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My Grandmother, My Mother and I: Finding Our First Tallitot

My grandmother, my mother, and I walked into a store. Sounds like the beginning of a joke, right? Actually, the three of us were on a mission to find a tallit for me. My bat mitzvah was approaching, and, since neither my mom nor my grandmother had a tallit of her own, they both wanted to accompany me.

As I made my way around shelves of hanukiyahs and stuffed dreydels, I saw only three racks of tallitot. White tallitot with blue stripes, cream colored ones with Stars of David, and multicolored shawls printed with a scene of Jerusalem all hung from the racks. These were identified as “Bar Mitzvah Tallit”—clearly meant for boys. The “Bat Mitzvah Tallit” rack, designated for girls, was much more sparse. Most were white, a band of pink here or there, but it seemed that rather than have a feminine color, the designers preferred to downplay any reference to gender at all. Although I did not want entirely bubblegum pink, I was hoping for more selection, and more artistic choices than just stripes.

Luckily, we had plenty of time before the big day, and this was not the only store near my house that sold tallit. A few months later, the three of us went to another Judaica shop. In the back, stacks of tallit perched precariously on floor to ceiling shelves. Every color of the rainbow jumped out at me; the tallitot were organized by designer rather than by gender. The shop owner began pulling out one after another, draping them over me, and offering her opinion on which ones she liked.

I spied a cream-colored one in the middle of a pile. It had little pink flowers on the ends near the tzitzit, it was understated, yet when I put it on, I knew it was mine. The simple pattern of pink blossoms suggested not just femininity, but growth and the future of my Jewish journey.

While I had been trying on tallit, my mom and grandma had begun to do the same. Although both had become bat mitzvah in our synagogue, neither woman ever had their own tallit. At her bat mitzvah as an adult, my grandmother wore a borrowed tallit from the congregation, and at my mother’s bat mitzvah she wore her father’s tallis. Shopping together, my grandmother found a deep red and orange gauzy shawl to call her own, very chic, just like her everyday style. My mom also picked a deeply dyed tallit, hers with a pink tint rather than an orange one. I noticed a glow on each of their faces as they donned their tallitot; the same glow I had felt from within as I wore my own prayer shawl.

The fact that I identify as female and wore a tallit to my bat mitzvah felt absolutely normal to me. The Jewish community I was raised in holds equal standards and expectations for men and women, and thus I felt nothing but pride in my ability to say the bracha and swing the shawl up around my head and onto my shoulders.

Tallitot have always struck me as paradoxical. As we enter into a communal space of prayer, we close ourselves off from others by wrapping ourselves in prayer shawls. At my bat mitzvah, I began to understand. Each tallit is a foundation with the same parts; a stretch of fabric, a band close to your neck, and tzitzit at the corners. Each tallit on each individual, however, is quite different. Like we do with the clothes we are wearing and the words we use, tallitot are an avenue toward self-expression. That glow I felt, and saw on my mother and grandmother’s faces while wearing tallitot were not just because the colors suited our skin tones. Their personalities and inner beauty were reflected in the fabric and pattern. Looking out from the bima, I saw everyone’s face glowing, but my eyes were drawn to the matriarchs of my family; their tallitot brightly infusing color, empowerment, and love into my memory.

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1 Comment

What a great piece Hannah! It's so great to be exploring Jewish ritual with you at Advah Designs this summer.

Tallit, Advah Designs
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A tallit from Advah Designs.
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How to cite this page

Elbaum , Hannah. "My Grandmother, My Mother and I: Finding Our First Tallitot." 9 July 2015. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on January 20, 2019) <https://jwa.org/blog/my-grandmother-my-mother-and-i-finding-our-first-tallitot>.

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