After affixing the arm hoop, I wrap the long black leather strap tightly around my left bicep three times. Allowing the strap to travel down my arm, I bind it again with equal strength in seven constricting loops. Next, the head hoop descends like a black leather halo to fit snugly around the crown of my skull. Its twin tails fall down the back of my neck and then dangle over the front of my torso. Lastly, the arm strap finishes its journey as I tie it around my hand up to the tip of the middle finger. The Torah states that a Jewish man should wrap these straps, called tefillin in Hebrew, around himself every weekday. Thus, in accordance with this ancient practice, I perform this ritual every morning.

But it was not always this way.

“What’s with that guy?” was my response the first time I saw someone wearing tefillin. I was attending a Jewish environmental conference midway through my junior year in college. At this point in my life I was living in a small wooden cabin perched on a hillside in a place called Rainbow Valley, which was an hour outside of Eugene, Oregon. I scheduled all of my classes for either Tuesdays or Thursdays, so that I had to ride my pickup truck into town only a couple of times a week. I spent the remainder of the gray, northwest days hiking around the valley, hoping to be in the just the right spot whenever the sunlight peeked through the clouds.

Since I was becoming interested in my Jewish roots and was already thoroughly committed to the organic variety, a Jewish environmental conference seemed a perfect fit. Now here I was, sitting in the back of an auditorium, asking my friend about this guy wearing these shiny black leather straps around his upper body.

“What do you mean?” he responded matter-of-factly.

I looked back at the guy wearing the tefillin. My vegetarian defenses stood at attention as I watched him flaunt his leather outfit at, of all places, an environmental conference. I stole glances when he wasn’t looking, avoiding eye contact with the man as if he’d just shown up at a black-tie affair wearing jams and a tank top. Obviously, the guy’s signals were crossed, so I didn’t want him to shoulder any of the embarrassment I felt for him.

“Well, what is he wearing?” I whispered with a grin, thinking that we were both sharing amazement at the situation.

“You serious?” my friend said suspiciously. Was I missing something here?

“They’re tefillin,” he finally answered as if I’d asked what country french fries were from.

“Well, what the heck are they?” I wanted to ask him, but I settled for, “Oh, yeah. Yup.”

After a few seconds of silence, I told my friend that I had to meet somebody. On the way back to my room I repeated mnemonically “to-fill-in, to-fill-in, to-fill-in . . .” over and over in my head, so that I wouldn’t forget the obtuse name of these strange objects.

But what were they?

Sitting Indian-style on the floor in my cabin back in Oregon, I pored over the books about Judaism that I borrowed from the library the day before. Wrapping tefillin, it turned out, was a basic, well-known practice within Judaism, and I discovered that the straps really exist only to secure a pair of accompanying black boxes to the body. These boxes, I further discovered, are the important part of the leathery combo, as they contain tiny scrolls with verses from the Torah that reference tefillin. The boxes are placed upon the head and on the arm near the heart in order to symbolize the union of the mind and emotions that a person should strive for daily.

Considering that I didn’t know anything about tefillin up to this point, it didn’t take long for me to realize that I didn’t know all that much about Judaism either. Apparently I hadn’t been paying much attention during all of those countless hours at Hebrew school. Needless to say, this revelation was both humorous and disturbing. Nonetheless, tefillin were gradually taking me away from one kind of life and binding me to another, wrapping me up even before I had begun to wrap it around myself.

Although I couldn’t procure a pair of tefillin in the area where I lived, I started to pray everyday in the only way one can do such a thing: religiously. As my investigations into tefillin led me to explore and practice other dimensions of Jewish life, I quickly went from being someone who shunned routine and forced schedules to someone who found enjoyment and purpose in them. My days of floating around the woods were replaced with structured learning and scheduled observance.

Anaïs Nin once said, “We don’t see things as they are, we see them how we are.” Along similar lines, my way of life began to change when instead of seeing a routine as a shackle, I began to see it as a canvas. I transformed from being the free-spirited do-as-I-feel type to a regimented, pray-before-breakfast believer.

It wasn’t until a year after I’d begun my investigation that I bought my own pair of tefillin. Since then I have put them on every weekday morning. Even so, whenever I find myself in the middle of a crowded airport or the back of a train sporting my black leather straps, my response to people as they hustle past me with curious, worried faces is: “Yeah, trust me. I know.”