Untangling the Tassels


Sometimes honoring a loved one comes in quiet moments, like sitting at temple working out the knots of your father’s talis.

by Sarah Saffian


Below is an excerpt from Ithaka, Sarah’s critically-acclaimed memoir about being an adoptee who was found by her birth family—both parents and three full siblings.


Each autumn for as long as I can remember, my father and I have gone to shul for the High Holidays, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, at the Ninety-Second Street Y in Manhattan. The red-carpeted aisles sloping down to our velvet seats, the stage where the cantor and rabbi stand white-robed behind draped podiums, the haunting waves of music washing over me as I sing along vigorously, my father by my side in his talis and yarmulke, swaying, Hebrew-murmuring—the hushed sense of unity, of family, with the other people there.

When I was a girl, Da Da Fred, my father’s father, and Uncle Dick, my father’s uncle, came in from Queens and Brooklyn for Rosh Hashanah dinner. Sometimes Uncle Dick accompanied my father and me to shul, maintaining into his seventies the dashing slimness which my father had inherited, carrying his talis in a similar blue velvet pouch inscribed with gold thread. My grandfather stayed at home, where he and my father would call each other “Fred?” and “Mahv?” in the identical singsong which they slipped into together. Shorter, stouter and jollier than his son and brother-in-law, Da Da Fred smelled of aftershave, wore a wide, waxy tie and liked to wiggle his finger into my stomach, chortling, “Pokey in the beikee!” with a gap-toothed grin as broad as the ample girth straining underneath his short-sleeved dress shirt.

Over the years at shul, I developed a ritual of untangling the tassels on my father’s talis—he still wears the one he received on his bar mitzvah more than fifty years ago—as I sat contentedly next to him. Even now, he often tosses the end of his prayer shawl into my lap with a smirk, and even now I am calmed by fiddling with the delicate silky threads. Despite my diligent maintenance, there are always knots to undo.

On Yom Kippur mornings, my father and I attend the Yizkor memorial service to commemorate my mother Nancy, who died in 1975, together. We recite the Mourner’s Kaddish, with its rhythmic, somber drone:

Yit-gadal v’ yit-kadash sh’mey raba,
B’alma di v’ra hirutey, v’yam-lih mal-hutey
B’ha-yey-hon uv-yomey-hon uv-ha-yey d’hol beyt yisrael
Ba-agala u-vizman kariv, v’imru amen…
Oseh shalom bi-m’romav, hu ya-aseh shalom
Aleynu v’al kol yisrael, v’imru amen.

During the silent individual prayers, as I am reading “In remembrance of a mother” and I know my father is reading “In remembrance of a wife,” he always takes my hand, which I hold as much for his comfort as for my own:

May God remember the soul of my beloved mother
who has gone to her eternal rest.
In tribute to her memory I pledge to perform
acts of charity and goodness.
May the deeds I perform and the prayers I
offer help to keep her soul bound up in the bond of life
as an enduring source of blessing.

Afterward, having focused on my mother so pointedly, I am emotionally enervated, drained, lighter. It is the one time that my father and I fully acknowledge our continuing sense of loss, the one time that we mourn together—although it is hard, it is good.

Lying in bed, unable to fall asleep, I call to him. “Now, put your kepela on the pillow, Saraleh,” he murmurs, “and close your eyes.” He brushes a dry, gentle hand over my eyelids several times, intoning low, sonorously, “sleep… sleep… ,” as I first giggle and then fall slowly, lulled by my father’s presence.

From the book Ithaka by Sarah Saffian. Excerpted by arrangement with Basic Books, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 1998.

About the Author

author_saffianSarah Saffian
Sarah Saffian is a writing professor at The New School and a journalist who has written and edited for such publications as the New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, the New York Daily News, Entertainment Weekly, Slate, and Reader’s Digest, in which she has two articles coming out in early 2009. She is currently working on a novel, her first foray into fiction, which also features Jewish and adoption themes. Learn more about her at www.saffian.com.

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