Bat Mitzvah Barbie & Her Accessories

My decision to become a Bat Mitzvah began in part with a fashion accessory. Does that make me Bat Mitzvah Barbie?

I’m just kidding. Those of you who know me also know that I will never be mistaken for a Sex and the City character when it comes to fashion or accessorizing. But I do want to talk about a particular Jewish ritual item that helped inspire me to enter this process — the tallit, or in Yiddish, tallis.

A tallit is a fringed prayer shawl. Among Orthodox Jews, it’s a requirement that men wrap themselves in a tallit when they pray.  Among Reform Jews, it’s considered optional and may be worn by men or women during prayer.

The roots of the tallit tradition come from a passage in Numbers and Deuteronomy where adult Jews are instructed to add fringes to the four corners of their clothing.

And the Lord spoke unto Moses, saying: ‘Speak unto the children of Israel, and bid them that they make them throughout their generations fringes in the corners of their garments, and that they put with the fringe of each corner a thread of blue. And it shall be unto you for a fringe, that ye may look upon it, and remember all the commandments of the Lord, and do them….’ (Numbers 15:37-9)

Presenting Becca's tallit

Sam and I present his old tallit to Becca at her Bat Mitzvah in 2007

At my synagogue, a minority of men typically wear tallitot and an even smaller number of women wear them. But my husband Sam always wears one, and when our daughter Becca became a Bat Mitzvah, we presented her with the tallit Sam had received at his own Bar Mitzvah ceremony. 

Over the past decade, I’ve eyed the people wearing tallitot in services and thought that I would like one. It seemed like it might help foster a reflective state of mind — reinforce on a visceral level that I was leaving behind all mundane matters of work, errands, and so on. In wrapping the tallit around my shoulders, I would be wrapping myself in a more elevated and thoughtful (spiritual?) mindset.

I suspected that a tallit would increase my feeling of belonging to the community of Jews there in the synagogue on that given day. It also would be a statement to myself, “I didn’t just drop in or drift in here. I am here in this service and this congregation on purpose.” Like a beginning runner deciding to invest in good running shoes, having my own tallit would signify a commitment to continue attending services on an ongoing basis into the future.

There was also the lingering feminist-rebel part of me that liked the idea of being able to diss the Orthodox Jewish world and say, “Yeah, women can wear tallitot too!”

Now, in Reform Judaism, there’s no test you have to pass to wear a tallit. No one quizzes you at the door of the synagogue and says, “Young lady, do you have permission to wear that tallit?” So I could have just stopped in at Afikomen, our wonderful neighborhood Judaica store, and bought myself a tallit. These days they make all kinds of beautiful multi-hued, silk-screened tallitot – with images of flowers or rainbows or Jerusalem or what-have-you – and not just ones with the traditional white-with-dark-stripe design.

But it didn’t feel right.

I felt like I needed to earn my tallit. It shouldn’t be something I simply bought, like an iPod or pair of shoes. I  needed to understand the structure and meaning of services, not just mumble and stumble my way through them. I needed to understand more about the religious part of Judaism.

In short, I needed to feel like I knew at least as much as the kids being given tallitot at their Bar and Bat Mitzvah services.

So… at the end of this process, I am promising myself a tallit.

And yes, as you guessed, the design that I chose for the image at the top of this blog is a a tallit. It’s a photograph of my husband’s tallit — not the one he gave to our daughter, but the one he uses these days and keeps in his closet near his ostrich leather boots and his 49 neckties.

As I mentioned, I’m not the one around here with the accessorizing issues.  :-)


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8 Responses to “Bat Mitzvah Barbie & Her Accessories”

  1. Jim Richardson Says:

    This is all so totally cool. Thank you for letting us travel aways with you. I am much enjoying your posts, and enlightening me about the tallit. I should tell you I have one (a gift), and I keep it with a Buddhist prayer shawl given to me by a Tibetan monk, and a head covering given to me by an Afghani Muslim (and my collection of 49 priestly stoles). I hope to see yours, and perhaps be invited to the Bat Mitzvah. Thanks again!

  2. Susan Says:

    Earning your tallit — kinda like Buddhist monks and nuns who sew their own robes. It involves one in the “commitment” aspect. I like this blog a lot!

  3. Susie W Says:

    Ilana, earning a tallit is a bit like earning a chultza shomer, eh?

  4. Susie Miller Says:

    I know exactly how you feel about the tallit and for the same reason won’t be getting my own until I go through the whole Bat Mitzvah process myself. I always feel more connected to the spiritual when I am wrapped in a prayer shawl (and of late I’ve worn both Harry’s and Mark’s), but I want my very own to be the one I have “earned.”

    On another note, Ben recently has dropped completely out of Hebrew school and his Bar Mitzvah process. He is having a crisis of faith (related to his medical travails) which we are honoring with the space to confront his questions, walk away from a forced process, and the opportunity to return when/if the time is right. Not exactly your father’s bar mitzvah experience, eh?

    with love,

    • Ilana DeBare Says:

      Susie, I am impressed but not surprised that you are letting Ben make his own way on his own timetable to becoming a Bar Mitzvah. There are not a lot of kids that age who would question the process from a substantive perspective (rather than it being too much work, boring etc.). If and when he decides to pursue it on his own, it will be so meaningful to him.

  5. Meredith Warshaw Says:

    Praying inside a tallit really is transformative, at least for me – wrapping myself in it as I enter the shul settles me, and wrapping myself in it for the Amidah makes my davening more personal and intense.

    My sister-in-law wove her son’s tallit for his bar mitvah. She’s very close to my son and gave him his bar mitzvah tallit at his bar mitzvah. We ended up homeschooling Keith’s bar mitzvah preparation, and everything about it was very personal and meaningful.

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