I’m standing in a Judaica store in the middle of Scottsdale, Arizona watching as my daughter searches the store from top to bottom for the right tallis, or prayer shawl. Finding the right one is apparently somewhat akin to finding the right wand in “Harry Potter” or the right wedding dress on “Say Yes to the Dress.” She must be at one with the prayer shawl; the prayer shawl must feel at once like it was meant for her, like it grew out of her. Or maybe we could just make one out of my old wedding dress? And while she doesn’t have that aha! moment, she does finally pick a crinkly, beige, silky prayer shawl with a matching kippah.
This isn’t our first prayer shawl; it’s actually our third on our way to a total of six for four people.
First there was one prayer shawl in our house: my husband’s of course, which was his father’s before him. A venerable prayer shawl in the standard blue and white, it sits alone in our designated drawer for years.
Thirteen years to be exact. Until our son becomes bar mitzvah. He has carte blanche from his grandmother, my mother, to get any prayer shawl he wants from her, and so we shop at one of the three Judaica stores dotting our Jewishy section of town, and he picks one out. At seventy-eight, my mother doesn’t have the stamina for the shopping, just for the paying, but she places it upon his shoulders on that particular Saturday morning in 2008.
Four years later, there are only two Jewish stores on that corner, one Chabad-owned, and another at which a dour, poorly-bewigged, Orthodox lady works. She doesn’t hide the fact that she thinks prayer shawls are only for boys, and so she watches my daughter try them on with a baleful glare. Finally we give up and go across the street.
My mother fully intends to pay for this one too–oh yes. But by now, through the elderly travails of car accidents, falls, and dementia, she will not only leave the shopping to me, she will not be able to place the prayer shawl on my daughter’s shoulders, etiher. I’ve been flipped by the aging process into being the mother of my mother; I don’t plan to take her money.
But as high school starts and then moves towards its close, as my daughter continues growing and changing and comes out, suddenly there are two new prayer shawls that show up in the drawer unexpectedly. Apparently, the old girly one won’t do any longer. What she remembers is the day we were run from store to store, just us, no Bubbe, a rush job—almost like we knew that prayer shawl would be temporary.
Today, still growing into her identity as a person, my daughter isn’t quite sure if she’s a standard-size prayer shawl-wearing kind of woman or a huge prayer shawl-wearing kind of woman. So we end up buying both. Wrapped in either, there is a feeling that these are the ones that would have fit perfectly that day shopping so long ago; and that had her grandmother been able, these would have been the ones that would have fit around her shoulders perfectly the morning she became bat mitzvah.
And so now there are five prayer shawls. The drawer will barely close.
We go to services and my husband and children put theirs on while I stand there, unbedecked, the one person in the family lacking a proper Jewish education. The children are aware of my shortcomings – having raised them to be better than me in this area, they now look down at me for lacking it.
But then, finally, years later, after raising both kids Jewish, after getting both of them to the bimah, years after their Torah portions have been tucked away in their memories, after the final hora has been danced, it is finally my turn, when I prepare to become a bat mitzvah. I get not just my own tallis–teal with embroidered flowers–but I also get my daughter’s rejected girly one. Two where I once had none.
And though my mother is gone by now, I can feel her loving arms open it, say the prayer over it, and place it around me, as I prepare to ascend the bimah.