Thursday, June 23, 2011

A Prayer Shawl

A brief definition before we begin:
A Tallit is “is a Jewish prayer shawl. The tallit is worn over the outer clothes during the morning prayers (Shacharit) on weekdays, Shabbat and holidays.

       Toward the end of March I went to a “make your own Tallit” class at my Synagogue. It had been a long time since i'd had a sewing project, so I took up the challenge gladly. I didn't start making my Tallit right after this class. I wanted to, but for some reason I didn't. It wasn't because I couldn't find the materials- NYC has an entire garment district full of stores that had everything I need but for some reason, I didn't want to get my supplies in NYC. I was taking a trip to my hometown of Bellingham, Washington at the end of March and for some reason I wanted to wait and buy the fabric from this fabric store I used to go to all the time: Fabrics etc. I didn't know why it had to be that store, but I just knew it did.

       When I went home I took a trip to Fabrics etc and in no time I found this beautiful white sateen that was perfect. I also wanted to find some blue fabric to compliment it. Water gives me a great sense of peace, something I wanted to incorporate into my shawl. It had been a very difficult winter for me, especially because I was used to the beautiful scenery of the pacific northwest and to go from acres of forests and the vast expanse of the Puget Sound dotted with picturesque Islands to a world of bleak, grey concrete was hard. Yes, there was Central Park but it paled in comparison to my hometown. I wanted a blue fabric that reminded me of the water, so I could take a bit of home back with me. (I have also since then discovered the half a dozen other beautiful waterfront parks NYC has to offer. It's not the Puget Sound, but it's definitely close).
       I found exactly what I was looking for but there was a problem: I didn't have enough money. I needed at least a foot and a half of the white sateen as well as at least another foot of the blue fabric. I was still trying to figure out what to do as I took the fabrics up to the counter. The woman looked up my account. As it turns out, they had a rewards system that I completely forgot about. If you spent a certain amount than you received 20% off your next purchase. Last year, before I moved to NYC, I spent the required amount but I never redeemed my 20% off. And I completely forgot about it.

       Do you believe in coincidences? Because I certainly don't. This was why I had to go back. I was able to get everything I needed to get started.

       I started sewing when I was fourteen or fifteen, if I remember correctly. I remember afternoons spent happily hand stitching some half-formed idea of a huge project that I would inevitably abandon. I have used a machine in the past, but the vast majority of my work had been hand-sewn. Sewing by hand, to me, is an act of love. Yes I could pop something in a machine and be done in two seconds and have a perfect hem, but I find far more meaning in hand-sewing. When I decided to make my tallit, I knew I would hand-stitch the entire thing. What better way for me to show my love for Judaism and God than to carefully hand craft my Tallit?

        I also decided that I was going to be far more attentive and patient this time around. Usually in the past, when a project idea occurred to me, I'd follow the instructions for a little while until I got the general idea of what the end result is supposed to look like and then would go off on my own. I'd get sloppy and cut corners. I wasn't going to do that this time around. I was going to take my time and be as close to perfect as possible. I was going to use my powers of perfectionism for good.

        When I got home that day, I put on some music and began to sew- something I hadn't been able to do since moving to NYC. In the initial move, I left my sewing kit behind (A mistake I will not make again). While I sewed, a wonderful thing happened. I felt peace, true peace, the likes of which I had not yet found in New York. I didn't realize how much I missed sewing, how much I needed it, until then. It felt so good to do something with my hands and after those first few hours when I had a completed hem, I was able to look at every stitch and remember that feeling. Even now, when I drape the unfinished shawl around my shoulders I feel peace and warmth. Happiness.

        I took it a step further. I wanted to hand stitch the blessing that ran across the top of the Tallit as well. When I got back to New York I went to Michaels and bought the supplies for embroidery. Now, I had never embroidered a day in my life, but from what I understood, it was very similar to hand stitching. I sketched in a notebook until I had an idea of what the letters should look like and after some practice I got started. Every stitch hand sewn. Every letter crafted with love. The pictures below show the blessing that will go across the top. when it's done it will be in one straight line. also, sorry about the poor lighting.

       This has been the most amazing project i've ever undertaken and it's brought so much peace to my life.

Soon I will talk about my “Jew Class” as I call it as well as a possible future future career plan. Until then, sorry for the wait, but I hope it was worth it. And, when my prayer shawl is finished I will post more pictures. 

Thursday, January 20, 2011

The December Dilemma

    Yes, I am aware that it is January, a full three months since my last entry and no longer December, or 2010 for that matter. But there is a crucial issue that a lot of converts (as well as many non-converts) deal with ever year, and I feel that it should be included in my blog about the conversion process.

   This is the magical time when Carols overrun the airwaves, everything takes on a red and green glow and the majority of Americans eagerly await Santa’s arrival on Christmas day.

     Until last year (meaning 2009) so did I. Now, however, I get to celebrate Hanukkah! I love Hanukkah - what better way to celebrate the beginning of winter than with a lot of candles, fried foods, and a story of a triumphant battle that took place thousands of years ago? I was all ready to trade my Santa hat for a dreidle, my Christmas tree for a Menorah. I had already written Christmas off a few years ago, when I made the decision to convert. I hadn’t been raised with the story of the birth of Jesus so I never really incorporated that with December 25th. To me it felt pretty easy to cast off a holiday involving Santa and a day of presents. It was a very small price to pay to live a Jewish life. Christmas didn’t feel like my holiday anymore. I didn’t think it was that big of a deal.
       And then I got the card. My grandmother sent me a wonderful “Happy Hanukkah ” card instead of the usual Christmas card this year. I was unbelievably moved by this gesture. To me, it wasn’t just a card; it was a symbol of her acceptance of my decision and respect for my religion. I called to thank her. While I was talking to her, it hit me; Hanukkah was now my holiday. My family still celebrated Christmas. It was something that they all still shared. Together. Something I used to share with them but I don’t anymore. This was just the first of many things that now separates me from my family, besides our geographic locations.

     I’m no stranger to doing things a bit differently from those around me. When I was younger- particularly in high school- I loved that about myself. I held on to the particular ways that I was different, or thought I was different, from those around me as a way of self-identity.       
         But this was something else entirely. While talking to my Grandma I found myself needlessly defending Christmas as if to reassure her that I still respected Christmas, that I still loved her, that I was still a part of this family. For some reason, it wasn’t until this phone conversation that I realized this Hanukkah-instead-of-Christmas thing alienated me from my family, which didn’t sit well with me. I’ve always been very family oriented. I was the weird kid who, when many my age were going through the “I-don’t-want-to-have-anything-to-do-with-my-parents-and-oh-yeah-my-brother-was-adopted” phase I was hanging out with my brother on the weekends, and spending time with my parents whenever possible. I loved family road trips, game nights, all of those corny after-school-special elements of family togetherness. I’ve known for years that I was going to convert, so mentally I was preparing for this, but I still didn’t really realize what it all meant until that card. Until that conversation.

        I am not like my family in a very significant way. Not that they can’t share that with me- of course I’m more than happy to include them in as much as they want, but that’s just the thing- I’m going to be including them. Judaism is mine in a way that is wholly unique from my family. It’s not something that we share together. There was a time when that fact would have made me feel special or important. Now it just makes me feel a bit lonely, to be honest.

     The moment has passed. The ball has dropped and the New Year has begun. But next December, this same issue will arise. And even more so. Every day I am incorporating more aspects of Judaism into my life. By next December, I will be very close to the end of my conversion (I had my first class a couple days ago. More on that later). Every day I am becoming more and more different from my family. Even though I chose to convert four years ago and during that time I knew that this would be a big change, I didn’t fully start to realize how that change would affect those around me until now.

       After taking a step back I’ve calmed down and realized that, though Judaism will be a very integral part of my life, I am still a member of my family and I know they love me unconditionally.

       Christmas is no longer my holiday. I no longer share that with my family. However, just as my Grandmother respected me by sending me that card, so I will respect their holiday. When December 25th rolls around again, I will call my Grandmother and wish her happiness on that day because even if the day doesn’t hold the same significance for me anymore, she is still my Grandmother.