Thursday, March 26, 2009

The act of making; or, why a tallit?

Last night I had dinner at another faculty member's house in the next town over. The guest of honor was a visiting fiber artist from Baltimore. Since I live near the university, I was asked to pick up a student on campus and bring her over the hill to the party; it's possible to arrive by bus, but not at all easy, so I was happy to do it. I'd never met this student before, but I knew her by sight, as part of her graduation project in fiber arts involves dressing all in green, all the time, which has included painting her Chuck Taylors and covering her glasses frames in green electrical tape. This makes her memorable, even in a department full of art students and their generally DIY vibe.

On the way over and back, we talked about making things and wearing them, and the way it can alter your sense of self-presentation or even identity. I found myself explaining my tallit project to her. This is the filet crochet project for which I posted the design earlier. Here's a status photo:


It's slow going.

In talking to her, I found myself explaining how the wearing of a tallit was not explicitly prohibited to women, but that traditionally women were excused from the obligation to wear one just as they were excused from so many other obligations, on the basis of their domestic responsibilities. In many communities this has evolved into a prohibition of sorts, in which the fact that women don't have to wear the tallit generates the ruling that they should not wear it. But modern Jewish women have increasingly taken on the mitzvah of wearing tallitot while doing daily prayers, which has led to a growth industry in women's tallitot with the names of the Four Matriarchs and so on.

I appreciate and even admire the spirit in which women have taken on the obligation of the tallit, while at the same time feeling a bit uncomfortable wearing one myself. Feminist leanings notwithstanding, it still feels like taking on a practice to which I have relatively little right, or connection. I have difficulty taking possession, as it were, of the practice of wearing tallit. I know the halachah involved, and the prayer you say before putting the thing on, but I don't feel any ownership of the act itself. This bothers me.

Last night, in describing this situation to the student, I realized that this explains why I've chosen to make one. Ultimately, it seems I'm hoping that the act of making a tallit will change my relationship to the object (indeed the whole class of objects, tallitot); that making a tallit, which involved research into the correct form of the thing, the fibers from which it is permitted to be made, the rules as to decoration, and so on, along with a pretty involved design process and, of course, a nit-pickingly exacting technique, will give me the kind of ownership of the practice that I am finding it so difficult to claim otherwise.

It will be interesting to see if I'm right about this.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I am in the process of making a tallis for my niece and was wondering if you knew of any restrictions on decoration: can I add beading? or appliques? I hope the progress on your's is going well. You can email be back at, if you have a moment. Thanks so much!