Bound To Tradition

Bound To Tradition

My tefillin-zekl — the small velvet sack in which I store my phylacteries — tells me a story early every morning, when I open it in preparation for davening.

The sack in question is old, a hundred years and more, and is a lovely thing — deep maroon velvet, with an old-fashioned pull-string.

The zekl, in fact, belonged to my dad, Manuel Simcha Chanes, received from his father — my grandfather, Rav Yaakov Chanes — for his bar mitzvah in Czernowitz, in what is now the Ukraine, in 1919. My father gave me the zekl with my first set of tefillin for my bar mitzvah in 1956.

Thus far, a piece of a family chronicle, of little drama. But my dad’s life took a sharp turn when he was a teenager.

The Chanes family was Zionist — by no means a “given” in Eastern Europe in the early decades of the 20th century — and was sympathetic to the Religious Zionism movement, the political face of which was Mizrachi, then a new political group. But my dad was taken with Hashomer Hatzair — the far-left collectivist-socialist, aggressively Zionist, vigorously anti-religious youth movement. Hashomer Hatzair was strong in Czernowitz, and as a teenager my father joined it.

My dad took his Hashomer Hatzair training seriously — he went on hachshara, training at an agricultural-training camp near Czernowitz. He added Hebrew to his collection of languages. He learned something about collectivist socialism. And he parted company, reluctantly, with his traditionally observant family.

In 1924, at 18, Manuel Simcha was sent by Hashomer Hatzair to the Yishuv — the Jewish community in British Mandatory Palestine. A visa was somehow secured, and my dad arrived at Kibbutz Beit Alpha — the first Hashomer Hatzair kibbutz, founded just two years earlier. Conditions were bleak on Beit Alpha, situated as it was in the Beit She’an Valley, under Mt Gilboa —harsh winter weather conditions, occasional attacks from Arab villagers. But the young chalutzim (inadequately translated as “pioneers,” better as “those who take out of the soil”) were a hardy lot. On the kibbutz, my dad thrived, even with the malaria (pervasive) and backbreaking work (pervasive), and service in the early incarnation of the Haganah. Ideologically, it was a mixed group at Beit Alpha; it was not for another decade that the kibbutz became purely Hashomer Hatzair socialist. And this suited people like my dad, who didn’t know Ber Borochov from Bar-Kochva.

And the tefillin zekl with my father’s tefillin? Although my dad was no longer religiously observant and never donned his them, he always had his tefillin with him in Beit Alpha. The little maroon velvet sack — buffeted here and there in the multitude of tribulations on the kibbutz — somehow survived; indeed, the zekl was (as he told me many years later), “My one kesher [link] to my family and to community and to tradition.”

Five years into his kibbutz sojourn, my father had an encounter with Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the charismatic thinker and writer and the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of the Yishuv, who was visiting non-religious settlements around Palestine. His brief encounter with Rav Kook occasioned my dad’s “conversion” back to traditionally observant Judaism. He left Beit Alpha, most reluctantly, and moved to Jerusalem. My father became very frum, but remained ideologically and politically Hashomer Hatzair. In the 1930s he found himself in Germany, where he was — together with many others — engaged in hatzalah (rescue work). He and my mother Berta — also from Czernowitz and also a “progressive,” and to whom my father was distantly related — immigrated to the United States in the late 1930s.

And he still carried the maroon tefillin-zekl.

When our family lived in Washington Heights, my dad was a shopkeeper. In the McCarthy-besotted 1950s, he and my mom kept way under the radar. They were involved in their Orthodox synagogue, and their public Zionism was more Mizrachi than Mapam (United Workers Party). My dad’s only nod to radical socialism was to buy the Communist Freiheit every day — but he carried it from the newsstand with the centrist DerTog and the Orthodox Morgen Journal. My kid sister and I, in our grade-school yeshiva, were most careful to stay under the political radar as well. (When we refused, however, to recite the then-newly-mandated “Under God” in the “Pledge” and to participate in air-raid drills — “It’s a political act!” — we got into minor-league trouble.)

And the tefillin-zekl? My dad had carried it with him from Czernowitz to Beit Alpha to Washington Heights, and it reminded him, every day, of what his life was all about.

And, as meager an artifact as it is, the tefillin-zekl does this for me still.

Jerome Chanes a senior fellow at the Center for Jewish Studies at the CUNY Graduate Center, is the author of four books on Jewish history and public affairs.

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