think that putting on tefillin is what made him get better. I’m more inclined to believe that the ritual offered my friend comfort during a time of uncertainty. But I was surprised by how refreshing it felt to reconnect with a religious ritual I grew up with—even if only for a day. There was something meditative about it. The leather smell. Counting how many times I’d wrapped the straps around my arm. Adjusting the boxes to sit correctly on my bicep, atop my forehead. Taking great care to put them away, inserting them into their protective cases, wrapping them up and putting them back in the bag.

I don’t think I’ll start wearing tefillin again but I’m thankful that I was presented with an opportunity to reconnect with them. I let go of the everyday practice years ago, but I’m glad I held onto my tefillin. They serve as a physical reminder that believing is a choice, and that even in the absence of belief, there might still be room for ritual.

Shloimy Notik lives in Portland, Oregon, and is working on a memoir about the power and limits of belief.

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