Weaving Women into a Multicultural Tallit

On March 1, 2003, Amber Reid became the first woman in her family to be called to the Torah as a bat mitzvah. Her journey to the bimah began in 1972, before she was born, when her stepfather, John Price, began embracing Judaism.

Although those around him questioned the wisdom of an African-American man taking on the “additional burden” of becoming a Jew, he says he saw it instead as an “additional blessing.” Increasingly committed to Judaism, John and his wife, Karen Reid Price, decided they would raise their children as Jews. The family read Torah together on Shabbat, hung a mezuzah on their door, and began celebrating Jewish holidays. As time went by and they realized that Judaism requires a community, they brought their children. Amber included, to my synagogue. At Beth Emet in Evanston, Illinois, they became active participants in a Saturday morning minyan.

Months before becoming a bat mitzvah. Amber and I began work on a tallit that would help represent her vision for herself as an adult Jew. (I had been making tallitot after a friend made one for me out of a hand towel from a Project Kesher retreat in Belarus.) Amber identified a quote from her Torah portion which I cross-stitched onto the atarah, the neck piece. The quote, loosely translated, says, “Each man and each woman, all of whom were so moved, brought a free-will offering to G-d.” She chose this quote because the Torah explicitly included women in this process and also because she saw her own journey to Judaism as one made freely by her and her family.

Inspired by a LILITH article from several years ago, I asked Amber’s mother to gather textiles from the women in her family to be included on the tallit. Karen brought me fabric from one of her shirts, a handkerchief from Amber’s grandmother, Karen Turner, and a clothing tag from her great-grandmother, a seamstress, Elizabeth “Ladybug” Turner. The handkerchief reminded me of one that I kept after my grandmother Beatrice Hendler died. To me, Grandma Bea was the consummate Jewish grandmother. I decided to include as watch from my grandmother’s handkerchief to represent the intersection of our families’ histories and as a wish that Amber receive all the blessings of her heritage and her chosen religion.

A highlight of Amber’s bat mitzvah celebration came when her grandmother presented her with a scrapbook tracing her matrilineal heritage, beginning with Ora, the first free-born woman in her family, and offered Amber a blessing—that she build upon the strengths of all the women who came before her. In that moment of creativity and love, you could glimpse the power of Amber’s past and the promise of her future.