Sept 1, 2011
For those not in the know (and until yesterday, I counted myself among you), today marks the first day of a new month on the Jewish calendar: Elul.
The morning begins like any other: our toddler twins wake up screaming, I change diapers, prepare breakfast, play with them, get them dressed, call my parents so that they’ll Skype with them while I shower and give me time to actually wash my hair. As I get the computer ready and open the door to the bedroom, wherein our linen closet lies, to find a towel, I realize that this morning is not like all others. It’s the first of Elul.
I enter the bedroom and find my husband Marco wrapped in the tallis my parents bought him for our wedding, and my father’s tefillin (phylacteries). Two Judaic reference books lay open on our bed, illuminated by the glow of his iPad, which is on. It’s his first time laying tefillin, and he’s trying to follow the rules.
I’ve come in to hustle him into the shower—I need to get ready before the babysitter arrives so I can start my workday on time, he needs to shower first and get out the door! But seeing him dressed in the regalia of full Judaic manhood stops me in my tracks.
“Oh—I’m sorry,” I murmur, slightly embarrassed that I’ve walked in on him this way.
He looks up from the texts. I notice a YouTube video streaming on the iPad: How to Lay Tefillin. “This is going to take some time,” he says.
I restore his privacy by closing the door.
In the Hebrew calendar, Elul is the twelfth month of the year. In Jewish tradition, it’s a month of repentance and preparation for the biggest holidays of the year, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The word “Elul” is similar to the root of the verb “search” in Aramaic. According to the Talmud, the Hebrew word “Elul” is an acronym for “Ani l’dodi v’dodi li” which means “I am to my Beloved as my Beloved is to me” – a line often recited at Jewish weddings. In this case, the Beloved is G-d. Put it all together and during this month of Elul, we’re supposed to search our hearts and draw close to G-d in preparation for the big holidays, on which we are judged and atone.
I’m moved by Marco’s embrace of the rituals. Just one Elul ago, he dipped in the Upper West Side mikvah in the presence of three rabbis and officially became a Jew. His becoming a Jew is the most romantic thing I’ve ever encountered, on so many levels. He did it so that we could raise our boos as Jews and he would know what to do.
But on this particular morning, this first morning of Elul, I’m cranky. Either I didn’t get enough sleep, or the sleep I got was interrupted, I’m not sure. After Marco emerges from the bedroom, I’m still compulsively pestering him to hurry. I can’t seem to stop myself, even though I’m aware, now, that this day is special for him. But it’s also now become stressful for him: Since the time spent on davening conflicted with his getting ready for work, he’s made himself late. He already feels rushed so he lashes out at me, a rare occurrence. I breathe tightly and murmur “f*ck you too,” under my breath.
“F*ck you too,” echoes a sweet little voice. Baby Girl. My crankiness breaks and I walk into the bathroom, where Marco is now showering, to share.
My Beloved and I share a chuckle. We remind ourselves how careful we have to be with our words around here these days.
And how careful, I’m reminded, we should be with each others’ hearts, too.
“I’m sorry,” I say.
“I know,” he says.
He tells me how Baby Boy had spotted him from the hallway when he was busy donning the tallis and tefillin, and laughed. “I think he thought it was funny,” Marco says.
“He’s not used to seeing you that way,” I say. “Or maybe he thought it was Hallowe’en.”
Frankly, I can relate. I’m not used to seeing my mod, handsome Puerto Rican husband wrapped in the accoutrements of a traditional Jew. When he first told me he was interested in learning how to lay tefillin, I rolled my eyes. We’re not Orthodox; we don’t keep kosher; Marco grew up Roman Catholic, for Chrissake.
But seeing him there this morning, hands and head bound by the leather straps my great grandfather, an immigrant from Russia, gave to my father when he was bar mitzvahed at thirteen, I’m humbled by the extent to which Marco’s conversion has prompted my own remedial education as a Jew. What I’m learning is not knowledge, per se, but practice. We’ve started playing a recording of the bedtime sh’ma for the babies before they fall asleep. We light candles and eat challah, which Baby Girl affectionately calls “agah”, on Shabbat. We observe all the holidays—even the minor ones with names I used to mix up, like Tisha Ba’av and Tubishvat. To the extent that we can, we’re creating a life lived in sync with the Jewish seasons. It’s given our life beautiful new grounding amidst the swirl of potty training, jobs, earthquakes, and hurricanes too.
Later this morning, Marco leaves for work. The boos Skype quickly with my parents and I get my shower. I feel repentant. Even if I don’t get to shampoo.
K’tiva VaHatima Tova, a todos. And Marco: may the search find you, and your heart, renewed.