I grew up in two observant communities in Los Angeles. My parents varied from ultra orthodox for years to having shrimp scampi for Sunday dinner without much notice. Sometimes we had a kosher kitchen and sometimes we didn’t. We would attend services and then skip it for a while. We had multiple Jewish personalities that rotated around regularly.
Though I was no longer Orthodox, I sent my daughter to three years of summer long camp run by the community. They baked challah on Fridays, and swam in the heat of the afternoons.I wanted to recreate, for her, in a small way the ferociously protective devotion to childhood that the community
The people who ran the camp knew I was a lesbian—the hair might have been a giveaway—but they didn’t care. I even took my daughter to services for a special camp event when the Maccabeates came to pray and perform. No one was anything but welcoming and eager to see me at another event.
But when it comes to my own spiritual life, I don’t often venture back into the Orthodox world that I grew up in. I like to stick to more secular routes for my shopping, my errands, my socializing.
Recently, though, my daughter’s pending bat mitzvah drove me back. There is a Judaica store in the observant community not far from my house. I have been in the kosher market to order a cake for the reception, and the cute pizza place named after a famous street in Jerusalem.
I was also back on the hunt for kippot, as well as a tallit and tefillin for my daughter, and possibly for myself. Although I am still uncomfortably residing within the walls of a crisis of faith, I still have a bat mitzvah to plan in two weeks, relatives coming into town. The show is going on despite how I might feel at the moment.
We go to a conservative shul now, but I carry the burden the gender enforced Jewish norms. My daughter has always wanted her own tallit. One Yom Kippur at our shul, she just grabbed one off the rack and put it on. I was so terrified by this that I went to the Rabbi and begged him to say it is ok for her to wear it. Women in my conservative shul, do wear tallit including the clergy. So the Rabbi was trying to figure out how to answer my question—Because he didn’t know what was wrong with it. I, however, was paralyzed with a gripping fear of what other Jews might say.
I made the Rabbi promise me that he would come to our defense with the tongue clucking Jewish enforcement committee, that I am sure were going to rip it off her shoulders and declare that they are for men only. The Rabbi, sensing a kind of strange emotional minefield that I was walking through, said that he would give my daughter “special permission” and go to bat for me if there was any issue.
What happened? No one noticed or cared except me.
My daughter wanted a tallit because no one told her that she shouldn’t have one. Would I have wanted one too, at her age? Yes. As a young child, on a rare venture to the men’s side of the mechitzah, I remember pulling on my dad’s tallit, wrapping myself up in the soft fabric and marveling at the intricate knots wonder what it all meant: I wanted one.
Similarly, I looked at tefillin and thought that they were otherworldly, full of mystery and marvel. The leather bands making the men look powerful and ancient, with secret words written in the palm of their hands, the wrapped arm ready for a shield of David, Tallit flying behind them as they walked around—like superhero capes.
But I knew this was something just for men. Over time I just accepted that as a girl, I was not entitled to it. But I am not Orthodox now. And my daughter wants one of her own.
So off we went to the Judaica shop where we were met by a very nice man. At some point in our conversation about getting a dozen or so kippot for the service, I realize that he might not sell me a tallit. In fact, I thought he got really uncomfortable when we went over the men’s section.
We left without a tallit. But I sent him a message, confessing to our desire to buy a tallit but saying we could not bring ourselves to ask for fear of offending him. Some time later, I heard back from the man at the Judaica store. He told me that he had no idea why I would have a problem with asking for a tallit. The loudness of the shopkeeper’s silence in my ears, my feeling that he disapproved, reminds me that I still have a lot to do to reconcile myself to my own convoluted feelings about wearing a tallit myself and ultimately being a practicing Jew.
I ended up buying a beautiful rainbow tallit in our Synagogue giftshop, but I could not try it on. I could only admire it like some beautiful forbidden object. I kept it hidden away still in the wrapping. I couldn’t even touch it.
But this week, at my daughter’s shaharit minyan, preparing for her bat mitzvah, I gave it to her. She loved it. She said it was just the one that she wanted. I realize that one was not for me. Mine was still out there.
After the service the cantor, who is a woman, ran us through a dress rehearsal for the bat mitzvah. I was on the bimah, and she asked me if I was going to put on a tallit, implying that I should. I told her that girls who grew up Orthodox didn’t have such aspirations. It wasn’t something that we were allowed to want.
The Cantor said that now was the moment to put one on. I realized that I never had in my life, not once, put a tallit on my neck. But right there, on the bimah, I did. I am almost 50 years old, and I realized that now I have to go looking for one of my own.
I want a giant traditional one with black stripes. Being gay, I know the value of visible pride and ownership, so I after decades without one, I am now going to wear it proudly.