This week I commissioned the creation of the first tallit that I will own in over a decade. The choice whether or not to wear a tallit is one that I am confronted with several times a week in rabbinical school, and every time I feel two contradictory feelings: my ambivalence about wearing ritual objects I so viscerally associate with masculinity competing with how protected and comforted—and feminine—I feel when I wrap myself in a shawl. This choice is magnified by the clock that ticks towards the day when I imagine that I will need to emerge, fully formed in the image of “rabbi.”
However, the world has its own clock. This summer, Ferguson, MO, erupted in protests on August 9th after police shot and killed an unarmed teenage boy named Michael Brown, a young man who came from similar neighborhoods and circumstances as my husband and his siblings. Only two weeks earlier, we had been in St. Louis visiting home and spending most of our nights at my sister-in-law’s house one highway exit away from Ferguson. For most of August, I followed social media obsessively. It was completely surreal to see many of my rabbis,friends and fellow congregants posting live from the streets of Ferguson. My rabbi and mentor, Susan Talve, was suddenly being noticed and profiled nationally for her activism. I watched from afar, disoriented and grieving, wanting to return but unsure how to justify doing so. I knew instinctively that the time was not yet right.
I had already elected not to lead any High Holiday services this year, and as September ended I expected my school’s break between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur to be a time to rest and release some of the tension I had been collecting since August 9th. Although nothing was resolved in Ferguson, most of the national media had left, and I had begun to feel more detached from the situation. And then, I was jolted from my complacency. Instead of relaxing, I said “yes” to an invitation from organizers asking clergy and activists to come to Ferguson during Sukkot, in order to do civil disobedience with protestors campaigning for an end to systemic police violence. Throughout the rush to prepare for this last minute action I found one question returning to my mind: will you wear a tallit when you march?
When I finally allowed myself to answer the question, the answer was clear: “Yes. Of course.” I wanted clothing that would clearly identify me as a Jewish leader in a crowd of protestors and I wanted something to make me feel safe during the protest. I visualized marching amidst thousands, surrounded by police officers and media, and I clearly saw myself wrapped tightly in the tallit in order to not feel afraid. Whether or not I had an intellectual argument to explain why I was suddenly ok with the idea of donning a garment that for centuries was considered “male,” I longed for one so strongly that I wished I had one immediately. The tallit was now a ritual item I felt that I needed in order to perform my religious role of “rabbi as witness.”
I realize now how very fitting it is that we are creating this garment in time for Sukkot. When I imagine wearing my tallit in Ferguson and afterwards, I am imagining how it will help carry with me a sense of security and home—a portable home just like the sukkah. My hope is that it will carry me through the holiday as we commemorate when the Israelites were much less secure, and that it will continue to protect me as I march as a Jew towards a future in which everyone is safe and covered by sukkat shlomekha (God’s shelter of peace).
This blog post is the second in a three-part series by Ritualwell Intern, Sarah Barasch-Hagans.