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Fated To Be Ahead of Her Time

My mother’s tallit rested heavy and lopsided around my shoulders, pink fringes tickling my knees. I was standing before the congregation, reading from the Torah for the first time in 14 years. It was the 10th anniversary of Mom’s yahrtzeit; she had died from cancer at 61, when I was 26. I was ill-at-ease in a tallit — especially in hers — but I wore it to honor her memory. My mother’s tallit had meant a great deal to her.

I had once been a regular Torah reader at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin — in the pheromone-soaked air of Jewish summer camp, reading Torah was an actual way to flirt — but in the years that followed I had felt no particular compulsion to prepare and chant passages of Torah. I certainly spent years struggling with Jewish texts, though, and with Judaism more generally. I practiced yoga, studied Torah in Israel, became a Jew-Bu, explored the Havurah world, Orthodoxy and everything in between. Eventually, though, I returned to the cozy place where I’d begun. My husband and children and I have found a home at Congregation Neveh Shalom in Portland, Oregon, which is eerily similar to Congregation Beth Shalom in Kansas City, the Conservative synagogue where both Mom and I grew up. So here I was at Neveh Sholom, chanting Torah. If Mom were alive, I thought, she’d be 71; she’d be wearing this tallit.

Curiously enough, the tallit that was making me so uncomfortable was one that I myself had bought for my mother. She had “taken on the mitzvah of tallit” the year that she said Kaddish for her father, knowing that “taking on a mitzvah” means no turning back — she was committing to praying in a tallit for a lifetime. My mother loved dressing well, so I shopped for her tallit using the same methodology I would use when buying her a sweater, say, or a purse. The tallit had to be pretty (she would never have donned a tallis off a rack!); it had to match her shoes and suits; it had to complement her dyedblond hair and hazel eyes. Such a tallit was impossible to find in Kansas City circa 1993, however, so Mom turned to me.

I was living in L.A. at the time where pastel-striped, pinkfringed tallitot filled the shelves of synagogue gift shops and the Judaica stores that lined the Pico-Robertson neighborhood. I shopped for a long time, and finally chose a creamy beige tallit, topped with pink and baby-blue crocheted stripes, made of lightweight wool. The atarah, against her neck, was a sheer sensuous swath of emerald green satin, a shade that I knew would look beautiful against her eyes. She loved it, and wore it every day for 11 months, standing beside her brother in the dark chapel of Beth Shalom, glorifying God’s name and remembering her father, Isadore Gale — who was 90 years old when he died. She loved him like she had as a little girl, and missed him that way, furiously and purely. “…asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav vetzivanu l’hitatef ba-tzitzit,” she’d whisper as she wrapped herself tightly, enclosing herself in a pretty package of sadness. When the prescribed period of mourning was over, she continued to wear her tallit every Shabbat until she died. To Mom, a prayer garment — even one with pink fringes — bespoke a serious commitment.

Mom was the first woman in her congregation to wear a tallit, but others in the synagogue were not far behind. These women had seen all manner of tallitot while visiting their children, who, like me, had left Kansas City for more cosmopolitan adventures in Boston, San Francisco and New York. (Interestingly, the pioneers I saw donning tallitot in these places were not women my age, but rather feminists in my mother’s generation — my cohort had not yet taken the practice up.) Back in Kansas City, changes came more slowly, and my mother — soft-spoken and easily intimidated — became Beth Shalom’s unlikely pre-eminent Jewish feminist.

“She was the first bat mitzvah in Kansas City,” my grandmother never tired of reminding everyone. When women were allowed on the bimah, Mom was the first one there, and the first to read Torah. She was also one of the first female Hebrew teachers at Beth Shalom, and she took classes at the Jewish Theological Seminary (while studying at Barnard) long before J.T.S. admitted women to any of its programs. She was a woman, though, sadly, fated to be ahead of her time — a fact that challenged her daily. She met and married my father while he was a rabbinical student at J.T.S., but she was not cut out for the role of rebbetzin as defined in the late 1950s and early ‘60s. If the world had been different, she most certainly would have studied to become a rabbi. She was bookish, and loved erudition and prayer. Instead, she followed my father from city to city, pulpit to pulpit, chafing at the expectation that she serve on decorating committees, and cook and host large Shabbat dinners. She swallowed her Jewish soul for quite a while, and focused on a career as a business (and then a university) librarian, and on raising her family. After my parents divorced, Mom and I moved back to Kansas City.

At Beth Shalom my mother became both a regular reader and a gabbai. She formed a committee to convince the congregation to include the imahot (the names of the biblical foremothers in addition to the forefathers) as part of the first blessing in the Amidah. She wrote impassioned articles on women’s issues for the Jewish Chronicle and proudly displayed an orange on her Seder plate. She led a Shabbat afternoon women’s text-study group, and got a master’s degree in Jewish history.

When my brothers and sister and I were cleaning out her bedroom — exactly 30 days after she died — I found her beloved tallit tucked safely in my grandfather’s blue velvet tallis bag. It was in her walk-in closet, mingling on a low shelf with her various other Shabbos accessories: high heels, hats and purses that she reserved for synagogue use only. She owned the tallit for three years, and spent every single one of those Shabbatot wrapped in its warmth. I tried it on. It smelled like Oil of Olay and L’Oreal hair dye and Beth Shalom. It smelled like her. I was afraid I would never take it off.

I tried mourning for my mother the way that she had for grandpa. Newly married and living in Boston, I looked for a synagogue where I might stand in my mother’s tallit and declare faith in a God Whom I was none too happy with. For the first 30 days, I prayed daily, but for the remaining months I cut back to only three or four times a week. I was saying Kaddish for her, because I knew that she would have wanted me to, but the experience was painful; that’s why I cut back. The others at Kehilith Israel’s daily minyan were all older, my mother’s age, and many of the women reminded me a little bit of Mom. They were saying Kaddish for their parents, which only magnified my sense of too-early loss.

For their part, the minyan-goers seemed to have a hard time with my presence, too. I imagined that, when they looked at me, they saw their own daughters — that my tragedy pushed them to envision their own deaths. Many of the female davveners wore dainty tallitot, and, at the beginning, I wore my mom’s. But I gave that up quickly, as it made me feel unbearably sad. Wrapped in my loss, my lips could hardly form the comforting Aramaic syllables of the Kaddish. And so I left the garment home, encased in Grandpa’s blue velvet. At the end of the year, I stored the tallis bag on a high shelf in my closet. Ten years would pass before I reached for it.

I don’t wear a tallit — any tallit — because it rustles up memories of grieving: mom grieving her dad; my grieving her. My mother and I were close, the kind of parent and child who enjoy each other’s company. We spoke on the phone several times a week, loved nothing more than an afternoon of shopping together (I can’t tell you how many times we hightailed it out of services on Shabbat afternoon to hit the Saturday sales at Dillard’s), savored long evenings at gourmet restaurants. We giggled and talked about our sex lives. She was the only person in the world brave enough to tell me that, yes, I do actually look fat in white pants. When I put on a tallit, I am painfully reminded that she’s gone — my mother, my friend. And when I put words to paper, everything comes back to this loss.

But I also don’t wear a tallit for a second reason: because the real gift my mother and her generation of Jewish feminists gave me and my cohort was the right — in so many contexts — to choose. And to me, no matter how pink the fringes, how satiny and gorgeous the stripes, a tallit is a male ritual object. Instead of adding feminine twists to traditionally male elements of Judaism, I am drawn to that which is more traditionally feminine and maternal. I love cleaning like mad for Shabbat, baking the world’s most perfect challah with my seven-year-old daughter Mira (named for my mother, Marilyn), and cooking and hosting crowded and noisy Shabbat dinners. I “took on the mitzvah” of challah-baking as thoroughly as Mom “took on the mitzvah” of tallit. I chose to be on the synagogue’s decorating committee, finding swatch-dithering a meaningful endeavor. I use a little white puppet named Shabbos Mouse to tell silly stories during Tot Shabbat; I teach Hebrew School, whereas my mother’s interests were scholarly. Like my mother’s tallit, my Judaism is unapologetically feminine.

It was tremendously difficult to wear Mom’s tallit when I stood in front of the Torah for the first time in 14 years, chanting in honor of her life. Yet I loved publicly connecting with the words, mulling them over, seeing their majestic presence in the scroll. I liked it so much that the next day I called the synagogue office asking to be put on the rotation of regular readers.

My daughter mira will be a bat mitzvah in six-and-ahalf years. Someday she’ll perhaps “take on the mitzvah” of wearing my mother’s tallit. Maybe I’ll be chanting from the Torah on that day, thinking if Mom were alive she’d see her hazel-eyed granddaughter wearing her perfect tallit.

Amy Katz is the mother of Mira, 7, and Eli, 5. She is a Jewish educator and writer living in Portland, Oregon. She wears a synagogue-owned tallit when she reads Torah which she inevitably removes as soon as she’s off the bimah.