I am, among many defining facets, a woman and a maker of tallit. A few days ago, I was gathering materials to write about the choices we make--to pray, to wear a beautiful prayer shawl, to leyn from the Torah, to actively weave ritual into our busy lives. While reading the Ha'aretz piece- “Police arrest woman for wearing prayer shawl at Western Wall (November 18, 2009)- which to a Reform Jewish woman in America is incomprehensible and archaic-- I received an email asking me to come hold a Torah for a photo in support of equal rights for women in Judaism. I was proud to do so.
As a Jew in the modern world, I tend to pick my way through the potential mine field of ancient directives, selecting the ones that I can accept, or at least strive for, stepping away from that which I can deem either historic or hyperbolic. I contend that many of us, although born Jewish, are Jews by choice, meaning that we choose how we integrate ritual into our lives. The phrase “time-bound” appears as a reason or non-reason for a woman to wear tallit, as if all humans are not bound by time. We choose to set aside time to pray, why not choose to wear a prayer shawl in which we can wrap ourselves in the past, wrestle with the present, and look to the future.
“What is your kavanah, your intention when you pray,” I ask each client. The answer, never quick, leads to spirited discussion. Many choose blessings seeking protection. For myself, I choose “May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable to Adonai, my Rock and my Redeemer.” I could stop at “acceptable.” As one woman raised in the Workman’s Circle said to me of her own practice, “It’s about the striving.”
Donning my tallit helps me step into a quiet place where I can focus. Prayer and Torah study is about paying attention, looking for balance, fostering the gifts I was born with and that were nurtured by my parents, and being kind, and if not always kind, then at least understanding.
When my Russian-born grandfather was 18 years old, his two brothers, studying to be Torah scribes, were murdered by Cossacks. My grandfather, whom I never met, came to America and fathered three sons. My decision to become a designer and painter of prayer shawls, wedding canopies and healing headscarves is, in part, a way to say Kaddish for these family members and others each time I hand letter a prayer in Hebrew. Tallitot add more colors to my spiritual palette than I ever imagined.
Beth Surdut is an artist who designs and paints prayer shawls and more in Santa Fe, New Mexico. You can visit her website at www.bethsurdut.com.