A few years ago, I was visiting my grandparents in Chicago. My grandfather, who is 81, said to me, “I have something for you.” Now, my grandfather has continually sent me items of American Jewish Historical note to submit to the Archives on the HUC campus in Cincinnati. Many of them quite interesting, like a newsletter to American G.I.’s in Europe during WWII celebrating Pesach in 1944 and it contained an article by Gunther Plaut, then a chaplain in the U.S. army. But this gift was of a much more personal note. He brings out a large manila envelope and pulls out a Ziploc bag from within. It held a piece of cloth of which I could not get a clear glimpse as he spoke. “Eighty one years ago, my mother was coerced into fulfilling a pidyon haben ceremony for me. His grandfather was an orthodox rabbi and demanded this be carried out.” And in this Ziploc bag was the talit katan, the tzitzit he wore at his pidyon haben ceremony. He went on to say, “I want you and Rachel, my wife, to have this talit katan for your first born son, not that you must conduct the ceremony, but it is important to me that that child have this piece of our family.” Now, my spirituality and my literacy, both in my Jewish being and my human being are important to me. But the question that remains is without a connection to that past, that 81 years of my family’s history, without it being, “important” to my grandfather what does it mean to me? This springboard into my world and my reality are my tradition. Everything I know as a Jew is reflective of where he comes from, where my mother comes from, my father’s journey to become a Jew, my older sister, my younger brother, and now my wife’s Jewish sojourn and expressions. I demand of myself a fulfilling course of learning for the days of my life. This Jewish spiritual experience is one layer of commentary to my life that is my Jewish literacy. I soak up the rays of Jewish learning and use that past, my family, loved ones, friends, and life experiences as the prism to use them into the future, my future.
~Evon J. Yakar, a workshop on Spiritual Literacy, CAJE 31, Durham, NC