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Tallit designed by Beth Surdut "for a woman who grows wildflowers."
Courtesy of Beth Surdut.

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.

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Beth, thank you for sharing some of the impetus behind your very vibrant and meaningful tallitot. I particularly appreciate your comment about all of us being bound by time. We then choose how to pray (or not) within those constraints. Being beautifully held by a tallit - or by one's own imagination - certainly can support our prayers.

The translation of the Hebrew on this tallit, which is a gift from a 75-year-old woman to a dear friend she has known since college, is the third part of the priestly blessing-- "May Adonai lift up his face unto you and give you peace."

How to cite this page

Surdut, Beth. "Kavanah." 4 October 2010. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on March 29, 2023) <https://jwa.org/blog/Kavanah>.

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