The Tallit of Phillip Shenkler

Within the past few days, reader and Facebook friend Mim Golub Scalin granted me the amazing blessing and privilege of allowing the tallit of a Jewish family which isn’t around any longer to continue in ritual use. For that I am grateful. But this isn’t a blog post about a tallit. This morning, Mim’s blessing expanded exponentially in a way neither one of us expected. As it turns out, this is really a blog post about peoplehood and Jewish continuation. And most of all, love…

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Michael, 

Question. I’ve been trying to find a home for a tallis. It belonged to my friend’s dad. She died almost 2 years ago, and her dad died years ago. There are no relatives. I have no one to give it to. Would you be the recipient? Or do you know someone who would? Staying dry but cold here in RVA.

–Mim Golub Scalin

Mim,

Trying to warm up here. Was standing behind my synagogue down the block watching the waves up close, but luckily we have no flooding in our neighborhood. Do you have power? I would be honored to give the tallis a new home.

–Michael Benami Doyle

We have power. We are so lucky this time that the storm went north of us, but terrible for where it did hit people hard. Our daughter is in Bushwick and has had no problem, either. Thank you for giving the tallis a new home. I’ll pack it up, and include information about Phil. Almost forgot, send me your postal address. I don’t think I have it.

–Mim

I’m glad about the power. I wondered because you said you were cold. The tallis is an honor, thank you very much. My address is #### # ####### ## ### ###, Chicago, IL 60660.

–Michael

The temps dropped 30 degrees in a short period of time. We did cut the heat on, soon as we realized – gee, we’re needing to put on sweaters in the house! Oh, yes, the heat needs to come on. Silly us. Now to get dinner on the table. ciao for now.

–Mim

The Letter

30 October 2012

Dear Michael,

Thank you for giving this Tallis a new home. It belonged to my friend Myrna‘s father, Phillip Shenkler, who died in 1986, before my friend moved from Washington State to Virginia to be closer to me (1994).

I met her and her dad in 1955, when we were 14 years old and freshmen at Roosevelt High School. She and Phil lived in a garage apartment. Her mom, Sara, had died two years before, the spring before Myrna’s 13th birthday. They never spoke about her. I only learned more about her years later, when my friend lived near me.

Phil was born in 1906 in what is now Poland. For some reason, his mother came to the U.S. without her children, and Phil and his sister ended up in a displaced persons camp after World War I and took care of each other. I don’t know what became of his father. They were just little kids. Wow, that just blew my mind when Myrna told me that. Somehow, they joined their mother in the U.S.

Phil lived in Chicago eventually, where he married Sara and they had Myrna. When I met him, he worked at Goldblatt’s, where by chance my mother also worked. It was a department store downtown at the further end of State Street, the low department store. There was Marshall Field’s (highest end), Carson Pirie Scott (mid-range), and then Goldblatt’s.

My mom learned a bit more about Phil and Sara from the people that knew him. Phil was quite depressed after his wife’s death, and raising a daughter alone must have been hard for him. He was very doting on Myrna, but unaware of what the loss of her mother did to her. How could he, considering his own loss and own hard childhood? He was a nice man. Very gentle. Very soft spoken.

Phil moved to Arizona when Myrna moved there for graduate school, and then to Washington state when she got a job there. Later, on a visit to Florida to see his brother, he met a woman named Pearl and they got married. he died there. Myrna had no family that she had contact with other than two elderly cousins who still live in Chicago. On Sheridan road, in fact, in the 5500 block. Crazy, huh. I was in touch with them as my friend’s health diminished.

I’ve wanted to do something with Phil’s tallis, rather than having it remain in a shoe box. I thought about it a lot, and when I saw you putting on tefillin, that got me started thinking that you might like it. I haven’t looked at it. I hope it’s in good condition.

Thank you.

Mim

Monday, November 5, 2012

Mim,

Thank you for the blessing and privilege of allowing your friend’s family’s tallit to continue in Jewish ritual use. It arrived today. I cried coming up the elevator reading the letter you included with it, and looking at the photos of Phil.

I have so many questions. Did you know my synagogue sits in between Myrna’s cousins and my building on this half-mile stretch of Sheridan Road? Would you care to share their names? I may know them. They may go to my shul.

Did you open the tallit bag? Sara’s mourner’s manual from her funeral was inside with the tallit. The names and dates were filled in by hand and I wonder whether it was by Phil’s hand. She died on 7 Iyyar. I became a Jew on 8 Iyyar. Do you know if Phil ever used the tallit after Sara died? I’m very curious, too, if you know at all what congregation, if any, Phil was affiliated with before the family left Chicago.

I know you may not be able to answer these questions, and I’m sure I’ll have more. One big question is may I have your permission to blog about your gift to me and to share your letter and Phil’s photos? I’d like the world to know about him.

Very interestingly, I opened the package on the same day that I’ll be meeting (in about 2 hours) with a rabbi I know to begin my application process for rabbinical school. So there’s a lot of Hashem floating around my life today that I can feel.

So, just thank you. I’m going to do my best to find someone who can restore the tallit (the strings need untangling and it’s a bit faded.) I believe that’s my duty as the new caretaker of it.

And please know, shortly before I wrote this email to you, the tallit was put back in use as I davenned my morning prayers.

B’shalom,

Michael

P.S. Ancestry.com is amazing. In 1940 he lived at 1610 N Francisco with Sara and the Nudelmans (I assume another couple), I assume shortly before Myrna came into the picture. He sold children’s shoes for a living. Google Maps shows the building isn’t there anymore. The Nudelmans were Phillip’s brother & sister in law. I don’t know which one was Sara’s relation.

Michael, 

Dear Michael, I have tears in my eyes as I read your messages. The Nudelman’s were Sara’s family. Myrna spoke of them often. They might have lived with her parents! Wow, you got so much information. The cousins, Ina and Doris, actually live in the 5800 block of Sheridan road. They are unmarried older women. I will let them know via a letter, that I’ve placed Phil’s Talis with someone who is becoming a Rabbi. Congrats, I’m so excited for you on your journey. I did not open the bag, so what you found is pretty exciting, too. In the shoe box was an old Timex of Phil’s, and a prayer book from a Bar Mitzvah in 1965 at Congregation in Miami. I looked them up, quite a historic one, and I sent the book back with a note that they might want it for their archives. It felt good doing these things.

On Saturday, at Obama headquarters, a woman was there getting some shirts and saw me and said – how is your friend? She’d worked at the nursing home that my friend lived in and remembered her, and me. How lovely. I was so happy about that. People should be remembered.  

P.S. Please do blog about this. It’s all so mysterious and wonderful.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Phillip,

In your wildest fantasy, I’m sure you never would have imagined that 26 years after your passing, your tallit would be gifted to a middle-aged, gay, Jewish convert on his way to rabbinical school. So perhaps right now we share a mutual sense of surprise. And maybe not. As Jews, we both know the wild and unexpected turns life can take.

I can’t imagine the pain of losing your loved one so long before the end of your life’s journey, and I can only stand in owe of the love you must have felt to keep such a visceral reminder of Sara’s passing in the place where I found it. I want you to know that I recognize owning your tallit comes with great responsibility. Your family did not continue in the way I’m sure you hoped it would. But your Yiddishkeit continues through your tallit, which I will use during my morning prayers and hope to restore.

And your memory continues as well. In fact, it has created a legacy. As a Jewish convert, I celebrate the journey, history, and tradition of the people Israel. At times, I wrap myself in our story like a blanket to remind myself that I am finally home. However, although I have and honor my own family of origin, the family in which I was raised was not Jewish. Memories of bubbes and zaydes and generations of ancestors imparting Jewishness to my flesh and bones and a country from which my ancestors came–or fled the hard way–is not open to me.

The honor of your tallit changes that. Your story, the family your created, and the bittersweet evidence of your great love now uncovered after so many years are a privilege for me to know and share with others. I cannot express to you in an adequate way the sense of peoplehood and belonging I felt when I opened your tallit bag yesterday morning. You didn’t give me my Jewishness. But I truly believe Hashem wouldn’t have orchestrated my discovery this morning if my own sense of Yiddishkeit hadn’t been ready to receive it.

It can be challenging for converts like me to feel their place in the great sweep l’dor vador–from generation to generation–even though we are one people. Now, because of you, I can wrap our people’s story around me in a very real way. Thank you for helping me remember that there are no sidelines on this Jewish journey. We march forward together with each other.

And with the memories of those who came before.

B’shalom,

Michael

Phil with Myrna.

 

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