Wrapping Myself in the Fringes

This was the d’var Torah (discourse) I gave at the Jewish service on Friday night at the Philadelphia Trans-Health Conference, 14 June 2013. In it, I build on and try to give a preliminary answer to a question I started to explore some time ago, as one conference participant put it, “What does a gal do with her bar mitzvah tallit?”

Credit Emily Aviva Kapor

Credit Emily Aviva Kapor

The time was two o’clock in the morning, and I was about to complete the crafting project I’d been working on all evening. I sat on the couch with my scissors in one hand and the cloth in the other. All I finally had to do to finish the project was to cut four pieces of thread. A simple task, nothing to it. My hand holding the scissors hesitated slightly; my brain became uncertain. Suddenly I broke down crying uncontrollably, sobbing, unable to make the final cuts, unable to complete this project.

Back up to 1998. On Saturday, the sixteenth of May, I became a
bar mitzvah
, a “son of the commandments.” My parents presented me with a
tallit
, a beautiful blue silk prayer shawl, a visible external symbol of manhood. I proudly put it on, in front of our entire congregation, while in the back of my mind I was thinking how much happier I would have been had the tallit been pink and not blue. I led the entire service and chanted the Torah and Haftarah portions, and I remember being upset at myself because my voice had already started to change and it was sounding about a perfect fifth too low. I smiled and put on my most cheerful face as I went through the motions, but underneath it all, I was wishing that this was not the day when I was expected to somehow, magically, poof! become a man.

My parents gave me a second tallit, white with blue stripes, and it was this one that I actually came to think of as mine. I kept the blue one for very special occasions — my brothers’ bar mitzvah ceremonies, for example, or the High Holidays — and employed the white one for ordinary use. I put it on pretty much every day during morning services in my high school, and every Shabbat in synagogue. I began thinking of this tallit as an extension of myself, certainly as an expression of my Jewish identity, but also an expression of myself as a Jewish man, a reminder of that role and those expectations. It was a reminder of the kind of Jew, the kind of human being, the kind of man that I felt people were expecting me to be. That tallit and those feelings stayed with me for a long, long time.

Posted on July 19, 2013

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