Zayda’s Shawl
by Frank Stern

Attending synagogue services, I clung to my grandfather’s pant leg. Wrapped in his woolen prayershawl, he swayed rhythmically as he recited the Hebrew prayers.

Often I’d crawl under his shawl. The tent I created shut out the world, allowing only an ethereal white light to strain through its fabric, muffling the sounds of nearby singers. I felt closest to Zayda then, safe and loved. Though I didn’t know the words to his prayers, I swayed when he swayed. I sang when he sang.

Years later at my Bar Mitzvah service, my mother draped Zayda’s prayershawl over my shoulders. Flecks of his brown hair and beard still glistened in the wool. His aroma perfumed the fabric. Flooded with memories, I brought both ends of the shawl over my head and recited the blessing.

I was thirteen, a tall string-bean, shy, uncoordinated and uncertain. Zayda’s prayershawl kept slipping off my narrow shoulders, and my voiced cracked as I recited the prayers.

Later, spread out over our heads, Zayda’s shawl provided the canopy under which Cookie and I married.

Folded in the crook of my wife’s elbow, it cradled our resting son following his circumcision.

I wore Zayda’s prayershawl at every worship service and religious ceremony.

Still, it remained Zayda’s prayershawl. Never my own.

When my daughter became a Bat Mitzvah, I draped the shawl upon her shoulders. Even as I remembered the wonderful traits I loved about my Zayda, I realized Debbie had never known him. All she knew about the prayershawl was that I had worn it throughout her lifetime.

I was her Zayda. The prayershawl finally was mine. I’d passed on to her a legacy my Zayda had passed on to me.

I prayed she’d feel as secure and loved in her lifetime as I had in mine.

PHOTO: Rabbi Stern wearing his Zayda’s prayershawl (Orange, California — Oct 13, 2016).


ABOUT THE AUTHOR:  Author of A Rabbi Looks at Jesus’ Parables (Rowman & Littlefield, 2006) and many articles, Dr. Frank Stern served for twenty years as Rabbi of Temple Beth Sholom in Santa Ana, California. As Executive Director of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia, he headed an agency that provided chaplains to nursing homes, hospitals and prisons in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Still actively involved in the Central Conference of American Rabbis, Rabbi Stern served as President of the Orange County Board of Rabbis and President of the Pacific Association of Reform Rabbis (seven western states). Until his retirement, Dr. Stern taught in the Department of Sociology and the Department of Comparative Religion at Cal State University Fullerton. He still teaches at Orange Coast College and lectures extensively throughout California. Rabbi Stern is President of the Orange County Interfaith Network (OCIN), Founder of the Council of Religious Leaders of Orange County and Founding President of the Orange County Jewish Genealogical Society.