Sunday, January 5, 2014

A Tale of Two Tallises, or What a Difference Thirty-Two Years Make

It was January of 1982. I was president of my sisterhood in Anaheim, California, and preparing to lead my first Sisterhood Shabbat service. Our rabbi had thrown down the gauntlet. He fervently wished that Sisterhood and Mens Club Shabbat participations would be more than a few English readings. His vision was to be able to sit with his family (or maybe even stay home? Nah) and let the affiliate run the show - announce pages, lead the prayers, give the sermon, read Torah...all of it. I was only too willing to accept the challenge and I assembled women (OK so one of our participants wasn't really a Sisterhood member, but she was a woman and the daughter of our educator, so I considered her an honorary member) who would do the job. It was exciting and scary. Lots of our Shabbat regulars were resisting women's participation in services. We had to look good. I remember sitting in my rabbi's office and asking, "So, if I'm going to 'play rabbi,' should I wear a tallis?" I had no future commitment in mind, just the desire to do what was appropriate as the leader of the service.

My rabbi gave me wise advice. He said women didn't wear tallises in our congregation, and so if I did wear one, its shock value would overtake whatever positive effect I wanted to have by having an all-women Shabbat. He advised me that I should think about it carefully and be prepared to wear it after that Shabbat as well.

I went home and asked my husband if I could borrow his tallis for the event. He told me he'd be happy to lend it to me, but "I think you should make your own." Oh. I never thought of that..

That first women-led Sisterhood Shabbat, I went without a tallis, but I  committed myself to making one and wearing it, not just on Sisterhood Shabbat but every morning when I davened. I found all kinds of patterns and ideas and sought the advice of wise craftswomen in my congregation. I chose natural linen for the fabric, embroidered the atarah (band along the top side) and the corners using waste canvas and lavender thread, with beading on the atarah. It showed a Jerusalem skyline and carried the words of the psalm: if I forget you Jerusalem, may my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth. עם אשכחך ירושלים תדבק לשני לחכי. It brought me such pleasure to see the product appear. One corner had my Hebrew name, one had my favorite quote from Prophets, from Mikhah. The context is, "You have been told, Human, what God wants of you." Then my choice: only to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God." כי אם עשות משפט ואהבת חסד והצנע לכת עם אלהיך The remaining two corners reminded me to choose life (Deut. 30:19) ובחרת בחיים and reminded others, while I creatively edited a piece of Torah, that God created woman ויברא אלהים את הנקיבה I loved that tallit, and I chose to wear it for the first time on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, 1982. New beginnings all around.

I was a wreck. It was a radical act I was contemplating, and I knew my relationship with my community would be forever changed, some for the good, some not. I didn't want to be kicked out of the room (I didn't really expect that, but you never know). I didn't want to be considered a "radical feminist." I just had found great meaning in wearing my tallit and wanted to be able to wear it at this important time in the Jewish year. 

The feelings of the community were echoed at home. My husband continued to be supportive. My oldest sat one day and watched me tie the tzitzit (ritual fringes) to the finished tallit and asked, "Um, Mom? Are you going to wear that all the time?" "Yup, every Shabbat and holiday." Pause. "Are you going to wear it when you give kids their Bibles on their bar mitzvahs?" "Yep." Oh I knew what was coming. "Are you going to wear it at mine?" "Yup." "What if a family doesn't want you to wear it for their bar mitzvah?" "I'll tell them someone else needs to be asked to give the Bible." Then I added, "Sweetie, your bar mitzvah isn't for over a year. By then no one will even notice I'm wearing it."

By the way, no one asked me not to wear my tallit when I presented Bibles on Shabbat morning.

That first Rosh Hashanah, I was glared at and scowled at, and admittedly my spiritual experience was less than spectacular. But it was important to  me when I actually wrapped myself in my tallit at the beginning of the service, and when I used the corner to touch  the Torah scrolls as they moved around the sanctuary. For the first time, I felt truly part of the worshiping community.

Slowly women began wearing tallit, one or two every year. I've been out of the community for over 20 years, so I can't report for sure, but women's participation has become normalized, so I suspect women and girls are now wearing tallit (and kipah) regularly. But my pleasure at donning my first tallit was mitigated by the discomfort I felt as I knew there were eyes glaring at me in disapproval.

Since then, I've had many tallitot. I was anything but a scholar when I made my first, and someone pointed out (rather unkindly) that I'd misspelled one of the quotes from Torah. Just today I noticed another misspelling on the atarah. The process of stitching makes it nearly impossible to tear out the offending letters and fix them, so I put the garment away in its needlepointed bag and sought a new one. I found it in Jerusalem, a glorious white garment shot through with silver thread. I wore it every Shabbat and holiday, but it began to show its wear. On another trip to Jerusalem, I commissioned a tallit from Yad LaKashish, Lifeline to the Old, a workshop that produces wonderful handcrafts. I loved that blue tallit, wore it every Shabbat and holiday, and kept the white one for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. (In case you're wondering, weekday mornings I wore my Seminary tallit - still do.)

Lately, that blue tallit from Jerusalem has begun to show its age and I resolved to begin looking for a  new one. But on my budget, that was on the back burner. Until a friend and colleague, Rabbi Chana Thompson Shor, who works in fabric art, posted some new designs to her Facebook page. She'd been posting lots of creations - matza covers, hallah covers, other tallit designs - and they were all beautiful, but I'd resisted making any commitment. This time, however, the sample she showed was glorious. I contacted her and we began negotiating. What to put on the atarah? On the ribbon that goes across the bag (in her design)? Can I have my name on one of the corners?

In true buyers-remorse style, as soon as I said, "Yes" and sent her my down payment, I began to wonder. Is the pattern too busy? Will I like it when it's done? Here's some new patterns she's posting. Maybe I should have waited.....? Maybe you know the drill.

Then the package arrived in the mail. I opened the package and saw the lavender velvet bag and gasped. How beautiful. How pleasing to my sensibilities. And then I opened the velvet bag and pulled out the tallit.

I cannot begin to express the joy I felt as the fabric spilled across my fingers. I am including pictures of both my first and this new one, but pictures cannot do the fabric justice. The main colors are a blue/lavender/purple spectrum, but there are splashes of gray in the pattern, and the gray has a sparkle to it. The garment truly sparkles. The atarah and corners are the same lavender velvet as the bag. The inscriptions are painted in gray. I wrapped myself in it and felt goose flesh rise on my arms.

I posted a picture of my new tallit on Facebook and received some wonderful responses, but none so wonderful as the reactions of people Shabbat morning when I brought "the real thing" into shul. There were gasps. Jaws dropped. One woman told me to hold on to it because it just might disappear. And I couldn't help but think back to that day nearly 32 years ago when I debuted my first tallit. There was no fear, no distraction. I walked proudly onto the bima (I was reading Torah that morning), not worried for a moment that anyone would look askance at my glorious garment. Times have clearly changed, in many ways.

That first Sisterhood Shabbat, I would never have guessed that wearing a tallit would be the first step in a journey that led me to the rabbinate (unheard of for Conservative women in 1982). The 11-year-old who was worried that I would wear my tallit to his bar mitzvah just showed the picture of my new tallit to his children, who, he tells me, were suitably impressed.

One more thing about my tallitot. The inscriptions have varied. My blue one declared, "For Zion's sake I will not be silent." This new one thanks God for ever guiding my steps (from the morning liturgy). But both have my Hebrew name in the corner. The front right corner, the one I use to touch a Torah scroll as it passes or when I'm called for an honor. It puts my parents' names front and center. And I love that while when a woman marries, her surname (usually) changes, she is forever the daughter of her parents. I think of characters like Erika Kane who had how many last names? Elizabeth Taylor. Lots of people, real or fictional. But whatever may come in my life, I will forever be the daughter of Eliezar Hayyim and Miriam, Louis and Mary. That brings me pleasure.It's a kind of identity that goes far beyond tallit. It's not just my role as participating Jew or leader in a Jewish community. It's my primal identity, the place where it all began. And it reminds me that my behavior is a reflection of my parents, even though they have been gone so long.

A glorious Shabbat. An accepting community. A beautiful tallit.  And my history on one of its corners. What a difference 32 years make!

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