Several weeks ago Rabbi Yisrael Lein of Shul East in Milwaukee approached me at the end of morning services and said, “Bob, I think it’s time that you bought a new tallit.”

I did not need to look down to know that my tallit was ripped and discolored.

“When a communist gives you a tallit, you should not be in a hurry to discard it,” I explained. Rabbi Lein probably thought to himself, “Eh, just another difficult congregant!”

That set me thinking about my family history, and how I came to be wearing this tattered tallit. My tallit is indeed old, given to me in 1981 as a gift from my father’s sister, Goldie, and her husband, Robbie, who had flown to Milwaukee to be with me at my bar mitzvah. I was 37 years of age at the time; one could say it had been a long time coming.

I was raised in a communist household, which meant that a bar mitzvah, or any other display of Jewishness, was forbidden to me. As a result—unlike all of our Jewish friends whose celebrations we attended—neither my brother nor I had a bar mitzvah.

Following my parents’ deaths in the early ’70s, I came to Milwaukee seeking a new beginning. I worked at the JCC in their senior adult programming. Rabbi Samuels of Lubavitch House was a regular presenter at these programs, and before long I trusted him to steer my own Jewish development. After attending synagogue for two years, I decided that it was time to become a bar mitzvah.

Throughout my entire adult life I carried a void. In not having a bar mitzvah, I felt I was missing an important piece of my identity. When I shared my intentions with my family back East, they were mystified. “What in the world do you need that for now?” I knew that my parents, had they still been alive, would have been critical of my plans, and that my mother would have been unable to convince my father to attend. So I was extremely grateful when my aunt and uncle from the Bronx said they would come. It was a great source of comfort.

The morning of my bar mitzvah, my aunt and uncle presented me with a wrapped gift. It was too big to be a fountain pen, and I couldn’t imagine what it might contain. When I opened it I was stunned to discover a beautiful, traditional, white and black tallit. They explained that they had ridden the subway to the old Jewish section on the Lower East Side of Manhattan to buy a tallit for their “favorite” nephew.

Being a senior now myself, I see those days more in terms of generational clashes. My parents’ generation lived through the dark days of the Holocaust and turned to a political belief that promised a fairer world order. In doing so, they willingly surrendered a major part of their Jewish identity, one which I so badly craved.

Whether we are religious or not, we are all Jews, and I now understand that the gift of the tallit was a peace offering, fusing our family back together with love and respect. Surely now you understand why I am reluctant to replace this precious gift, aged and tattered as it may be.