Thursday, October 25, 2007
Reb Shlomo Carlebach’s Tefillin
SHLOMO'S SONG - A GUEST POST
Tributes to a Holy Brother
This first story is straight from Yitta Halberstam Mandelbaum’s magnificent ode to Reb Shlomo, "Holy Brother," pages 96-97.
In the 1970s, Shlomo Carlebach embarked on the first of many pilgrimages to the former Soviet Union to reach out to and inspire a disenfranchised Russian Jewry. Since the early days of Communism, three million Jews had effectively been deprived of all forms and structures of religious expression and practice, and had been physically isolated from their brethren worldwide. With the publication of Elie Wiesel's landmark Jews of Silence and the establishment of the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry (SSSJ), the attention of international Jewry had finally become riveted on the plight of their Soviet brothers, and a massive global outcry was raised on their behalf. When the first fissure in the walls blockading them appeared and travel restrictions were subsequently eased, Shlomo Carlebach was among the earliest Jewish leaders to travel to Russia, seeking contact with this beleaguered group.
On his first visit, Shlomo smuggled in siddurim (prayer books), machzorim (holiday prayer books), Jewish tapes, Hebrew books, yarmulkes (skullcaps), tefillin (phylacteries) and other religious paraphernalia. The Russian Jewish activists with whom he met accepted them gratefully, and within a few short days, all the religious materials he had brought along with him were gone. On his last day in Moscow, Shlomo was packing and preparing to depart for the airport, when he heard a timid knock on his hotel door. A young boy stood on the threshold and whispered urgently, ''Please can I come in?"
Instantly, the boy threw himself on Shlomo's bed and began to cry wildly.
''Holy brother!'' Shlomo sat down next to the boy, putting his arm around him, ''Why are you crying so hard?
''Next week is my Bar Mitzva. I have been secretly studying Jewish texts with some other boys my age, and although my knowledge is limited, I know enough to know that on one's Bar Mitzva day, one is instructed to don tefillin for the first time. There's no place in Russia where one can obtain them, and I only heard today that you were distributing them. As soon as I heard about you, I rushed here immediately. I want so badly to fulfill this mitzva. You were my only hope. I can't bear the disappointment!" And the young boy began to cry again.
Thoughtfully, Shlomo looked at the boy, turned to his suitcase, and took out his own personal pair of tefillin and handed them to him.
"My holy father, blessed be his memory'' said Shlomo, "gave me this pair of tefillin when I was Bar Mitzvahed. They have very deep, sentimental value for me. I'm not attached to my possessions, and in fact own very little in my life. From the tefillin, however, one of my last links to my deceased father, I thought I would never part. But if it means so much to you to have tefillin for your Bar Mitzva, then I will gladly give you mine." The young boy, unaware in his naivety of the enormity of Shlomo's sacrifice, took the tefillin happily and murmured his thanks. As he was about to leave, he turned towards Shlomo once again and in a plaintive tone asked, ''But what about a yarmulke? Shouldn't I wear a yarmulke at least on my Bar Mitzva day?"
"My holy child, I am so sorry, but I gave away all the yarmulkes too."
As the boy's eyes began to well up with tears, Shlomo hastily took off his own yarmulke and handed it to him.
''It would be my privilege and honor if you would please take mine." The boy took the yarmulke, kissed Shlomo's hand, and left.
Shlomo Carlebach had never walked anywhere in the world without a yarmulke, but on the day he departed from his first visit to Russia, he left bareheaded. Later that morning, on a connecting flight to Israel, he saw a group of Jewish men davening (praying) in the aisles, and he asked one if he could borrow his tefillin when he was finished using them.
''Listen, Shlomo,'' said the man with a derisive laugh. "I think that before you worry about tefillin, you should first concern yourself with the yarmulke that's missing from your head!''
"Oh, my holy brother,'' said Shlomo gently to the man. If only you knew the story behind the missing tefillin and if only you knew the story behind the missing yarmulke. If only you knew…"
An interesting postscript to this story is another [shorter] tefillin anecdote. This is from an interview Reb Shlomo gave after visiting the Soviet Union in 1989.
Question: You have arrived at faraway places and heard stories from the mouths of Jews that no man besides you has heard.
Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach: The wisdom is being at the right place, at the right time and to say the right words. I have merited to get to many Jews exactly at the time that their hearts were open to the Master of the World.
One time I was in a city and a student volunteered to drive me to the airport in the morning. When he got to me in the morning in the hotel, I was absorbed in prayer. He saw how I removed my tefillin, and then he asked me for them and began to pray. And his was the highest praying. This young man told me that just yesterday he didn't believe in anything - only science. I left him my tefillin.
Ten years passed and I reached a concert in Sydney, Australia, and suddenly a little boy of 6 and a little girl of 8 come to me and brought me my tefillin. I asked them how my tefillin got to them. Then their father appeared, and he told me that he moved to Australia and wanted to marry a non-Jewish girl, but "every time I saw the tefillin, I changed my mind." He didn't put them on every day, but they guarded him, and in the end he married a Jewish girl and established a Jewish school for his children, who are real Jews! How many stories like this I have! If only we are ready to get to someone that needs us, at the right time.
Nu, A kasha al hama'asah.