“You shall make tassels on the four corners of the garment with which you cover yourself.” (Deut. 22:12)
My husband threw me a surprise birthday party for my 40th birthday. I was really surprised; I know, because we have pictures. There’s one picture in particular, though, that marked not just the passage of a year, but the passage into a whole new realm of my Jewish practice. The picture shows me surprised, laughing, and on the verge of tears. Captured the moment perfectly.
My husband bought me a tallit.
I had never worn a tallit before, and though I was dabbling in getting more deeply engaged with Jewish practice, and talked about maybe, some day, what-would-it -be like to wear a tallit., I hadn’t taken the next step. A little scared. A little nervous. I used to play with the fringes on my dad’s tallit, sitting next to him in High Holiday services; what would my now-late father have said? It still seemed really “male” to me. That is, until I put it on.
It was no longer a “male” or “female” thing. It was a prayer-thing. You know how when you first get married, your ring feels a little like a mosquito bite? You notice it most of the time, it weighs on your finger, but after a while, it’s the most natural thing in the world; it belongs. You only notice when it’s not there.
That’s how it was with me and my tallit, and kipah, actually. And all these years later, it still feels like the most natural thing in the world. During some summers when I was teaching at a Jewish camp, and it would have been really easy to forgo putting on a wool garment over my shorts and t-shirt in bright sun, I remembered that I had signed on for this mitzvah and I needed to follow through with wearing it whenever I was in a prayerful setting. It feels odd when it’s not there. And it really does change my prayer experience. I pray differently with my tallit. I enter a space. The tallit s something I only wear for prayer, and to ignore with unseemly behavior, even words, would demean the separateness/holiness/sacredness of the cloth and fringes.
If you haven’t been following what’s going on in Israel, with the amazing group called “Women of the Wall”, led by the equally amazing Anat Hoffman, pay attention. (And if you can, support them you’re your efforts and dollars) Women are being illegally arrested, hauled off to jail, even once endangering the safety of the Torah when the police tried to pull it out of Anat’s hands, (it still brings me to tears to watch) all because a group of faithful women acting on their love of Judaism, Torah and God the way Jews have done for thousands of years, with prayerful words and prayerful garb.
I have prayed with the Women of the Wall. It was over ten years ago. It was the most terrifying and exhilarating thing I’d ever done. I was there with my sister, who is now a rabbi. We were given instructions as to where to sit to meet up with the group. How would we recognize them, we wondered. We didn’t know anyone by face or name. You’ll know, we were told. And we did. A nod, a look, a silent confirmation. We were told that, if things got violent, there were procedures to be followed. Things did get nasty, but not violent, but we still had to sing in muted voices (Hallel, of all things! Praising God with joy!) and disperse quickly. To this day, I ask, resentful and dumbfounded, why should any emotion like fear or anxiety enter into my holy moments at the Wall?
I don’t know when my next trip to Israel will be. I’ll try to make it around Rosh Chodesh, the time when Women of the Wall meets, as they have every month for over 20 years. If it’s not Rosh Chodesh, I will not be going to the Wall. It has stopped being a holy place for me in any other circumstance. I see only intolerance, hatred, and extremism there. I don’t see a place for me, literally. The women’s section is getting smaller and smaller. The police/government need to protect more and more women from the disgusting and violent harassment of a small group of very loud people.
To them I say, “You pay attention to your prayers, and let me do the same” Then, maybe, the spot known as the Wall will become a place where prayers are really heard, and all our voices can rise to God on wings of hope, tolerance, love and righteousness.