Heda Kovaly’s memory of the day in spring 1941 when she was sent to the Gross-Rosen labor camp focused on an evanescent memento of her murdered mother: “My mother, I couldn’t think of anything except my mother, my mama, and I remember sitting on the ground and held out my hand, and there was a big, you know, the dandelions, and it came to me and it landed on my hand, and I said ‘my mother, she is here.’ Maybe she died, just that moment.”
Ms. Kovaly’s mystical experience of her departed mother’s presence, evoked by a blooming dandelion, is a heart-rending image from the Holocaust. It is also a close parallel to one of Judaism’s central theological images, lived each morning as the mitzvah of tefillin.
The Talmud is aware of – and curious about – young children who clutch knotted strings, even when out at play (Shabbat 66b).* Rav Hama explains, “A child who longs for his father takes a strap from the father’s right shoe, and ties it to his own left arm.” The image is poignant: a father is absent for a long time, and we do not know (nor do we know if the child knows) the cause of his departure. The date, or even the possibility, of his future return is more mysterious still. The child, yearning to preserve a tangible reminder of his receding embrace, rummages through his clothing (which likely still bears his scent) and takes with her a shoelace. In binding this shoelace to her arm, she binds herself to him, or at least to her memory of and love for him.
Rashi, the greatest medieval commentator, gives voice to the emotional register of this sad scene: “The child misses the father, and cannot be separated from him; the shoelace is a remedy” – for her heartache.
Were the Talmud to go only this far – reporting a memory-practice of children mourning their parents’ absence – it would be enough. But its next line transforms this report of ancient children’s coping techniques into normative Jewish praxis.
Rav Nahman bar Yitzhak says, “And your mnemonic is tefillin.” Tefillin – those black straps in which Jews (in some communities, only men) recite our morning prayers – here take on a dimension of meaning far beyond (but not unrelated to) the Torah’s commandment to “bind these words as sign on your hand, and make them a symbol before your eyes.”
The daily practice of laying tefillin is, in Rav Nahman’s telling, a memory-device operating on two related levels. First, the theological: the human condition, or at least the Jewish exilic condition, is that of a child grieving over the incomprehensible departure of a parent – God. The commandments are God’s garments, left behind long ago, and we have found pieces of them to place on our arms, to sustain our treasured, fading memories of a more loving, enchanted era. This rendering of the human (or, again, Jewish/exilic) condition renders the experiences of those like Ms. Kovaly and the other survivors whose stories make up this movie a paradigm of human life, not a tragic exception. And in the same move, we see the soldiers who separated Ms. Kovaly and others from their parents (and of everyone everywhere who separates children from parents) as the paradigm of evil, as the human analogue, and perhaps cause, of our world’s brokenness, expressed as God’s absence.
On a second level, the memory-creating function of tefillin binds those who wear them to Ms. Kovaly and to every other child separated from her parents. Laying tefillin is a daily assertion that their story is ours, and that our place is not with the comfortable and the powerful but with the children who long for their parents – even when they were separated in the name of our country, our laws, or our interests.
The leather strap of tefillin, the dandelion that evaporates in a gust of wind, and this film itself – are the bonds that preserve the parents’ love in their children’s hearts, over and against the armed, organized forces of cruelty and Godlessness past and present.
* I am grateful to Mara H. Benjamin for making me aware of both this passage and its profound human and theological significance. See her The Obligated Self: Maternal Subjectivity in Jewish Thought (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2018).
Jason Rubenstein is the Howard M. Holtzmann Jewish Chaplain and senior rabbi of the Joseph Slifka Center for Jewish Life at Yale; a native of Washington DC and Temple Micah, Jason earned an AB in Social Studies from Harvard College, studied in the kollel of Yeshivat Maale Gilboa, and received rabbinic ordination and an MA in Talmud from the Jewish Theological Seminary; before coming to Yale, Jason was a member of the Hadar Institute faculty, and is the recipient of numerous fellowships and awards including a Wexner Graduate Fellowship and the Covenant Foundation’s 2015 Pomegranate Prize for emerging educators.
Image created by artist Kenan Aktulun; the images come from each of the families. Images courtesy of the Kovaly family (Fortunoff Video Archive).
This contribution is part of the larger forum engaging artists and authors, from very different places and writing in very different genres, in a conversation on “the uses and disadvantages of historical comparisons for life.” The idea initially arose in response to the American presidential administration’s family separation policy on the southern border. A short documentary film, The Last Time I Saw Them serves as a point of departure. The intention is to provoke a discussion that could be an Aufhebung of the ‘is Trumpism fascism?’” debate: what can and what can we not understand by thinking in comparisons with the past?
The project is a collaboration between the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies at Yale University, the Democracy Seminar, and the Transregional Center for Democratic Studies (TCDS) at the New School for Social Research.