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Al Barry/Three Lions/Getty Images
Al Barry/Three Lions/Getty Images

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Losing My Religion, But Keeping the Stuff

My prayer shawl isn't a religious symbol anymore. It's a visual reminder that identities change

It was early spring in upstate New York, and chilly. The lodge was full of 200 teens singing a song I didn't know, in a language I only recognized from Sunday school. They turned to each other with huge smiles, belting out the words they had learned at summer camp, wrapping their prayer shawls around each other in big hugs. The delicate pink, blue, and green textiles were decorated with sprawling vines and Hebrew words I didn't understand.

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I was 15, and it was my first Jewish youth group retreat. I'd been convinced to attend by a cool, older girl I adored. Humming along, I wondered about these gorgeous tallit, the shawls. I want one, I thought. I want in.

The next four years of my life consisted of more weekend youth group retreats hosted by my synagogue. I made new friends with whom I spent hours debating Jewish tradition, and flirted with a boy who became my first love. And there was my first trip to Israel with my mother where, along the crowded streets in Jerusalem's Old City, she bought me my own tallis. A stunning piece of raw, beige silk, it was lined with thick pink and purple stripes, and sparkly Hebrew letters. Soft tassels danced around the edges.

All the prayer shawls my mom knew growing up were made for boys and men, who ran the temple.

It was the first time my mom had seen prayer shawls made especially for young women. Tallit go back as far as Judaism itself, and the Torah commands that they be worn during prayer. But until the mid-twentieth century, they were only worn by men, often given as gifts from fathers or elder temple members for a Bar Mitzvah. In Florida in the 1960s, women in my mom's synagogue weren't allowed to wear them.

Years later, thumbing through teetering stacks of chiffon and charmeuse, she murmured, So feminine. All the ones she knew growing up were made for boys and men, who ran the temple. They were rough, stark white with dark blue stitching — no frills and no fun. She said she wanted me to have one as a reminder that our kind of Judaism was progressive. Look how far we've come, she said. We have female rabbis, we have gay rabbis. We are equal. It was a badge of honor for my mother, a woman who was once told she took a man's spot in her medical school class, to buy her daughter a tallis, once a symbol of the religious male hierarchy.

The tallis quickly became my favorite piece of clothing. It was a sign that I belonged, and I was eager to show it off. My last retreat of high school, I stood on the bimah, the stage, as all the graduating seniors gathered to sing the songs that once sounded so foreign. With the tallis wrapped tightly around me like a cashmere blanket, I felt like Stevie Nicks, powered by six-pointed stars instead of a silver spoon.

I traded leadership retreats for frat parties, secret bottles of Manischewitz for cheap bagged wine.

That summer, I packed up my childhood room and readied myself for college. Next to jeans, winter coats, and blouses I learned were called "going out tops," I packed the tallis and dozens of other T-shirts and sweatshirts from my weekends away.

But as the months went on, I found I had no use for my prayer shawl. I traded leadership retreats for frat parties, secret bottles of Manischewitz for cheap bagged wine, and summer camp counselor jobs for magazine internships in New York City. I stopped celebrating the Jewish holidays in earnest, and only went to synagogue when my parents texted me, "We'd really love it if you came home for Yom Kippur this year!"

Of course, what I loved about that time wasn't the religious aspect of it so much as the community itself, and the idea that a bunch of people were coming together for the same reason. And I found replacements for that at my college newspaper and by leading backpacking trips in the Pocono mountains.

I wore those T-shirts less, too. My freshman year, I had a dresser drawer full of graphic tees relating to Judaism — one pictured Winnie the Pooh in a kipah, another screenprinted with the Jerusalem skyline. I wore a purple tee with an Israeli version of Cookie Monster on it for a week when I had a stomach virus. But when I left the dorms and I moved into a tiny New York apartment after college, the tees got shunted to a shelf, then to the back of an armoire. They were eventually tucked into a storage box and stuffed into a closet in my parents' house. A top with "I ain't no challah back girl" blazoned across it had to be tossed when I spilled coffee on it during finals. A dozen T-shirts were donated to Goodwill after Hurricane Sandy.

I wore a purple tee with an Israeli version of Cookie Monster on it for a week when I had a stomach virus.

Today, all that's left of the clothing are a green pullover sweatshirt that says "zionism" in big block letters (a giveaway from an international conference in Jerusalem that became wildly popular at camp one summer), a band T-shirt with "Phish" spelled out in Hebrew, and the tallis. These things I kept, mostly by accident. The sweatshirt and tee will likely end up in the trash at some point. After all, my politics have shifted, and as I've learned, I don't particularly like Phish's music. But not the tallis.

That, I'll keep it in the same way my mother keeps a menorah she bought in Spain in the 1970s, or my father keeps a silver Kiddush cup passed down from his father — not to be used every day, but to be used someday, even in ways they weren't intended. (The menorah lit our kitchen during a snow-storm power outage one year.) To me, the tallis isn't a religious symbol anymore. It's a visual reminder that identities change.

My mother has always said a parent's main duty is to give children two things: roots and wings. In a way, the tallis is both, firmly planted in heritage and tradition, but also a subtle nudge to leap forward.

Jessica Goodman is the digital news editor at Entertainment Weekly.


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