When I first joined Beth Jacob Congregation with my then-fiance in anticipation of our upcoming wedding, there was no way to ignore that I was expected to wear a tallit when going up to the bima for our pre-wedding aliyah. I had never seen women wear tallit before joining Beth Jacob, much less put one on myself. I used one of the spares that live outside the sanctuary. I felt silly like I was wearing a costume from when I participated in acting classes as part of my technical theatre degree.
All I knew about a tallit was that you started wearing one after your bat mitzvah and at that time I didn’t yet know that the ceremony was not a requirement. When you are of age you are of age, end of story, and in an egalitarian synagogue that applies to everyone. Without this knowledge I’ve spent years feeling like an imposter every time I put on a tallit to participate, taking it off as soon as I was back in the safety of the pews.
I felt like the tallit was something you earned through knowledge. The knowledge I didn’t have from a ceremony I didn’t particularly want to take part in even though I would have been welcomed into any of the various adult B’nai mitzvah classes that have taken place over the last 14 years I’ve been a regular. As my oldest gets closer to her own bat mitzvah and the number of times I’m asked up to the bima has increased over the years, I’ve found myself accepting my part in the play and not wanting to wear a borrowed costume anymore.
I knew I didn’t want to go buy a standard issue tallit. I wanted to feel some connection to it since I still don’t feel I’ve ‘earned’ it. I don’t remember the exact date, it didn’t come to me like a bolt of lightning, but one day it occurred to me that I already owned what might make a perfect tallit. I turned this over in my mind for months as I do with many things. The more I thought about it, the more perfect it felt. I had balked at the price of tulle veils in wedding shops and had been disappointed to find it was a requirement of a Jewish wedding. My mother and I decided we could make one and set off to a fabric store. Instead of tulle, I fell in love with a long piece of scrap purple cotton lace from the bargain bin. Framed against my dark hair and white dress it had been the perfect nontraditional detail. I slowly began to mention this to people, waiting for someone to shoot me down, tell me it wouldn’t work. I couldn’t find anyone who didn’t think it was a great idea. I began to ask about the details of a tallit, asking people to share their own stories.
At our synagogue fundraiser, I purchased a certificate to have an atara embroidered by a member of the congregation. I found a deep purple embroidery floss and then was at a loss as to the next step. I signed up for a make your own tallit workshop through the synagogue, but left feeling less sure of myself. My design and crafting skills were nowhere near my expectations and I set it aside for several months. When a crafty friend offered to help me finish it, I realized I wasn’t looking for the experience of making my own tallit. I was looking for meaning in owning a tallit. We went to a fabric store and she expertly narrowed down my choices so that I could really focus on how I wanted the tallit to look without worry about my own personal skill level. In a much shorter time than anticipated, I had a tallit that was more beautiful than I envisioned. I called upon another friend to come help me tie the tzizit. What would have taken me hours of frustration she could do in 15 minutes while having a short catch up and our children played together.
The first time I wore my new tallit was the Saturday after Thanksgiving. A small crowd where I knew even if it did draw attention, it wouldn’t be overwhelming. I purposely didn’t posted it on social media; just sending pictures to a few close friends that it was done and would be making its debut.
It felt funny putting it on, but I know I’ll get used to it and someday it will be hard to remember not wearing it. Every time someone noticed or complimented my tallit I was quick to mention all the help I had received. I wanted to make sure everyone knew how much I appreciated the skill level that went into this process. When I got home that afternoon I realized the tallit had taken on a new importance than its original intention. It had taken encouragement and support from friends, from my village of people, to get me into this ritual object. At the moment it doesn’t have a spiritual connection, though I’m hoping that may change one day. What it does have is a feeling of being wrapped in love by my community which at this stage in my life I what I want most from my synagogue.