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
, 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.

I started transitioning to living “full-time” as a woman in April of last year. In September, when I was starting to go back to synagogue for the first time since transitioning, I brought along my tallit, but I wasn’t sure I could actually wear it. The Torah is very explicit about “cross-dressing”: “A woman shall not wear that which pertains to a man, neither shall a man put on a woman’s garment, for whoever does this is abominable to YHWH your God.” (Deut. 22:5) Would this qualify? I honestly didn’t know whether I would be violating this commandment, in some sense, by putting my tallit on. But in this day and age, women wear the tallit as well, especially in an egalitarian synagogue such as the one I attend. Would putting on my tallit — a gift from my parents when I became a “man” — be an act of reversion? Would this be “Doing It Wrong”? Would it mean that I wasn’t Serious Enough about being trans, that I was still really a man? Would my therapist consider it a break in my “real-life experience”? Would I get hit with Trans Demerits?

I eventually came to realize that my tallit was not something that “pertains to a man,” because it was mine, and I am not a man, so how could it be a man’s piece of clothing? Lots of trans women tend to talk about “boy mode” and “girl mode,” as if these are two completely separate things. And for some people, they certainly are. But for me, I don’t have a “boy mode” or a “girl mode”. I’ve got one mode: every mode, for me, is Emily mode. Every mode, for me, is I mode. What I wear is women’s clothing, because I am wearing it and I am a woman. Simple as that, right? At least, that was the answer I came up with back in September.

Well, as it turned out, like many things, this was nisht azoy pashut, not really so simple. After a few weeks of wearing my tallit, this very same white tallit with blue stripes that I had worn since I was a teenager, I started to realize that I was not comfortable in it. But I felt uncomfortable not because I thought of it as a “man’s garment,” and not because I felt that wearing it made me not “serious enough,” but because of something deeper: something about it just wasn’t me. So I started to think and explore. Why this could be, and what could I do to make a prayer shawl that was not just mine but for me? How could I use my tallit to celebrate my transgender identity? What would a transgender tallit look like?

The tallit is derived from the Torah’s commandment to make tzitzit, fringes, on the corners of our garments. The passage in Torah where this commandment occurs is recited twice a day as part of the Shema, one of the most central prayers. There is a tradition during the morning recitation when the tallit is worn to gather its four corners together and kiss the tzitzit at every mention of the word “tzitzit.” The commandment goes:

YHWH spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the children of Israel, and instruct them to make fringes on the corners of their garments, throughout all their generations, and have them put a thread of blue into the fringes on the corner. These shall be tzitzit for you. You shall look upon them, and you shall remember all My commandments, and do them, and do not be led astray after your heart or your eyes, which you are accustomed to stray after, in order that you remember and do all My commandments, and be holy before your God. I am YHWH, your God, Who took you out of the land of Egypt, to be your God; I am YHWH, your God. (Num. 16:37–41)

The Hebrew word often translated simply as “holy,” kadosh, means, at its root, “separate,” “distinctive,” or “unique.” And it was this word that got me thinking not just about what I wanted my tallit to look like, but what I wanted it to stand for. I wanted to make something that would celebrate the kind of Judaism that I wanted to practice, to affirm the Jewish identity that I was working to build as I transitioned genders. I wanted to make a tallit with tzitzit that would not lead me astray when I looked at them, but that would remind me of the kind of Jew, the kind of human being, that I wanted to be in the world.

There are dozens of different styles of tying tzitzit, many of them going back hundreds or thousands of years in various Jewish communities all around the world. These days, most tzitzit are only white, because even though the Torah requires a thread of blue, the dye for this particular blue was traditionally made from a snail whose identity has been lost over the ages. The Hebrew word for the blue color that is supposed to run through the tzitzit is techelet, and various groups claim to have rediscovered which snail produces the dye for this particular color, and you can now purchase pre-dyed techelet at great expense. I knew that I wanted to have some blue in my tzitzit, not just because I thought it would be pretty, but because I liked the idea that the intertwined colors would stand for — something. But why would they be there? What would they stand for?

Suddenly it hit me: the Torah calls for a thread of blue, yes, but it doesn’t say what color the other threads must be. We use white by default, but it doesn’t say that you can’t also have a thread of pink! In my mind’s eye I saw a tallit: four fringes, made of intertwining blue, white, and pink threads, in the colors of the Trans Pride flag. A transgender tallit.

I went to my neighborhood crafting shop, found some strong locally-made and ethically-dyed yarn (no endangered snails being killed so that I can do this, please!), and took it home. I tied several practice runs, the technique getting marginally better each time I tried. Finally, took a deep breath and threaded two white strands, one blue strand, and one pink strand through one corner of my tallit. I said the traditional phrase L’shem mitzvat tzitzit, “I do this for the sake of fulfilling the commandment of tzitzit,” and added the word ve-hit’yatz’rut, “and for the sake of self-creation,” a word written into the declaration by my friends and teachers Rabbi Elliot Kukla and Ari Lev Fornari for a ritual they wrote celebrating other transgender identities. I began tying: five equal sections of blue, pink, white, pink, blue.

The commandment vi-hiyitem kedoshim le-eloheichem, “You shall be holy (kadosh) before your God,” I read above as “unique” or “distinctive.” My tzitzit are certainly unique: I conceived of them myself, and I tied them myself. They are certainly distinctive: I have never seen anyone else (yet) who has the same tzitzit. They stand for a commitment to the Jewish values of affirmation and acceptance, of celebration of different identities, of standing up for the oppressed. My Judaism is a Judaism that is intersectional, that fights for justice. My Judaism is for those of us who live of the margins. My Judaism is a Judaism of the fringes.

The fringes on my tallit, which I gather and kiss every time I say this paragraph in the morning Shema, are a talisman of affirmation. Wrapping myself up in them is an act of liberation. Looking upon them is an act of celebration. Kissing them is an act of commitment. When I celebrate with them, I remember the commandments. I remember my commitment to social justice, to fighting against oppression. When I see the blue threads and pink threads intertwined, I am reminded of the places I came from and the places where I am going, and what I am taking with me there.

I had several false starts while tying — one of the tzitzit is noticeably a first run — and I had to try a few different techniques and tricks. It took about three hours total to finish, but finally, there I sat on my couch, having finished tying these new tzitzit onto my tallit. I was patting myself on the back, feeling elated and exhilarated at having created something new and meaningful, at having innovated, at having found a new meaning in an old tradition, at having changed something that “pertains to a man” into a “woman’s garment.” Only one thing remained before the tallit would be complete: in order to get the length and direction of winding correct, I had kept the old tzitzit on the tallit while tying the new ones on, so each corner right now had two tzitzit running through it. So in order to finish the project, I had to cut the old ones off. And when I realized this, I started crying.

When a male Jew dies, the tradition is to wrap his body in his tallit before burial, and immediately before the casket is shut, to cut the tzitzit from the tallit. Seven years earlier, I had buried my father, carrying one of the tzitzit from his tallit in my pocket as I carried his casket to the graveside. As I sat on my couch, holding the scissors, preparing to cut the old tzitzit from my tallit, I understood something I had failed to grasp until that moment: that the act of creation requires destruction. The act of healing needs a wound. Until that moment I had created without destroying, and I had destroyed without creating. As my hands holding the scissors cut the old tzitzit from my tallit, I realized what it was to do both in the same action. My male tallit had died, and my transgender tallit had been reborn. I cried, and I set my tallit down, broken and scarred but paradoxically finished and whole. And my crying, broken, scarred self said a Shehecheyanu, a blessing of thanks for having made it one small step closer to becoming finished and whole.

There is a traditional Kabbalistic meditation some Jews say before putting on the tallit in the morning: l’shem yichud, “for the sake of unification”: I perform this mitzvah, this commandment, for the sake of unification of the Yud–Heh of the Holy Name with the Vav–Heh. I perform this mitzvah for the sake of unification of the Kadosh Baruch Hu, the masculine Holy One, blessed be He, with the Shekhinah, the feminine Divine Presence. I perform this mitzvah for the sake of unification of the feminine and the masculine within me. I perform this mitzvah for the sake of living my whole life in Emily mode, in I mode. I perform this mitzvah for the sake of unification of the blue, the pink, and the white threads. I perform this mitzvah for the sake of healing the rifts between those parts of myself, and for the sake of living as a complete person. I perform this mitzvah for the sake of unification of all transgender Jews with their Jewish communities, and for the sake of unification of the Jewish community with its transgender children. I perform this mitzvah for the sake of the Judaism that I wish to live, and for the sake of creating the kind of world I wish to live in — a world of tikkun olam, a repaired world, healing from the wounds we have so grievously inflicted on it. I wrap myself up in the fringes for the sake of all those who are wrapped up in the fringes. May this be so for all of us.

You can find more by Emily Aviva Kapor on her blog, plantingrainbows.wordpress.com, and at @EmilyAviva.

Discover More

Fringe Story

A reminder to participate in, and not just observe, the world around us

Ask the Expert: Tzitzit Hanging Out

Why do some people tuck them in, and others let them hang free?

Making Your Own Ritual Objects

Creating a tallit (prayer shawl) or designing a bar/bat mitzvah invitation can add a meaningful personal dimension to the celebration.