Tallit Magic

My earliest memory of shul is all about my father’s tallit. I was probably 3 years old. I was sitting in synagogue next to my dad, and as I listen to the prayers and the Torah reading, the sermon and the schmoozing, I took his tallit into my hand, feeling the fringes, wrapping the tzitzit around my finger, making little weavings and braids.
Tallitot were for males back then, at least in my part of the Jewish world. I remember seeing the many colors and patterns of tallitot parade in front of me as boys in our synagogue became Bar Mitzvot and were each presented with their tallit. I remember my mother needle pointing new tallit bags for my brother and father (tallis bags she called them, though) and seeing the beautiful designs she created.
I can’t say I longed to wear one then. It honestly never occurred to me.
But years later, when I returned from college for a visit and attended services back at my old synagogue that all changed. As my mother and I entered the sanctuary, my breath caught in my throat. One of the “older” women in our congregation had on a tallit. I had never seen such a thing.
I remember commenting to my mother about it and she confirmed that some women were starting to wear them. Soon it was part of the Bat Mitzvah ceremony too, the presentation of the tallit. I remember thinking I had missed it by a mere 5 years. I was 18. I could have had a tallit. Sandwiched between the older women who were claiming their right to wear a tallit, and the new Bat Mitzvot, who were being presented with theirs, there I was, adrift. Now I did long to wear one. I asked my mom if she would buy me one and she put me off. I don’t remember her exact words, but in her mind, it was still something for males, that much was clear. I set aside my tallit dreams. For the moment.
As an adult finding my adult place in Judaism, and my new synagogue in my new state, there were definitely women wearing tallitot. I would look at them with longing, but felt unworthy to join their ranks. Those women were so…they were more knowledgeable than me. They were wise. They were scholars. They were more active in shul life than me. That if I were male I would not think I had to “earn” my tallit by being some ultra perfect Jew did not occur to me. I am sure my mother’s idea that it was not for me was in my head and heart somewhere.
And then, a little over a decade ago, my sister called to talk about plans for my nephew’s Bar Mitzvah. I would have an aliyah and her synagogue was egalitarian, and all were required to wear a kippah and tallit on the bimah.
A tallit? But, I had never worn a tallit. She reassured me that was OK and told me they have some to loan. OK, I say. Wow. Suddenly all those feelings of not being worthy to wear a tallit are irrelevant. Now, I was being asked to wear one. Now I was required to wear one. I knew immediately that I would never go back. Before the phone was even back on the charger, I knew that once I wrap myself in that tallit, I would not give it up.
But I still didn’t know how. So I went to a tallit-wearing colleague and friend and told her about the upcoming Bar Mitzvah. And she said three very beautiful words to me: “I’ll teach you!” And she did. In fact, she gave me a tallit of hers that she no longer used, and when I arrived in New York for the Bar Mitzvah weekend it was with a tallit in my suitcase. MY tallit.
When I said the bracha and wrapped myself in my tallit, I was no longer an observer. I was not on the outside looking at others, but feeling the embrace of my own tallit. And each time I run my hands through the fringe and wrap the tzitzit around my finger, I am transported back to being 3-years-old in shul, sitting next to my dad.
One of the things I have always loved most about being Jewish is the connections that transcend time and space. When I light candles on Friday night, gathering the light toward me and covering my eyes, I am a traveler. In that moment I am traveling backward in time to every generation before me that has greeted Shabbat in the same way. I am traveling forward to all the generations in front of me that will do the same. And at the same time I am traveling all over the world, where Jews in every land are closing their eyes and thanking G-d for commanding us to light these lights. All that in a few moments in my very own dining room — It’s magic.
I feel the same sensation when I wrap myself in my tallit. I feel connection to my father and all the men in the generations before him who wrapped themselves in tallit to pray. And I feel the connection going forward through the generations in front of me of men and women and their tallit. I am one with Jews all over the world, one big tallit-wearing family. L’dor vador – In every generation – becomes a feeling that is almost palpable in these moments.
The first time my son, sitting in shul next to me, reached out and ran his fingers through the fringe of my tallit, I felt L’Dor Vador so strongly that it brought tears to my eyes. This boy who would never meet my father, sitting with me, who never did meet my own father’s father, made a small gesture with his tiny toddler hand, and we all found each other. Magic.
Which brings us to the present day. My son talks with such love and longing about receiving a tallit when he becomes a Bar Mitzvah. It is a frequent topic at shul, or as we leave shul. He admires the tallit he sees on others and the colors and patterns he likes. He will sometimes get wide-eyed at a particular one and say, “Oooo, I want MY tallit to be like THAT one.” I LOVE this longing in him. And it fills me with gratitude. Had I not found my way to my own tallit, I doubt he would long for his in the same way.
Recently as we stood in shul, my son was standing in front of me. I was praying my silent Amidah when it happened. He backed up, pressing against me and gathered my tallit around him. As it hung down over his shoulders, I could tell he was time traveling too, about 6 years forward, when he will be wrapped in his own tallit. It was a silent magical moment that likely passed without anyone else even seeing. But it left me even more grateful for the magic of my tallit.
(Photo: Angerboy)