Apr 22, 2013

TO: WOMEN OF A CERTAIN AGE (on Kippah, Tallit, Tefillin)

Re: Kippah, Tallit, Tefillin
Diane Bernbaum

Don’t be fooled by the hair.  I have my father’s genes.  He died at 82, still blond.  Despite my head of still un-dyed hair, I am indeed a woman of a certain age.  And therefore, certain ritual objects do not sit naturally on my body.  When I started Religious School (then called Sunday School) in the 1940’s (gulp), boys did one thing and girls did another. 

I had a Bat Mitzvah.  I remember the “secular” clothing I wore, but not the ritual clothing, because there wasn’t any.  On Friday night I wore the light blue flowered dress that had been a gift from a family friend when I sang the Kiddush in front of the congregation.  The next day I wore a stiff navy blue dress, with a white lace collar.  My sole participation in the service was chanting the Haftarah and gtving a Speech.  Not a drash, a speech.  I don’t remember what I said, only that when I presented a draft to the rabbi, he really balked at the line I had in about “our two countries: America and Israel.”  It was the middle of the red scare and the House Un-American Activities Committee and he demanded I change the text, telling me I had only one country.  Stories aside, the point is that my shoulders and my head were bare, just like the content of the event itself.

I’m not sure when I began to wear a tallit , but it must have been sometime within the last seven years, which is the time that has elapsed since the Bar Mitzvah of my youngest son.  Several months before his Bar Mitzvah wanting to give him some reality for the upcoming simcha, I took him to the studio of Nancy Katz, a good friend and great fiber artist.  She helped him design and paint a wonderful tallit, reflective of his Torah portion, his interests and his esthetics.  When we brought it home my older son said something like: “Not only is he able to buy a computer with his Bar Mitzvah gifts that is three years newer, faster and more up to date than the one I got, but his tallit is so much nicer than the one I made in my 6th grade religious school class.”  So of course I returned to Nancy’s studio with Son Number One, who also painted a glorious tallit, reflective of who he was.  My children’s shul- going days soon began to diminish and I found myself with these two gorgeous tallitot.  I wish I could remember when I decided to start wearing them, but I do know that often I wear the tallit of whichever one is the furthest away.  When David lived in China for a year, his was the one I wore.  During baseball season, Jonathan, who often calls from Boston after a game to talk scores and plays, is the one whose tallit I’m wearing.  And last December when I asked them both to meet me in shul to say Kaddish for my dad, they dutifully showed up at 5 minutes to 12 and I passed them their tallitot just in time for them to say the prayer.  Most of the time though, they couldn’t care less and the garments are mine.  And I must say that when I find myself at Beth Israel and don’t wear a tallit, I feel a little naked.

A kippah though is a different matter.  In 1973 I returned from living in Asia for a year.  I hadn’t been in the Conservative synagogue in Milwaukee where I grew up, for many years, but I found myself there for Rosh Hashana.  As I walked in, someone shoved a lace doily in my hand and told me to put it on my head.  I was livid.  This was not about egalitarianism.  There were no women anywhere on the bimah.  Girls who were having their Bat Mitzvahs  then would probably do as little as I had done fifteen years before.  This was some vestige left over from a sheitle.  This was based on rules of married women covering their heads.  I was nearing 30 and although I had already met Ed several months before, he wasn’t running to the huppah.  I was feeling my singleness very much and as far as I was concerned, one of the few good things about being single was that there was no halachic reason in the world to have a lace doily on my head.   The usher didn’t buy my Talmudic explanation.  I almost didn’t return the next day, but instead came prepared with one of the many little hats I had brought back from Afghanistan (like the ones Tony Kushner wrote a whole act about in Homebody/Kabul) and plopped it on my head.  I would show them.  If they made me cover my head, I’d do it in a garment of an Orthodox male Muslim.  So ever since, although I’m sure I’ve been in congregations which asked me to wear a kippah for an aliyah, and which I’ve gladly done, at Netivot Shalom, I’ve remained bare-headed.

But this year when I was about to leave Erev Rosh HaShana dinner at my friend Hannah’s house, she asked me how I was feeling about Netivot moving towards having women wearing kippot and shared her own feelings.  I told her I truthfully had only skimmed the letter that came over the summer and hadn’t thought about it.  Still, the next morning I slipped a kippah in my tallit bag, just in case.  As luck would have it, the person greeting me at the door was Debby Graudenz, a person who should know shul policy.  She gently encouraged me to put the kippah on my head.  I didn’t think I’d like it.  I did.  It wasn’t like the tallit, which has more weight and which I can always see.  But I think I always knew it was on my head.  And then I started thinking of the big bag of kippot I have in my closet.  Left overs from our wedding (where I crocheted 50 for the male guests) and some from the boys’ Bar Mitzvahs (where I crocheted a lot more than that), kippot stamped with names and dates of other weddings and  Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, all happy memories.  I think I can get into this.  Each week I’ll grab another memory and put it on my head.

In truth, I always felt a little guilty.  I was a member of the professional staff of the congregation.  But then, I am a woman of a certain age, which gave me an exemption.  Now though I have been nudged to a new level of observance, and like most other things at our shul, I may have resisted at first, but it feels good once I do it.  Tefillin you ask?  No way.  Not yet.  We’ll see.