Rabbi Bernstein's Weekly Message
Guest Column: Tracie Bernstein
I began writing this piece four years ago, and due to the thoughtful generosity of my husband and children, put a closing parenthesis on it this week, as we approach Elul, the month of preparation toward the high holidays. At the time of its first iteration, we were one year from our oldest daughter’s bat mitzvah, and somehow today find ourselves already looking back fondly on the bar mitzvah of our second child. Our youngest, Liana, is now 9.
While watching the shul league softball game on Sunday, a bunch of the moms were talking about preparing for their kids’ bnai mitzvah, while juggling their younger children and intermittently cheering for our team. Having come from a variety of Jewish backgrounds and perspectives, we fell on the topic of Torah reading and religious garments. Most of our daughters were excited about getting a tallit, a prayer shawl, but not all of the mothers felt comfortable with the idea. Religion, after all, is a personal and visceral thing. We were not raised with women’s aliyot (Torah honors) or tallitot.
Some of it, though, felt like a question of practicality — “I have the kids climbing on me, and I am juggling their needs in services, and feel like a tallit would just encumber me.” That got me to thinking. Our youngest child is 5, and is less and less in need of permanently attaching herself to my torso during services. Until very recently, my children were a holy garment I wore as part of my prayer experience. When they were infants, I literally wore the kids for much of each of the Shabbat services. As they became toddlers, I was their touch stone — the person they would constantly return to during those few hours for some physical connection and comfort before running off to play for a while longer. Of course, I was then also wearing another baby, as well. Though not always easy, it was often quite beautiful and comforting for me, even an aspect of the holiness of my prayer experience.
Now that I am moving away from that stage of my life, I notice the difference in the quality of my prayer experience. Though there are wonderful benefits to prayer without distractions, I also notice the lack of physicality of the experience. I am without those holy garments I so long enjoyed and grappled with during prayer.
In thinking about our oldest’s bat mitzvah, I have for years dreamed about taking on the mitzvah of tallit for myself. The tallit, while traditionally a men’s garment, seems extremely feminine and nurturing to me. Never one to make radical statements, I have long felt comfortable with the idea of the tallit as also for women, and have seen numerous exquisitely beautiful options. Until recently, however, I could not imagine feeling less encumbered by the addition of another garment. Lately though, the thought of wearing a tallit is starting to feel more like a hug.
I like the idea of reminders of holiness embracing us. For nearly twelve years, that embrace came with the delicious smells and warm breath of little children. My little children. Now, delightfully, they are running around, making themselves busy and enjoying friends, and I am ready to be enveloped by a new reminder of holiness. This soft, lightweight wrap shifts to make my prayer experience more about me. I can imagine myself praying with a tallit that encourages me to go inward and really pray, rather than drawing from the holiness of that which surrounds me. I am excited by that idea…
Returning to the present: I felt excited to buy that tallit, even motivated for a while, but somehow did not make it my priority. Habits are a powerful thing, and busy lives often require impetus to make changes. It never happened.
Last month, while walking to Shabbat services with Liana, she asked me why I don’t wear a tallit, and what I think of them. I basically explained to her what is written above. Her experience of religious garments is that of the younger generation that has grown up watching girls and boys alike receive and wear them with honor as they mark the liminal moment of passing into adulthood among community. It would not have occurred to Liana not to cherish a tallit of her own. The conversation came and went and I forgot about it. She didn’t.
For my birthday, the family took me to an undisclosed location. They actually had my eyes covered, so I could not see that I was entering a Judaica store. Even once there, it did not immediately register with me why we had come.
The family stood around as I sifted through the tens of beautiful tallitot that comprised the large collection in the store, waiting to find just the “right one”. I thought I’d know it when I saw it, and I did. Inexplicably, when I glimpsed it, the tallit made me cry. The style and fabric felt just right, as if it belonged on me. This Shabbat, I was moved again as I wrapped my new tallit around me and, for the first time in my life, uttered the blessing written on the top, Baruckh ata …. asher kidishanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu l’hitatef b’tzitzit: Praised are you G*d, ruler of the universe who has made us holy with the mitzvot and instructed us to wrap ourselves withtzitzit.
Michael was already leading services on the bima, the kids were elsewhere, and I was alone in the moment, ushering in a new level to my personal prayer. My experience of every aspect of that service was altered by this newness. It is a true pleasure and blessing to be made aware – anew and again – of the things that comfort, please or move us. I am excited to enter this holiday season with this renewed mindfulness and the comfort of my new holy garment.