How My Bat Mitzvah Tallit Helped Me Find My Voice

Photo of Shoshanah Curiel-Alessi's tallit. Via Shoshanah Curiel-Alessi.

As a girl in American society, and as someone who's been bullied quite a bit in the past, I’ve trained myself to not take up space and to not make a scene. For most of my youth, I was hyper-focused on not being a nuisance to others and on not making myself seem “special.” I wore clothes that were plain and inconspicuous, and always tried to keep my hair neat and in a style with which I could easily hide my face. Even when I switched schools and surrounded myself with people who accepted me regardless of my quirks, I still believed that sharing my “insignificant” thoughts and opinions—or really any sense of my individuality—would ultimately just be a disturbance to others. I was in a constant state of fear that I would make someone uncomfortable, annoy them, or force them to reflect on their preconceptions of who I was “supposed” to be.

Obviously, this perpetual state of passivity was highly problematic for me. I was so focused on others’ needs and comfort that I often felt quite drained, and my sense of self and my beliefs were underdeveloped. I worked so hard to accommodate the expectations that I anticipated others had for me that I gave myself no room to create my own set of expectations for how I deserved to be treated by the world.

This issue is not one that’s unique to me. From research and personal observations, I’ve noted trends in the ways that women and other gender minorities treat themselves and are treated in social settings—trends that stem from cyclical norms imposed by society to keep women in a submissive role. From these societal influences, I’d internalized a set of labels attributed to outspoken women, terms like “sassy,” “moody,” “emotional,” “angry,” “annoying”—the list goes on. I tried to avoid embodying any of those traits to the point where I completely opted out and essentially embodied no traits.

When I started studying for my bat mitzvah, however, this changed. I knew my bat mitzvah would be a major life event for me, and one of the only times that, according to my personal religious obligation, I actually had to take up space. I was anticipating an entire day dedicated to me and only me—and that was terrifying.

Planning my bat mitzvah meant learning to chant an entire Torah portion, a haftarah portion, leading a multitude of prayers, and giving a d’var Torah, a speech analyzing the essence of the Torah portion. This was an immense challenge for me, as I actually had to develop my own opinions and cultivate the courage to voice them loudly and proudly.

Aside from these rituals, I knew another key part of my bat mitzvah would be receiving my tallit, a prayer shawl which represents the commandments and deeds Jews are meant to follow, as well as G-d’s warming presence. I understood that my parents would give this to me towards the beginning of the service, and it would serve as a representation of me becoming a Torah-studying adult in the Jewish community.

As my bat mitzvah date came closer and closer, I grew fearful that my opinions would either be uninteresting and invalid or would be too provocative. I was afraid I would collapse under all of the pressure. Since I’d never given myself room to voice my thoughts in a deep way, I had no idea how I was going to respond to the stress of expressing my beliefs in such a serious setting. Nevertheless, I continued preparing for my bat mitzvah. I tried to place all of my worries in G-d’s hands and to embrace the successes and losses of the day.

When I received my tallit at the beginning of the service, it was a meaningful moment. Although it was essentially just a pretty scarf, it held great significance to me on that day. Not only does it represent my connection to Judaism and G-d, but receiving it was a tangible assertion by my parents and my Jewish community that my voice mattered.

Women don’t traditionally wear tallitot in Judaism, and they certainly don’t typically wear bright pink ones with purple and gold flowers. This prayer shawl was the antithesis of everything I’d told myself I was supposed to be. This tallit challenged tradition, caught attention, and definitely took up space. The minute I put it on, I felt like I was being hugged by G-d. I felt safe and protected, and felt like any opinion I had I could share. The spiritual weight of this garment validated my identity as an opinionated Jewish woman and, in the act of putting it on myself, I was taking charge of my experience as a Jew, a woman, and ultimately, as a human.

I felt free yet grounded in my tallit; it held all of my fears, tensions, and stresses about my bat mitzvah and about existing and making a scene. This moment was cathartic and, although it very short, it held so much significance for me that I cried the first of many tears that day. I floated through the rest of the ceremony feeling pride, confidence, and euphoria.

Every time I attend services at synagogue and wear this tallit, I feel that same groundedness. In fact, the feeling has grown; I feel powerful. Just by wearing this flamboyant garment, I’m taking up space and I’m proud to do so. Now, however, I don’t wear this garment to give me confidence; my pride has become independent of this item. Instead, I wear it to reiterate that confidence, to boast it to the world, and to remind myself how far I’ve come.

This piece was written as part of JWA’s Rising Voices Fellowship.

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I love this! Such a beautiful message!

How to cite this page

Curiel-Alessi, Shoshanah. "How My Bat Mitzvah Tallit Helped Me Find My Voice." 16 October 2020. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on October 21, 2020) <https://jwa.org/blog/risingvoices/how-my-bat-mitzvah-tallit-helped-me-find-my-voice>.

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