You many have seen pictures of black-hatted men, with their long beards and side curls wrapped in their prayer shawls. These prayer shawls trace their history back to the Bible, where we are commanded to tie fringes on the corners of our garments as a reminder of God and the commandments. It is a commandment incumbent on men, not women, and even today few women wear them.
In Jewish tradition, today marks the 5773rd anniversary of the creation of the world. It is Rosh Hashanah…our new year. Unlike Jan 1, it is not rung in with cheer and festive drinking, but rather with long services focused on introspection. Who are we? Where have we been in the past year? Where are we going in the next?
Honestly, ever since my first diagnosis, the liturgy eludes me. I try. I go, I open the book, I speak the words. I’ve been taught to act, with the expectation that the intention will come…and that if I wait for intention, I may never act. This applies to prayer just as readily as it applies to good deeds in the world. So I sit with 500 or so others, in a packed room, the air conditioning set at 50, I imagine…because despite our numbers it is freezing. I read, I listen, I sing.
The liturgy is filled with praise for God, with assurances that the heart that returns to God and to goodness will be rewarded. I am fully attuned to the gifts in my life. I am also fully aware that I have cancer. And not just any cancer, but incurable cancer. In a prayer service replete with rewards and punishments, embracing some sense of “fairness,” I can’t help but ask what I’ve done…
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The prayer shawl, or tallit, I wear has been my companion in prayer since 1989. John and I bought it at Gabrieli, a well-know weaver and textile artist. On a cold afternoon in Jerusalem the day before we were returning home, the pedestrian zone of Ben Yehuda was quiet as we purchased the last of our gifts. The store was empty, and back then I was unsure how they would respond to helping a woman select one. Perhaps the practicality of a sale won out, but it wasn’t an issue. I selected a beautiful ivory shawl, with blue and gold embroidery. It was wide, like the ones men wore, and it engulfed me like a blanket.
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Tallitot have evolved. Especially for women. Over the years John has often offered, even urged, me to replace mine. The truth is, they have become works of art…hand-painted silks, sheer gauze, beautiful embroidery…. It is so tempting. On a day like today I look around me with a touch of envy. And yet, when it comes right down to it, the tallit that embraces me is my own. It is stained, well-worn…well-loved. We have carried each other across more than twenty years. We have crossed the oceans together.
My tallit is my history. It has surrounded me through good times and bad. It has protected me against those who cannot distinguish the working me from the praying me. My tallit has embraced me during treatment, when I was gray and bald, and seen me through. Its fringes hold my whispered prayers, the fabric the salt of a tear or two. It is not an accessory, nor a work of art. While I sometimes envy my friends their new, lovely shawls, I will forever take comfort in the history of my stained and tattered old friend. My tallit is my history, and my partner into my future.