The Fringes of Tradition

In 1980 when I was in my first year of rabbinical school, I decided to try out many new rituals including wearing a kippah, tefillin and tallit for prayer.  I was not raised wearing any of these and but I had remembered fondly sitting and playing with the fringes of my father’s z”l and my brothers’ tallitot as I sat next to them in services and seeing them scramble to find a kippah to put on as they entered our synagogue.   I always liked the beauty of the tallitot themselves and the ritual of the folding and fitting the tallit into its perfectly soft velvet bag after a service.   But, even though I was in the midst of crashing through the gender wall of Judaism, I was ambivalent about simply taking on formerly male only rituals without further investigation as to how they fit into my life.  I decided to begin by attending regular morning worship and slowly to experiment with other things..  I tried out wearing a kippah after of course searching to find the “perfect” one.   I found I liked the idea of covering my head as part of dressing for prayer.  It fit with the concept of being “dressed appropriately for every occasion” that had been drummed into my psyche by my parents.  

I then decided to move on to the tallit and Teffilin.  Teffilin made me feel very uncomfortable.  I felt less connected to tradition and more distracted during morning prayer.  Consequently I never adopted Tefillin wearing as a regular spiritual practice. Tallit wearing was so different.  I began by borrowing whatever ones we had at hand.  I tried all styles and designs from the “curtain panel” type that hung around the neck to enormous blanket type Tallitot that totally enveloped me.  I came to love the warm feeling of being hugged close as I prayed and tried to find a spiritual center.   Clearly the tallit was for me!  But now I wanted my own tallit and its own special bag.  I started shopping around for one and was mesmerized by the beautiful choices available each more stunning than the next and plenty that were not the “old” black or blue striped version.  Clearly this ritual fit me in every way!

As I shopped though I realized that there was something missing from the process but I could not understand why I could not finalize a choice. Until I finally realized that despite the fact that I was a 21 year old rabbinical student setting out on my “adult” career path, I needed my parents involved in this purchase.  I remembered the moment my parents gave each of my brothers their tallitot as they became B’nai Mitzvah and I wanted the same claim on both my religious and family traditions.  I decided to learn how to chant from the Torah and have my parents give me my tallit to wear for the first time when they came to visit me in Israel.  We shopped together for my tallit and I wore it as I chanted the Torah. I felt the warm presence of my parents and my tradition enveloping me as I stood at the Torah wrapped in my new tallit.  Years later for my father’s 60th birthday I reversed the tradition and presented him with a new tallit.  

I have since acquired many additional tallitot each special in its own way.  I am beginning the process of making my own tallit which I plan on making from scratch from raw wool which I will dye, spin and knit or weave myself.  I know as I go through the steps of making this special tallit that each thread will help link me to the ancient rituals of my tradition while  also uniquely representing my own journey to claim the beauty and traditions of my people and my family.