A Message in Teffilin by Donna Kaz

A Message in Teffilin by Donna Kaz

A Message in Teffilin is the third place winner in the Spring 2023 Quarterly Short Story Competition.


The first time I touch my future husband’s teffilin I think they are sex toys. It happens as I help him pack up his apartment for a move to a house in Los Angeles we will share. Against a stack of Hebrew prayer books, a small velvet pouch is gently pressed. Inside are long brown leather straps, tightly coiled and cracking with age; a small, mysterious red box on each end. I suspect I have possibly uncovered my future mate’s kinky side. This both confuses and delights me. So I call out to him, the straps brandished over my head. “Well, look what I found!” He seems lost when he sees what I am holding. “Oh, those,” he sighs. “Those are teffilin from my bar mitzvah. You put them on this way.” He struggles to coil one around his arm and after a brief attempt rolls them back up. “Religious Jews wear them to pray but I forget how they go,” he states flatly. “Put them back.” I do and for years the teffilin and the Hebrew books live somewhere in our home. Whenever I attempt to declutter I ask if I can get rid of them. “No. I want those.” he always says. “But you don’t use them,” I remind him. “Doesn’t matter,” is always his response. 


I grew up Catholic, a second generation descendant of Polish immigrants. I had many Jewish friends but until I met my future husband I had never been to a Seder or a synagogue. Richard is British and Jewish and speaks fluent Hebrew. A mutual friend who happened to be his next door neighbor introduced us. At that point in my life I strongly identified as a Roman Catholic. I attended mass every Sunday, sang in the choir, even sponsored a baptism. I felt comfortable enough to drop by the pastor’s office for a chat. I identified as a “grocery store Catholic.” I picked what I liked of Catholicism (the community, the ritual, the calming strength of faith) and left the rest (the patriarchy, the sexism and the disempowerment of women’s human rights). Still, whenever I went to church, I felt as if I knew exactly who I was, something I rarely found any where else in

Los Angeles. I prayed a lot, mostly for a nice Christian husband. 

On our first date Richard passionately outlines an abridged version of the history of Israel. Using bar napkins, he diagrams changing boundaries, annexed cities and occupied territories. He describes his Jewish upbringing in London as full of ambiguity. “I had not one, not two, but three kings. King George on the throne, Christ the King at school, and King David on Shabbat. No wonder I was confused!” he bellows, laughing at this confluence of traditions. “To figure it out I decided to go to Israel to volunteer during the Six Day War,” he explains. It is the beginning of Richard’s search for a cultural and religious identity. 

Five months after our first date, Passover and Good Friday happen to fall on the same day. A mutual friend invites us to a nearby monastery for a Seder meal they are hosting as a way to connect Jews and Christians. We sit next to Father Vincent, a monk who has spent a lot of time in Israel. “The Polish people and the Jews do not get along,” he proclaims to us after we describe our backgrounds to him. “Too much bad blood between.” Even so, as Richard stands to recite a blessing in Hebrew before the meal, I know in that moment, this is the man I will marry. Soon after we are engaged. 

I am adamant about marrying in my church, by my pastor and that I receive the sacrament of marriage. That is fine with Richard, except a Rabbi also has to be there. A priest and a rabbi walk into a church. Sounds like a joke but it is our wedding. There are readings from both the Torah and the New Testament, liturgical dancers, secular music, a silver Kiddush cup and a chuppah. We speak our vows to each other in English and Hebrew. The priest recites an Irish blessing, the Rabbi a Jewish one, and everyone cries out “Mazel Tov!” when Richard stomps on the glass. It is all wonderful but not very easy to arrange. As a Catholic who wishes to marry an “unbaptized” person, aka Jew, I have to request a “favor of the faith” from the Pope. This means filling out many forms, paying various fees and waiting. 


Our married life follows the precedent set at our nuptials. We decorate Christmas trees and light Hanukah candles. I teach Richard how to color Easter eggs. He critiques my matzo ball soup until I get the saltiness just right. On Christmas Eve we share Polish oplatek, a thin wafer passed around to exchange good wishes. On Rosh Hashanah, we slurp up honey dripped apples. Little by little we drop our individual beliefs until they meld and we do not recognize them as so different. I stop going to mass. He no longer fasts on Yom Kipper. The traditions of the two organized religions we grew up with lose their connection to God as we discover that the strongest beliefs we have are in each other. 

And then, after 29 years, Richard dies. There is a cremation and a memorial and all the horrible little things a wife has to do when her husband dies -- call Social Security, decide how many copies of the death certificate to order, give away his ties. Each morning I open the blinds and read the Kaddish prayer in his memory. The days run together. I toss out his old T-shirts and reorganize the bathroom. At the very back of his nightstand I find all his old Hebrew books. And for the first time in 29 years, I place my hands on his teffilin. 


Years before, when we are making out our wills, Richard stated that he did not want anyone to sit Shivah when he died. Instead, he requests “76 Trombones” from “The Music Man” and smoked salmon at his memorial. I arrange for all that. I find a good home for his clothes and sell his golf clubs. But I am unsure of where the Hebrew books and teffilin should go. Two of his close friends suggest I get in touch with local synagogues. The first three I try tell me they aren’t interested.


One day, as I am driving to a doctors appointment, I spot a large sign by the side of the road with the word, “Chabad” on it. I note the location and look it up when I get home. I sent off a quick email with a description of the items I have and ask if I can donate them. A Rabbi responds almost immediately with a message that simply says, “Drop by. They need to be buried. We charge $30 for a small bag.”  Early the next morning I pack everything up and drive to the Rabbi’s office. 

“You are Jewish, right?” is the first thing he asks. 

“No” I answer, as I take the velvet pouch and books out of a shopping bag.  

“But your mother, she was Jewish, right?” 

“No, my mother was not Jewish. I was raised Catholic but I’m not Catholic anymore. I’m sort of just, spiritual.” I stop talking and realize I sound vague. 

“Richard, my husband, was Jewish though,” I state. “That is why I am here.” 

The Rabbi inspects the books I have brought. “This one is for Passover. And this one is a prayer book.” He opens all the books and describes the function of each. Then he picks up the velvet pouch and pulls out the teffilin. He quickly unfurls the straps and holds one up to the light. 

“You see, here…inside, you can see there are scrolls. These are the scrolls of the Torah.” I am not sure what a proper response would be so I say nothing. He seems pleased that they are genuine. 

“So tell me, where is Richard buried?” he asks. 

“He did not want to be buried. He was cremated.”  After I say this I remember that Jews are not supposed to be cremated. 

“Oh.” The rabbi replies. He looks disappointed. 

“Who is saying Kaddish for him?”

“Actually, I am saying Kaddish.” 

The Rabbi now has a stoic look of concern on his face. It dawns on me that I have said all the wrong things. I am not Jewish. I had Richard cremated. A Jew must say Kaddish, not me. I might as well hand him a plate of shellfish next. 

Perhaps the Rabbi sees my dismay or maybe he has no more questions now. He begins to pack everything up. “Ok, I will take these and make sure they are buried.” He lifts the bag containing the books and the velvet pouch and heads towards his office. I follow behind. 

“Thank you.” I sigh when I see him place the bag on a chair. Not sure of what to do next I fumble for my wallet, find 30 dollars and slip it into the donation box on his desk.  “I had no idea where to go with all of this and I am grateful you will take these things,” I state, anxious to be forgiven for possibly not being good enough. I suddenly feel  overwhelmed. It is as if I am parting with the Jewish part of my husband, the part he so willingly shared with me and that I now must let go of. I haven’t a clue as to what to do next. So I turn to the Rabbi. 

“I just want you to know that my husband was a very good man.” I plead, as if to capture some of the Richard I knew to share.

He looks right at me. His eyes soften and he half whispers, “Yes. And now you must go out and do good deeds in his name. 


Richard believed that when you die all else ends. There is no after life. But I think he sent me a message the day I arranged for the objects from his religious upbringing to be buried. Love binds us together. When we die, something of us remains behind in those we love. As I drive away from the Chabad House I no longer believe I have abandoned one aspect of Richard that I came to love and that became a part of me.  When I get home I google “teffilin” and learn that to put on teffilin is a mitzvah – a good deed. 


Recently, I read Pope Francis has eased the restrictions on interfaith marriages saying that marriages to non-Christians should be looked upon as a privileged place for possibility.  My life with Richard floods back in memories every day. I recall all the moments that were and imagine all the mitzvahs that are to come.  And I understand exactly what Pope Francis means.