This past week a lot of Jewish drama around sacred fabrics that one dons or doesn’t where and why and by whom or not. The Pope’s Prada pales next to the volume of coverage on the Women of the Wall’s continued fight for freedom to pray and wear shawls and I’m honored to be helpful in the televising of the revolution, to no doubt a noble resolution up ahead. For me this week provided a weird twist on the wearing of this sacred shawl – with plenty reasons to pause and ponder the power and politics of religious wear.
My personal prayer shawl saga continued curiously from the Western Wall to my brother’s synagogue in the heart of Jerusalem’s Greek Colony. Last week I smuggled prayer shawls into the Western Wall and wore mine there in a baffling privileged act of defiance. Here at my nephew’s Bar Mitzvah, the youngest son of the much beloved rabbi in this bustling Modern Orthodox congregation, I wasn’t actually expected, as in, supposed to, wear a prayer shawl at all.
In my family’s custom – Mainstream Ashkenazi, unwed men don’t typically wear a prayer shawl. At 43, even as rabbinic student and 3 kids later, my wearing one at shul in the immediate circle of my family of origin’s Orthodox context – is an eyebrow raiser, a breach of protocol. Not a big deal but still. O well. I don’t remember when I first starting wrapping myself in prayer shawls – ones that I’ve made. 15 years, at least. But rarely back on the family turf…There have been events in the past years, family reunion weekend or a Shiva minyan in which, wrapped in one, I got some comments from the more pious and tactless- but I’m not sure that it was just because I had one on or because my usual prayer shawl is a recycled beige Sari with gold brown silk patches, a work of art with one red string attached to the fringes – a gift of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. THAT gets a lot of comments.
I stand out with or without it. A thin veil over who I am within the black and white prayer shawl world of my childhood. And sometimes one doesn’t want to stand out so much..
So I wasn’t sure whether I should come to this Bar Mitzvah with my shawl or not.
And also because I forgot to iron it. Just a few weeks ago, back at ye Western Wall, as the family gathered super early in the cold morning for my Bar Mitzvah nephew’s first wrapping of Tefilin – my mother looked at me through the crack in the fence that separated us and pointed at my shawl and made a face. Later she advised me to try ironing it better or better yet, getting a newer one – “it just doesn’t look very dignified. May have had its day”.
So I went without my prayer shawl that morning, but in each hand held a child’s hand instead. Ezra on the right and Alice on the left, on a sweet short visit from NY with Sally, one of their two moms. As we walk over to the synagogue I explain to the kids, 6 and 4, that unlike our shul back in NY, in this shul the men and women sit separately, and they can take turns being with Mommy upstairs, or Abba downstairs, and we can play and hang outside. We get there just before my nephew starts to beautifully chant the Torah, and both sections are jam-packed. So we head to the courtyard where the candy tables for later are heavily guarded and a kids service is starting, led by a few of the dads. And just before we sit in the circle I get this craving for a prayer shawl – this total sense that I want to be wrapped in one as I sit here on the grass, with my children, at a prayer service with mostly people I don’t know but who in some part, today, are family and extended family and congregation. And whatever custom – it’s what made sense.
From the rack in the back I borrow a regular, formerly white wool full length prayer shawl with black stripes and yellowed fringes and wrap it around my shoulders, and kid in each hand, enter the mens’ section in a little step that somehow meant a whole lot more. It’s not like ‘I passed’ or ‘belonged’ but more like I played a part in a play with just the right outfit and felt just right. A costume? perhaps. Religious wear that felt just right.
On our way out a few minutes later, one of my nephews stops me, smiling – what’s with the boring talit? you’re not going ortho are you…
You can’t win. or maybe I just did?
The power and the politics of holy wear go back a long long time. In this week’s Torah text, Tetzave, the instructions for construction of the tabernacle detail on – including the religious fashion department – and every detail matter, as Moses finds out:
“make holy garments for Aaron your brother, for splendor and beauty.” Ex.28
The priestly collection which is described here in Vogeuesque detail, inspired later, post-temple sages to sanctify the worship-wear for all, and not just for the sons of Aaron. What was once the privileged costume of one (male) leader, became, with time, the symbolic vestments of all, or of most of us, till recent times. The prayer shawls, like the Torah dress, are our modern priestly vestments, and all of us – single or married, male or not – are our modern priests.
Prayer shawl or beanie or burka or bow tie: Here’s to the right to wear what we wish, as we, hopefully, choose to honor our existence with the garments that make us feel like we belong, more special, sacred, beautiful and ourselves, wrapped within our flimsy truths, and truly wrapped in comfort.
And then there’s Purim, coming up this wknd, a chance to change and put on briefly any thing you want, shawl or mask and shoes of others, Michelle’s bangs or Sarah’s dress, upturn politics of yes or no, taboos and boos, put on the masks we don’t dare wear every other day, enter like High Priest Aaron into the Holy of Holies of Self, like Queen Esther into the royal chamber of possibilities, possibly against the law of the land, wrapped in beauty and in nothing more than one thin and sacred shawl.
Wrap it to go.
Amichai Lau-Lavie is the Founder and Executive Director of Storahtelling, Inc. creating sustainable solutions for life-long Jewish Learning since 1999. storahtelling.org