How Buying a Tallit at 46 Helped Me Claim My Place in the Jewish Community
I’ve struggled for decades to feel comfortable in synagogue as a single woman. Wrapped in a silk prayer shawl, I finally felt at home.
I sneaked into West Side Judaica in Manhattan on a sunny afternoon two years ago and stealthily made a beeline for the tallit section in the back, where I found a rack for women. I tried on colorful ones—not me. Embroidered ones—again, no. I wanted a more traditional tallit, one that I could hide inside, one that felt like Jerusalem on a cold, rainy day. Finally, I settled on a beautiful silk one with silver threads that had been made by an Israeli manufacturer. It seemed a little big, but I’m five feet tall—that’s often the case for things I buy.
I put it on over my shoulders, then pulled it off over my head. I repeated this many times, until I was afraid that the strings of the tzitzit would become tangled, that I would accidentally step on them, that someone would chastise me for breaking some religious rule that I wasn’t even aware of. But no such thing happened. When I finally emerged from the back corner, the Orthodox man who ran the store was very nice. He folded the one I had chosen, asked me a few polite questions, and sent me on my way with my very first tallit.
I carried my package home gently, afraid that I would do something wrong. The tallit came with its own woven case, but that, too, seemed rather fragile. Fragile: like spirituality itself. Fragile: like my inchoate connection to the Jewish community.
I had decided to buy the tallit for my niece’s bat mitzvah the following week. I’d be getting an aliyah, and would be required to wear one. I could have simply borrowed one from the synagogue, but I liked the idea of having my own for the first time, at age 46.
I grew up at a time when women did not wear tallitot. When I was my niece’s age, I had to fight to be the first girl in my congregation to have a bat mitzvah on a Saturday. I didn’t wear a tallit, but I read the Torah and Haftorah, and that was enough to make some of the more traditional families drop out of our Conservative synagogue in suburban New Jersey. I was proud of myself for sticking to Saturday, for digging in my heels. I was self-assured that weekend, in my long green bat mitzvah dress, singing off-key and following the trops for my Torah portion, B’reishit, as best I could. I thought then that claiming my place that day was the end of the battle to find a place where I felt comfortable in the Jewish community. But it was just the beginning.
After breaking up with the man I planned to marry in my 20s, I didn’t meet anyone else I wanted to create a life with. My life was full, perhaps more so than if I had settled down that young, but as friends married and had children, I often found myself at services alone. And as the shmoozy services of my childhood gave way to a space of prayer and singing, somehow, I felt, I found myself closer to God.
For years after leaving home at 17, I’d alternated between sloughing off my Jewish identity and struggling to recreate it in a way that seemed relevant. I rebelled against the right-wing politics and hierarchy of religiousness of the synagogue that I’d grown up in, but I missed having Friday night dinners with challah and wine and being part of a Jewish community. I studied Hebrew in college and spent six months in Israel then, and another summer there working during graduate school, yet I had no interest in making aliyah, as some of my friends from that time would.
By the time I’d finished grad school and begun working at a business magazine in New York, I felt increasingly drawn to intellectual and cultural Jewish experiences, while remaining alienated from religious ones. I was moved by Yehuda Amichai’s poetry, and A.B. Yehoshua’s novels, and for a time was obsessed with Susannah Heschel’s On Being a Jewish Feminist. But I was in my mid-30s and had lived in New York for more than a decade before it even occurred to me to join a synagogue.
In part, these contradictions ran through my family. My grandfather, whom I adored, was steeped in Jewish tradition and culture and with my grandmother founded a Jewish summer camp, but by the time of his death he was pretty much an atheist. In part, too, I just didn’t know where I belonged, and finding spirituality in the meditation of a yoga class was easier than figuring it out.
The Upper West Side synagogue I ultimately joined, 10 years ago, is unaffiliated, and in practice it lies somewhere between Reform and Conservative: One of the three rabbis is a woman a few years younger than me who had chosen to become a mom on her own. Women are a full and equal part of the community, and I have always felt comfortable in that community. Many women wear tallitot. Eventually, I joined them, donning one for High Holiday services—although I always borrowed it from the synagogue.
I felt like an imposter the first time I put one on for Rosh Hashanah services some five years ago. Just taking the tallit off the rack by the door felt transgressive. I wasn’t sure how to wrap myself in it, or what to do with it. I wanted to claim the ritual, yet I wondered if these practical aspects were passed down from fathers to sons, leaving me perpetually on the outside. But as I got more used to wearing one each year, I grew to like it. Putting on the tallit made me feel more equal, more part of the service. I felt as if I belonged: When I had one on, I even felt that I could sing a little louder.
Synagogues are full and kosher restaurants abound as liberal immigrants, Orthodox singles, and secular Jews come together