The Tallis (excerpt)

Irena takes the tallis from its stained old bag of black velvet. Fine dust fills the air as it falls open, and for a moment she is so struck by wonder she forgets her rage. How could such a thing have come out of gray crumbling Russia? The prayer shawl is about the size of a baby’s blanket, and from its four corners hang strangely knotted tassels that smell faintly of earth. Though faded from the decades and so fragile that it parts silently along a seam as she looks at it, its threads of gold and indigo, green and magenta gleam in the darkness of the apartment. Against a soft white background, someone created a fantastic scene of lions and strange tropical birds, lush fruit-bearing plants and riotous flowers, all twining around an open closet containing a Torah scroll, from which golden beams of light emanate. Above all this is a faded blue band on which curly letters are stitched in yet more gold thread, like tongues of flame. Irena knows these are Hebrew letters, though she cannot understand this mysterious Jewish language – no more than her husband, and he actually was a Jew, it said so right on his Soviet internal passport and his Israeli identity card. But how different these delicately embroidered symbols are from the stingy black characters like squashed ants that are always ordering her into this or that squalid tiled office.
For the thirty-five years of her marriage, the dusty velvet bag has stayed on its back shelf, first in the dingy apartment in Leningrad, now in an even dingier one on a filthy back street in Tel Aviv. Volodya has never spoken about it, never opened the bag to examine its contents, but Irena always understood that this tallis and the two fragile sepia-colored photographs tucked in with it were all that remained of his parents. She looks at these pictures now, with delicate creases like veins running through them, running through a skinny balding young man with round spectacles and a gaunt woman with a nearly invisible mouth. Irena never met either of them.
Copyright © 1998, Martin Berman-Gorvine. Published in Jewish Currents, May-June 2002
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Copyright © 2002, Martin Berman-Gorvine