Sometimes a Jewish ritual object takes on a life of its own. It can trace the history of an entire family, even an entire portion of the Jewish people. When that object is returned to regular religious use, it symbolizes the eternal vitality of Judaism.
So it is with a 115-year-old tallit that will be used for an upcoming bar mitzvah in Tucson, Arizona. Its story is extraordinary, and when young Allan Gorbakovsky blesses and wraps himself in it at his bar mitzvah, he will restore to regular ritual use an amazing piece of family and Jewish history.
The beautiful silk and linen tallit Allan will receive from his grandmother, Inna Gorbakovsky, and his parents, Gary and Anna, at his bar mitzvah May 14th at Congregation Beit Simcha was first used at his own great-great-grandfather Shaya Skotkov’s bar mitzvah in 1907 in Czarist Russia. At the time, Shaya studied in yeshiva, a traditional Jewish school. Over the past 115 years, this prayer shawl survived pogroms in Ukraine, World War I, the Russian Bolshevik Revolution, and the suppression of Judaism by Soviet authorities, including the destruction of the only synagogue in their town of Donetsk, Ukraine. During World War II and the Holocaust, Allan’s great-great-grandfather escaped the Nazis when they invaded Donetsk. He went to Siberia with his daughter Nekhama (Allan’s great-grandmother), his bedridden wife, and his paralyzed mother-in-law. He couldn’t take any belongings with him—but he took this tallit.
After World War II, the shawl survived the systematic communist suppression of religion. Russian Jews were afraid to go to a temple, and could only pray at home, worried that a neighbor could report them to the KGB and secret police. There were times in Soviet Russia when merely possessing this tallit could have sent its owner to the Gulag, or worse. During the latter part of the 20th century, it survived the chaotic fall of the Soviet Union, and immigration and integration into America. Its preservation was the result of careful and courageous care by Allan’s great-great-grandfather Shaya Skotkov, great-grandmother Nekhama Skotkova, his grandmother Inna Gorbakovsky, and his father, Gary Gorbakovsky.
Allan’s great grandmother Nekhama always took care of it. The tallit was a sacred object for her because it was a memory of her father’s bravery, strength of spirit, and a symbol of the family’s Jewish identity. She passed these emotions and feelings to her daughter Inna, grandson Gary, and great-grandson Allan.
Its renewal in the Sonoran Desert, and its use at Allan’s bar mitzvah symbolize much more than one young man coming of age: this tallit represents the survival and revival of Jewish life, and the incredible vitality of Judaism itself.
The tallit, with its satin atarah, was remarkably well preserved, and the fabric of the tallit itself was in surprisingly good condition, but in order for Allan to proudly bless and wear it at his bar mitzvah, it needed careful cleaning and the replacement of its tzitzit, the ritual fringes symbolizing the mitzvot. One of the tzitsiyot had been removed, likely at the death of Allan’s great great-grandfather, while the others were fraying and disintegrating. Dr. Sophia Cohon, Director of Youth Education at Beit Simcha, carefully replaced the tzitsiyot, first soaking the threads in water in order to insert them into the tallit, then ritually winding and tying them so that Allan can hold and bless them.
“This gorgeous tallis is more than a perfect way for Allan to ascend to adulthood in Judaism. When he leads our Shabbat service, and chants Torah and Haftarah, he will be renewing his own family’s Jewish life in a powerful and beautiful way. But he will also be reclaiming a Jewish heritage that was attacked and suppressed, but always rises again,” said Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon of Congregation Beit Simcha.