Waiting for a friend outside Wrigley Field, Paul Schneider discovers a new way to honor an ancient ritual.
I had some time to kill before meeting my friend Rick at the Ernie Banks statue, so I sat on the patio outside the Starbucks looking at the thousands mill about, creating a wondrous people-watching pre-game scenario across the street from Wrigley Field.
Among them one particularly stood out. Anything but the garish, loquacious, obnoxious beer-stained baseball fan, he was instead rather well-dressed, black jacket and slacks, tall black hat and long red beard. Being somewhat of an observant Jew myself, I immediately pegged him as Hasidic, of the orthodox family of Judaism (full-disclosure, I consider myself more of the middle-of-the-road Conservative Jew).
From my vantage point I could see that he was attempting, with no success, to engage anyone who walked by. Every so often he would turn back and see me watching him, then go back to his business. Finally, after several minutes of watching his exercise in futility, I decided to engage him.
“Excuse me, but what are you doing,” I asked. Then I saw the small table he had set up next to him and it became suddenly abundantly clear.
“Are you Jewish?” he asked, in a most calm and disarming manner. He said his name was Dovid (pronounced Doh-veed): “Do you want to lay tefillin?”
I was immediately struck by a heavy sense of trepidation, because I knew what was coming next. I had been down this avenue before, always in private, never in front of a large crowd such as what was beginning to form around us. I knew the routine, and how silly I judged I would look in front of all these strangers.
OK a little religious lesson is in order here. Tefillin are a pair of small leather boxes that contain scrolls of parchment inscribed with verses of the Torah. They are held together with a leather strap which is wrapped around the arm (doesn’t matter which arm) so that one of the boxes sits in your hand and the other on your forehead. There are three prayers recited while wearing the tefillin. The Hasidim perform the practice on a daily basis in the morning, but it can be done anytime.
As soon as he asked me if I was Jewish, I knew I was cornered. He would try to persuade me to partake in the ritual. As I said, this wasn’t my first tefillin rodeo, but it had been several years. I hardly wanted to make a spectacle of myself and possibly become exposed to ridicule in front of the increasingly larger throng.
“C’mon,” he nudged. “It’ll take 30 seconds.”
“No, that’s OK. Thanks. I have to go meet someone.”
“Thirty seconds,” he insisted. “You have to go meet someone? I promise you won’t be late.”
“No really, I have to go.”
“That’s an excuse. C’mon. Thirty seconds.”
As soon as he said I was making an excuse, he had me. It was as if God himself had uttered the words. And he was right. What was I afraid of? I had nothing to fear. This is part of my heritage, a very sacred part, and what kind of man was I if I couldn’t perform a simple, quick ritual, especially one in which I had taken part numerous times. So what if everyone was watching?
At that realization I felt a part of myself let go; all the projections I had made on the situation, about people yelling and teasing, dropped away. Suddenly, in my purview, no one else was around, only David and me. I willingly extended my left arm for him to wrap the tefillin and, following his lead, recited the first two prayers.
As I read the third prayer from a page he handed me, a tremendous surge of what I can only describe as a spiritual energy coursed through me. A warmth, as if a glow, started in my lower legs and ascended quickly though my entire body, welling up and then out of the top of my head. I felt light, awakened, and most of all, proud of having laid tefillin with this man. I felt rewarded.
I’ve since been back to Wrigley once more and admit that I actively searched for David, and was disappointed not finding him. In a moment’s time, I went from curious observer, to reluctant participant, to fully engaged Jew. I hope I get the chance to do it again.
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Photo Credit: Rabbi Dovid Kotlarsky