Tie A String Around Your Finger
In August, I bought 2 1/4 yards of beautiful grey Italian wool from Mood Fabrics in the garment district in New York. When I told the salesman that I was using it to make a prayer shawl, he cocked his head and raised his eyebrows. “I have people come in for this purpose all the time. But they don’t buy fabric like this.” I wagered a correct guess that they buy fine suiting wool. A Jewish prayer shawl, or tallis (pl. tallesim), is usually made from wool so thin that it’s akin to wearing a pashmina. The corners are reinforced with silk and have fringes tied on in a particular sort of macrame pattern to fulfill the passage in Numbers about tying fringes onto the corners of garments to remember the commandments. A tallis holds a lot of meaning for the wearer. It may be passed down through generations. Sometimes people are married under them, sometimes they’re buried in them. These almost-ordinary pieces of fabric are arranged just so with a few bits of string, and suddenly they become potent ritual objects that accompany people through the most ordinary and the most powerful moments of their lives.
“And this is for you?” the salesman wanted to know. Traditionally, and still in Orthodox circles, only men wear them. “Yes,” I said. “Don’t tell your other clients that you sold a woman material for her own.”
“Oh, no no, not to worry,” he says with a knowing smile. “They come in on Saturday.” (Jewish law forbids commerce on the Sabbath, which is Saturday.)
This tallis project has been in the works for a number of years. I’ve contemplated it many times, but it took me awhile to get far enough in my journey away from Orthodoxy to feel comfortable with a traditionally male garment. I still won’t wear one that looks and feels like the ones I grew up around. The tipping point came over the summer, when I started meditating semi-regularly and kept finding myself cold, because I was living in perpetual fog in Santa Cruz. I wished I had a meditation shawl. Which might also be called a prayer shawl. Oh yeah; a tallis.
My initial plan was to use a shawl my grandmother gave me and adorn the corners with pieces of my grandfather’s old ties. But then I discovered that the shawl was a synthetic blend, and I’m picky about things like that, so I bought pure wool. Suiting wool definitely has its advantages as a choice of material. It’s not overly warm, and it folds up nicely to carry to synagogue. Mine, by contrast, is more of a blanket-tallis. But whatever. It’s beautiful.
There is something about the tallis that feels grounding. Maybe because it’s so un-portable and I’m travelling with it anyway. But I think it goes deeper than that. A tallis is something that, for me at least, is used every day. Wherever the wearer wakes up, however they feel, whatever the weather, no matter what is on the news. In a rootless world, the tallis wearer is rooted in this piece of material. A grownup blankie.
Certainly I am entering into the ranks of those with cool tallesim. But beyond that, contemporary Judaism was created in the wake of the destruction of the second Temple in Jerusalem. When the Divine presence left Jerusalem and the Jews were exiled from their home, a handful of sages recognized the need for a shift in focus away from land-based practice. They re-imagined the religion they knew and managed to create a tradition that has kept a diaspora community connected to its roots for thousands of years. Through my little collection of wool and silk and tassels, I feel tied in. It’s a tangible daily reminder that I am part of a story of a people without a home. Part of a tradition of finding meaning through and despite the lack of home. A tradition of yearning, dreaming, loving, ritualizing, expressing gratitude, asking great questions, challenging the status-quo. Of holding multiple truths and contradictions, where there is room to say “This object is inextricably connected to my experience of having no home, and it is my symbol of home.”
As we move through uncertain times, we can all have little strings around our fingers to remind us that we can stay grounded through challenge, that we can tap in to whatever we need most deeply. To remember that no matter who we are, our stories are threads in a great tapestry, criss-crossing, weaving, looping, fraying. Doing those things that strings do.