For this week's episode I interviewed Rabbi Ari Lev Fornari. He is a Rabbi at Kol Tzedek synagogue in Philadelphia, were he has a more in depth bio written here.
It was so incredible to talk with him. He is so overflowing with knowledge, has thought deeply about tallitot and tzitzit, and treats the subject with so much care.
Shana tova to all <3
Some definitions and links from our conversation:
Bimah: a raised platform in a synagogue from which the Torah is read
Atarah: The "crown" or "collar" on many tallitot that contains the words of the blessing you say when donning the tallit. Some people put their own words or no words on the atarah.
Urchatz and Rachatz: The hand-washing parts of the Passover seder.
The Jewish Catalogue: A Do-It-Yourself book by Richard Siegel about the basics of Jewish practice and celebration.
Joseph Soloveitchik: an American Orthodox rabbi, Talmudist, and Jewish philosopher.
B'stelem Elohim: The idea that all people are created in the image of G-d.
Shatnez: Cloth containing both wool and linen which is prohibited according to Jewish law.
Purim: a Jewish holiday celebrated on the 14th of Adar in commemoration of the deliverance of the Jews from the massacre plotted by Haman. Often celebrated with the re-telling of the story of Esther, sometimes in the form of a play.
Hiddur Mitzvah: enhancing a mitzvah with aesthetics.
Kavanah: the Hebrew word for intention.
Tefillin Shel Yad: the tefillah that lays on the arm.
Siddur: Jewish prayer book.
Tekhelet: Highly prized blue dye, historically used to dye tzitzit (depending on the tradition, two strings, one string, or half of one string). The tradition using tekhelet was not often used for a long time, but has more recently been revived.
Brit Ahuvim: A lover's covenant. Different in wording from a Brit Nissuin, or marriage covenant. It changes the language from one of acquisition to one of equality in partnership.
The Shema: A very important Jewish prayer, honoring the one-ness of G-d.
Chuppah: A canopy that a Jewish couple stands under during their wedding ceremony.
Elliott batTzedek: Jewish feminist and poet, whose poem "Gathering" was mentioned by Ari Lev.
Prayer for chest binding on TransTorah
With any questions or comments, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Fringes Podcast Transcript
Transcript by Tim Hipp at www.transcribeyourpod.com
Emma June: Hey there. I’m Emma June, and this is Fringes, a no frills kind of podcast where I talk to trans and gender non-conforming Jews about our experiences with tallitot and tzitzit. Tallitot, put simply, are Jewish prayer shawls, and tzitzit are the knotted fringe on the bottom of them. For more in-depth definitions please check out the first episode. In today’s episode, I interview Rabbi Ari Lev Fornari. As always, they will introduce themself.
Ari Lev: I’m really excited to be on this show and have a chance to talk about I guess one of the first spiritual practices and ritual innovations that I had in my own process of coming more fully into myself as a trans person, as a Jew, and eventually as a rabbi. Let’s see. My name is Ari Lev. I use he or they pronouns, and I live in West Philadelphia, and I’m the rabbi of Kol Tzedek synagogue, and I’m also a parent of two little ones, who are three and five. Zeev and Naim. And I’m a lover of studying Talmud, and I love to bike, and garden, and cook, and I have a longtime meditation practice, and now a deepening prayer practice, of which certainly tallitot and tzitzit are a core component.
Emma June: Wow. Thank you. Can you maybe start off by just sharing when you think back, what some of your first memories and associations with tallitot and tzitzit are from your life?
Ari Lev: Yeah. It’s not a ritual that I have what I would call early, formative memories about. I grew up in a fairly classical Reform synagogue, and I don’t really remember if anyone during Shabbat services wore tallit. I don’t even know that at that time if the rabbis wore a tallit. They certainly wore robes, and kind of shawls, but I can’t even quite viscerally remember, like did those shawls have tzitzit on them? They looked more like what I would imagine kind of a progressive Lutheran pastor would look like.
I have my child… 30 years later, they do wear tallitot and tzitzit now on the Bimah. That I know for sure, because I’ve been back. So, I don’t have a lot of early childhood memories. I did get a tallit when I became b’nei mitzvah, and I remember wearing it for my b’nei mitzvah, and I don’t really remember it, almost ever wearing it since then. And I first sort of re-encountered tallit and tzitzit when I was a young adult exploring the intersections of Jewish practice and masculinity, coming into my own self as a gender queer trans person and wanting to kind of encounter a more integrated inner life. And so, I had at that point… At that point, I had been wearing payos. I had not been cutting the corners of my hair for several years. I ultimately wore payos for about seven years and had been wearing a kippah daily, and was experimenting with what would it look like if I also wore tzitzit? And then kind of emerged a larger question of, “What is this ritual and how might I integrate it more fully into my own life and what would that mean for me and what it would mean for others who perceived it?”
Emma June: So, were you wearing a tallit katan?
Ari Lev: Yeah, so a couple different things emerged when I was… After I graduated college in about 2004, I was exploring the path to the rabbinate and I remember I was a perspective student at a rabbinical school, and I didn’t have a tallit to wear. And I was distressed about this. I didn’t feel comfortable in the tallit that I had gotten for my b’nei mitzvah. I wanted kind of a larger, more what I would call now like a tallit gadol, and a then lover actually said, “Let’s make one.” And that had never occurred to me before, so we actually took all of the political patches off of my backpack and we bought this beautiful, large piece of kind of white woven fabric, and we laid out the patches so that they kind of form the crown of the atarah, and the corners, they kind of bolster the corners of the tallit.
Emma June: Sure.
Ari Lev: And for many years, that was my primary tallit. I mean, all the way through until about 2014, so for about 10 years, that was my primary tallit. And for a while I then retired that and called it my whole tallit, meaning it was the tallit of the regular week, not holy times, or Shabbat, or holidays. And now at this point, for me, it’s my protest tallis. And it feels like that’s the energy that it carries, so its place in my heart has kind of evolved, but that was the first tallit that I ever wore regularly, and so part of my relationship to tallit is this idea that we make them.
And in that process, I also made a tallit katan, which I just made by cutting up a really soft t-shirt and kind of slitting it down the sides, and then putting kind of reinforcing fabric in the corners and tying tzitzit there, and I used the Jewish Catalog to tie tzitzit, actually. I still use the Jewish Catalog to tie tzitzit. And so, a lot of what I learned, I learned directly out of the Jewish Catalog, 1970s style.
Emma June: Wow. That’s-
Ari Lev: And… I’m sorry, go for it.
Emma June: I was just gonna ask if you could talk more about just what it means, this idea that you, a tallit is one that you make. Does that feel connected to being gender queer to you? Or like when I hear it, I’m like, “That feels connected.”
Ari Lev: Yeah. I mean, certainly there was a sense of kind of taking ownership over my body and my Judaism. There was also a desire to not buy a tallit that was made in Israel, or was made in a sweatshop, or had kind of a corporate factory feel, and kind of what does it mean to buy ritual objects that have integrity to them, that feel values aligned if we’re gonna elevate to the status of holy? And so, that was a priority for me, as well, was finding a tallit not made in Israel, and it seemed like the easiest way to do that was to make one.
Emma June: Totally.
Ari Lev: Which is I think one of the unique niches that ADVAH Designs fills now.
Emma June: Definitely. I think that’s definitely a reason some of our customers find us and want the tallitot that we make. And yeah, I guess could you talk a little more about how you imagine the role of a tallis in a protest? And why you wear it while protesting?
Ari Lev: Yeah. It was interesting. There was a Facebook thread about this amongst rabbis recently. I wear it for a number of reasons. One of them is certainly when I’m invited to a protest as clergy, often we’re kind of asked to come robed, like to come visible, which is interesting because actually there isn’t in Jewish tradition anything that clergy would wear that Jews wouldn’t wear, which is different than other religious traditions, certainly than Christianity. And so, to come clothed or cloaked as Jewish is not to come as a rabbi. It’s just to come as a Jew.
But the tallit can be more visible than something like a kippah. Certainly, it makes for… I think if we’re thinking about media effect, I think it has a really good media effect, and it kind of… It marks our bodies and our presence in a certain way. But I also think it, for me personally, has the impact of kind of bringing a prayerful mindfulness to my presence there, to remind me like what am I embodying in this space? How am I approaching this protest? With what energy and intention am I bringing into this space? So, for me, it kind of acts on me as much as it acts externally, and I think there’s a sense of, I don’t know, very kind of core Abraham Joshua Heschel, when he felt his feet were praying. There’s a way in which having a tallit on can remind us that protest is another manifestation of bringing the world closer to the one we long for, which is part of what prayer is.
Emma June: Right. And it’s kind of in a way fulfilling the commandment that wearing a tallis is supposed to fulfill, right? Or the mitzvah.
Ari Lev: Yeah. I feel that way. Oh, and I’m like, “Does one say the blessing for putting on a tallit when they’re wearing it to a protest?” So, I don’t have an answer to that, but I think it’s a live question in my own heart.
Emma June: Could you… I don’t understand why.
Ari Lev: Well, there’s circumstances under which we might do a mitzvah, where sometimes we would say the blessing and sometimes we wouldn’t. So, for example, if I’m putting on my tallit before Saturday morning services, I’m definitely gonna say, “L’hit-a-teif Be-tzitzit.” The one who has instructed us to wrap ourselves in tzitzit. And then there’s a question of if I’m putting it on before a protest, is this also what I’ve been instructed to put on, and how do I see this moment relative to my own kind of spiritual obligations? I’m trying to think. There are others. I’m trying to think of a good example of a time when we would do a mitzvah, but where we would do something we might do as a mitzvah, but we might say it without a blessing.
This happens with handwashing, actually. A good example would be the Passover Seder. We have both urchatz and rachatz. We wash our hands twice, and the first time we wash our hands without a blessing, and the second time we wash our hands with a blessing. So, sometimes we do the same act and we can decide, “Am I doing it with or without a blessing?” So, that’s one example.
Emma June: Yeah. Well, speaking of blessings, you are a co-author of a blessing for chest binding.
Ari Lev: Yeah.
Emma June: Could you talk at all about that blessing? I use it and I know that it contains at least part of the blessing you say when you tie tzitzit, so I would really love to hear more about what went into it for you, and like how you find a connection between chest binding and tzitzit.
Ari Lev: Yeah, absolutely. I guess the first thing I’ll back up and say is I wore daily tzitzit for a very limited period of time. I experimented with wearing them kind of external to my clothing and also internal to my clothing. I think I utterly shocked my parents when I kind of came downstairs one time. I was visiting. I’d been living in San Francisco and I was visiting, and it’s like I have payos, and I have tzitzit. They were kind of like here they have raised me to be a good, classical Reform Jew. It was like, “Who are you? Have you strayed from the path?” But ultimately, just felt like it wasn’t my own. It didn’t feel authentic to who I was. But it’s still something I’ve wondered about as my relationship to tallit katan, so I’ve made several of them, including a tallit katan chest binder, but it’s not something that I’ve spent a lot of my time actually wearing. And in some ways, the symbolic power of the ritual object and the blessing itself were utterly transformative to create and knowing that you and many other people have kind of lived into the legacy and use them is incredible. We never know kind of the impact of our own creativity.
So, for me, I partnered with Rabbi Elliot Kukla. We were friends and I sort of approached him and had this idea, and I think it came up because I was thinking so literally about binding, right? And we talk about in the Shema, you should bind these words upon your heart and upon the frontlets of your eyes, and there it’s really referring to the practice of wearing tefillin. But for me, chest binding had become something that I had… was a source of pain and discomfort, even as it was also a source of liberation. Even as it allowed me to sort of be seen and move through the world in a way that felt resonant, it also actually just was very physically uncomfortable, and I wanted a way to kind of sanctify that. I wanted a way to sort of elevate it, to reframe it, and give me kind of some spiritual power to push through the practice of binding my chest.
And so, for somehow I was thinking about the four-cornered garments, and binding, and I was like, “What do I need? I have a binder on and then I have a tallit katan on, and then I have a t-shirt, and then I have a sweatshirt.” I was like, “This is way too many layers.” And I had seen somewhere that people had started putting… I don’t know if it was in gest or a real practice was tying tzitzit onto a bra. And I was like, “Oh, I should tie tzitzit onto my chest binder.”
Emma June: Yeah.
Ari Lev: So, it kind of organically developed in that way, and then I was like, “What’s the blessing for chest binding?” And it’s part of the blessing is feeling commanded and feeling a sense of holiness through an act, I was like, “I want to feel that. I want to feel that my… I want to sanctify my own gender identity. I want to take it out of kind of this desperate, worst-case scenario deviance in society, and say no, really, this is also part of what G-d wants for me.” Which, creating a blessing made it more possible to tap into that truth. That part of our job in this world is to manifest ourselves and we see this even in the most traditional sources.
Joseph Soloveitchik writes this, that each and every one of us is called to sort of be in a relationship with divinity and be... What it is to be b’tselem elohim is to create ourselves in this world. Even the most orthodox of sources would kind of affirm that idea, that part of what it is to be b’tselem elohim is this practice of what Elliot and I called hityatzrut. Self-formation. And you know, our own journey inward and the process of coming out as trans through that journey inward is nothing short of kind of a miracle.
So, I approached Elliot and I didn’t, I wasn’t steeped in Jewish learning at this point. I was kind of exploring the path to the rabbinate, but didn’t have a lot of access to text or Hebrew, and we sort of had a bunch of phone calls where we talked about what did we want to draw on, what energies did we want to bring, where did we want to pull from, and I don’t remember if he maybe sent me a draft, what do you think about this? And I said, “Oh, what do you think about this?” And we kind of went back and forth and collaborated on the creation of this. But this idea that it was a mitzvah to bind my chest and a mitzvah to create myself was extremely liberating for me, personally.
And I guess the very fact of that I had to… You know, you can’t buy a tallit katan chest binder, so it seemed right to put on some of what we say when we actually tie tzitzit, because there was an element of that kind of creative energy that’s present when we make new ritual objects.
Emma June: Yeah. I mean, it’s beautiful. It makes me… When I say it and when I hear you say that it makes me feel like I’m making myself holy.
Ari Lev: That’s the goal. I mean, I think you are.
Emma June: Right. I don’t think that’s what we’re always told, or led to believe, or often do.
Ari Lev: Or internalize.
Emma June: Internalize. Yeah. And I think it’s really creative, and I think… I guess I’ve really been thinking as I have been approaching this project, and part of it is just me trying to understand how to feel holy, how to feel ownership and trust in an object like a tallis that the way it was presented was like… It’s for men, or now in this feminist moment of reform Judaism, it’s for men and women, but the women’s ones have pink on them. Or you know, kind of like that it’s felt hard to know how to access this object. And so, you talking about making your own tallitot, and making this blessing, feel really connected to that idea for me.
Ari Lev: And I want to say my desire to keep making tallitot hasn’t ended there. I’ve made… At this point I have about half a dozen tallitot, and I’ve made several of them, actually. And in fact, at Kol Tzedek, at my synagogue, my partner who is very crafty, we ran a tallit-making workshop with a multi-session to support people to make their own tallitot, and more than once I’ve sort of sat pastorally with people and realized what we need to do is make a tallit together and kind of invited people into that journey, and tied tzitzit with people. I have found that practice to know that you could make an object that you can kind of cradle yourself in, reswaddle yourself, kind of rewombing every time you encounter prayer, and I think there’s something very important and kind of points to the embodiment of prayer, which prayer can feel overly cerebral and kind of disconnecting, and I think a tallit is a real antidote to that.
And so, I’ll often make a tallit with people, or invite them to tie tzitzit, or teach them how to do that, so they can… There’s a huge point of empowerment to feel like I can make these ritual objects for myself. And it’s not just what it does about your relationship to tallit, but it does that in your relationship to Judaism in general to realize like, “Oh, I can make this my own.”
Emma June: Could you share more about some of the tallitot that you’ve made?
Ari Lev: Sure. This past summer, I was really on a hunt for having… Well, it grew out of both practicality and kind of sense of renegade witches. In my practice of reading prayer every week, I got a tallit when I was ordained as a rabbi, which I really love. But it’s a very slippery kind of synthetic fabric and it’s always falling off my shoulders, and I’ve gotten the feedback that I fidget with it too much. So, I was like, “I need a less slippery tallit.” And I found a beautiful Turkish bath towel. This is my number one recommendation I now say to people. If you want to make your own tallit, a really good, easy place to start is with a Turkish bath towel. They’re beautiful, soft, cotton, they already have fringes along the edges, you don’t have to hem them, they’re already to go. And for some reason, they’re kind of the perfect size.
Emma June: Wow.
Ari Lev: And so, I sewed onto it another piece of fabric as an atarah, and the corners, and then I really wanted to have a tallit that had tekhelet. All of my tzitzit had just been plain white. There’s something about sort of drawing on the spirit of looking at and seeing uri item, like the tekhelet. The blue dye within the tzitzit and this kind of sky element, so I made this kind of spacious sky tallit. It’s off white with kind of a teal coloring, with tzitzit that have tekhelet, and kind of just try to draw on a more expansive spirit. So, that’s the most recent tallit that I’ve made. And I have this white one that I wear on High Holidays, and I have my protest tallis. And then I have also for the brit ahuvim I had with a partner, with my partner, I… Her parents had been married under a very traditional tallit, like a black and white, very traditional tallit, but that they embroidered their Hebrew names onto. And so, for our brit ahuvim, my partner embroidered our Hebrew names onto that same tallit, and so now there’s two generations of names on this one tallit.
And sometimes, for whatever reason, the right moment, I’ll also wear that tallit. So, even though I didn’t make that tallit from scratch, it sort of has these enhancements, and my partner’s mother, she’s also a rabbi and she had actually done all sorts of embroidery to kind of adorn it, so it has a lot of kind of beautiful intricacies to it, and just to say that we can also take a very traditional tallit or a store-bought tallit and we can make it our own by embroidering words on it, or designs, or somehow, or quilting on it somehow, enhancing it and kind of reclaiming it as uniquely ours.
Emma June: That’s so beautiful. Wow. Wow. Yeah. It’s really… It was very liberating for me to learn that the commandment of wearing tzitzit is really… It wants you to have four corners and it wants you to have these fringes, but that it can be on most any material.
Ari Lev: Yeah. Yeah. In fact, actually this summer I realized that the fabric I was using for the atarah was linen, and so I looked into the rules of Shatnez and got into this whole long conversation about whether I observe Shatnez or care about Shatnez, and for a couple of years-
Emma June: Can you say what that is?
Ari Lev: Yeah. Shatnez is one of theses irrational, and I say that with a fondness, actually, irrational biblical mitzvot to not wear clothing that mixes linen and wool.
Emma June: Okay.
Ari Lev: And I… It’s not something I, when I go to buy clothing, I’m not regularly checking, “Does this have linen and wool in it?” But it felt different to make a ritual object that blatantly kind of was in violation of this biblical commandment. And it’s a biblical commandment that is sort of often held up as kind of even more than the laws of keeping kosher, kind of like, “What is this really about,” is like a mysterious question. And actually, for Purim, my very crafty partner, has actually made a piece of fabric that is itself kind of a quilted collage of linen and wool, and she cut it into a dress, and so she has a dress that she wears called Lady Shatnez as her Purim costume every year.
You know, it’s important to have a playful defiance of these biblical commandments. Anyways, so one of the questions was can I have wool tzitzit on a tallis that has linen on it? Is that a violation of Shatnez? Which I ultimately learned the answer is no, but that’s just another example of how when we make our own ritual objects, it allows us also to ask a whole variety of questions that maybe wouldn’t have been open to us or necessarily for us to ask if we just sort of accept Judaism as something that we can buy in a store or receive passively, so there’s something very fundamental of generating an active relationship with Jewish practice that the creation of the tallit katan chest binder and the blessing for it kind of opened in me a love of ritual innovation and a real sense of agency in relationship to Judaism.
Emma June: Wow. I keep saying it. That’s very beautiful. But that’s just how I keep feeling. Wow. That’s very, very exciting to hear about.
Ari Lev: Yeah. I think exciting’s a good word. I want people to feel that part of why live a Jewish life is because it makes us feel more ourselves. It makes us feel beautiful. The mitzvot of Hiddur mitzvah, of really taking care to experience the mitzvot is beautiful. I think the tallit is a really good manifestation, like a really good example of where beauty can really draw us. How we can be drawn to beauty and it can also draw us out of ourselves.
Emma June: Yeah. And I think I feel that way about being trans, as well. About wanting or needing physical clothing, markers, that make me feel beautiful. And it’s really empowering to hear about or think about finding ways for a tallis to embody both that feeling as a trans person and as a Jewish person, like in one object, instead of letting those be separate.
Ari Lev: Yeah, and I mean it’s so interesting for me, like the depths of which I’ve sort of journeyed with tallit, at this point I don’t even think of it as a gendered ritual object. You would need to remind me that it’s a gendered ritual object at this point. One of the more profound questions I’m asking myself right now as a congregational rabbi is is it a specifically Jewish ritual object? And this comes up with a lot of my conversion students. At what point can they start wearing a tallit? And who decides that? And when they are in synagogue on a Saturday morning, should they wear a tallit before they have converted? And it just brings up this question of what’s our relationship to these knotted fringes? And then for me they also become metaphor. I mean, I love Elliot bat Tzedek’s poem called Gatherings, if you’re not familiar with it.
Emma June: I’m not.
Ari Lev: Oh, my goodness. It’s an incredible poem that’s at Fringes, which is a non-zionist, feminist havurah that meets in… I think it meets in Mount Airy or Germantown. They do this as kind of their opening kavanah, and the essence of it, which I don’t want to butcher, is essentially something like… My paraphrase of it, I should say, is, “Gather what you’ve loved and gather what you’ve lost. Gather your longings and gather your accomplishments.” It’s this whole idea that we gather the four corners of our mind. We gather everything we were, is, and will be in the world. We gather all the places that we want to send energy and we hold that in close. And so, now regardless of whether you’re wearing a tallit, I try to invoke that energy at Kol Tzedek that part of wearing a tallit is preparing us for this moment of the shema, where for a moment we can be whole, or we can imagine, or feel in our bodies that possibility of wholeness.
Emma June: Yeah. Oh, I love that. I’m definitely going to go look at that poem.
Ari Lev: Yeah. I really recommend it. I think they have a Shabbat version and even a High Holidays version. We have a poetry companion that we use at Kol Tzedek and it’s printed right in there.
Emma June: Amazing. Well, hopefully it’ll be online and then I can also link it in show notes.
Ari Lev: It’s definitely on. You can definitely find it online. Yeah, I could even imagine it’d be cool for ADVAH to do something with those words.
Emma June: Yeah.
Ari Lev: The closing line is the most profound part, which is, “And have the courage to proclaim that all we gather is holy.”
Emma June: Wow.
Ari Lev: I could imagine… Elliot is also a feminist, and a lesbian, and I don’t know how else she identifies in the world, but I could imagine… She’s an author and a poet and I could imagine she would be a good person for you to interview, potentially.
Emma June: Yeah. It’s really amazing. The more I talk to people, the more I learn how many people are doing amazing things that I’d just never heard of. Which is interesting, because when I… I have spent a bunch of time trying to Google and find online information about queer and trans Jews using tallitot and tzitzit, and there’s not a ton of content out there. So, in fact you’re one of the only people that shows up.
Ari Lev: Yeah. It’s interesting, because I actually feel like it’s become so much more common now. I feel like when I run in kind of leftist Jewish circles, I see a lot of trans masculine folks wearing payos and tzitzit. I was joking I was ahead of my times. Maybe I would still be doing it if there had been more people. But at the time, I felt like just a total freak. Not in a bad sense, but you know, just kind of, “What am I doing?” But now when I move through leftist circles, I see a lot of trans masculine folks wearing tzitzit. It feels almost like normative practice. It might be so normative that no one’s writing about it.
Emma June: Yeah. Well, I mean, I see it fairly regularly in Boston, as well. That’s where I live. And I would say something similar. Yeah. But it kind of shocks me that that step was skipped.
Ari Lev: I don’t think it was skipped. I think there was this bridge generation of which my writing is probably a part of it, where, and we did this because of feminism, because of decades of feminism, where we were able to say part of the extension of egalitarian Judaism and years of Jewish feminist efforts is that all ritual objects, all mitzvot are actually available to all people. And so, once we understand that, we almost don’t even need to talk about it again. But I can say like my peace came out of a moment of not even fully yet understanding or feeling that and trying to kind of help push that little piece of the project forward.
Emma June: Yeah. I mean, it’s interesting, because on the one hand I think I agree with you, and on the other, like working at ADVAH, we’ll have people call and be like, “I want a women’s tallis.” And I’ll say, “There’s no such thing. What tallis do you like?” And it feels like such a fundamental conversation or breakdown kind of as soon as I step outside of the small circle of leftist Jews I’m in.
Ari Lev: Right. Do you want a feminine tallis, or a feminist tallis?
Emma June: Right. There are many ways you could phrase everything, but I think I have felt struck by both how much I’m seeing it and also how little I think people are… who are not directly inside of those circles even know it’s happening.
Ari Lev: Yeah. I believe that, for sure. Makes sense to me.
Emma June: Yeah. And I guess that’s part of why I want to talk about it. Yeah. That and because I think I’ve never really heard people talk about their ritual, like what their ritual practice really means or feels like to them. It’s why I started asking these questions.
Ari Lev: It’s interesting. One of the things that’s kind of lingered in my mind since I’ve had top surgery almost 10 years ago, and I’ve wondered about getting a tattoo kind of on my left rib that says “ukshartam”, you know, and you shall bind. Kind of as this kind of zecherle, like remembrance of my experience of chest binding. And it’s interesting, my arm would touch… My arm wearing a tefillin shel yad, the arm tefillin would touch kind of that spot on my body of the ukshartam, and just kind of the synthesis of the energy of that place in the body. So, I haven’t… I mostly haven’t had time to manifest those kinds of things with two young kids, but kind of just continuing. I can say even having top surgery that this, the process of this blessing is something that kind of is still very alive for me, and something that my body is very aware of.
Emma June: Yeah. Is there anything that I haven’t asked you that you’re ruminating on while we’re talking?
Ari Lev: I don’t think so. I really appreciate all your questions and I’m mostly… I’m a ritual nerd, so it’s been fun to talk about this with you, and if there’s other things that you want to know, consider me available. And I feel like it’s a long way from the b’nei mitzvah I had and the kind of… The small tallit that I didn’t feel connected to. To think about now how my tallit… I’ve had the thought sometimes that if, G-d forbid my house was on fire and I had to grab one object, I’ve often thought I would grab my tallit and my tefillin. That would be it. What else is truly irreplaceable? And for me, my tefillin was the… It was a set of tefillin that my father received for his bar mitzvah and he never wore them. He never even opened them. And when I was in rabbinical school, when I wanted to wear tefillin, my teacher said, “See if there was any sets in your families.” And I was thinking, “I’ve never seen anyone even wear a tallit, nevertheless tefillin.”
And my father pulled out this bag and said, “You know, I got this for my bar mitzvah, but I’ve never even opened it.” So, they were like a brand new set of tefillin, and there’s a little bag, and it’s embroidered with his initials, and so certainly my tallit and tefillin are amongst my most prized possessions, and I don’t like to check them if I’m traveling. They always go in my carry on to get a sense of kind of how close I want to hold them.
Emma June: Right. They’re important and they’re special.
Ari Lev: Yeah. Kind of part of how I’ve become myself and also kind of call me back to myself on a regular basis.
You know, the one other thing I can add is kind of in that spirit of writing blessings. When we put on a tallit, one question is what do we say to ourselves? And if you open a traditional Siddur, there’s a whole list of psalms that can be read when we put on a tallit, and one cool thing that I’ve noticed over the years is that I have slowly acquired kind of individual lines from psalms or prayers that have become kind of my own kavanah, and so I’ll often say the blessing and then I have kind of distinct lines. I’ll say, “v’asu li mikdash vishachanti b’tocham,” that you should make with me a sanctuary that the holy one can dwell in our midst.
And I’ll say the “taher libeinu lo’v t’cha be’emet.” Purify my heart that I may be of pure and genuine service. And I’ll say “ki imcha m’kor hayyim b’orcha nire or,” or for with you is the source of light and in your light we see light. And this idea that kind of increasingly I like to add different lines from psalms or liturgy kind of to that collection, and they all pretty much come out of verses that I’ve wanted to embroider on the atarah of my tallitot. So, I have… Each of my tallitot has a different verse on the atarah, and actually ADVAH Designs made a tallit that I wore under my chuppah, and that one has the taher libeinu. And my ordination one has ki imcha m’kor hayyim. So, this idea that kind of that thing that we have on our atarah can kind of hint at a larger kavanah about our lives, and I love collecting them almost like little sacred pebbles or something that kind of accompany me in that moment of putting on my tallit every time I put it on.
Emma June: Yeah. I really hear you finding such amazing ways to make your objects your own and to feel like personally attached, and tied, and literally embroidered and bound in them. It’s pretty incredible. Do you think… Sorry. Do you think about, when you think about embroidery, like the binding aspect of that, as well?
Ari Lev: I never have, but given that you all are weavers, it makes sense that you would draw that connection. That’s really cool. That’s a cool image. I never have, but I love that. I love that. Never thought about how it’s kind of tying the knots together and weaving material on material, binding materials together. That’s very cool.
Emma June: Yeah. Well, you’re really… I don’t know. There are just so many layers of binding that you can find in some of these objects and rituals in Judaism when you look. Not even that closely. And it’s cool to hear you adding another layer.
Ari Lev: Well, I guess I’ll say I see myself kind of if anything as a ritual craftsperson, and so I’m sort of binding ritual together if that makes sense. Kind of binding blessing with lived experience, so that’s kind of my own stitchwork.
Emma June: Yeah. Wow. Well, thank you so, so, so much for talking to me.
Ari Lev: You’re so welcome, EJ.
Emma June: This has been really, really incredible.
Emma June: Thanks for listening to Fringes, my passion project supported by ADVAH Designs. For more definitions and links, as well as a transcription of this episode, please check out the show notes on our website, ADVAHDesigns.com/FringesEpisode5. That’s A-D-V-A-H-D-E-S-I-G-N-S dot C-O-M/F-R-I-N-G-E-S-E-P-I-S-O-D-E-5.
As always, the interviews I do and the stories I get to share through this podcast cannot possibly capture the breadth of experiences in this world. I’m inevitably leaving people out. That said, this project is growing. If your story feels left out and you want to share it, please reach out to me at email@example.com. That’s E-M-M-A at A-D-V-A-H-D-E-S-I-G-N-S.com. This podcast is coming out on a biweekly basis. A huge thanks to my producer, Sarah Resnick, and to Home Despot, the musician behind the intro. And thank you for listening. See you in two weeks wherever podcasts can be found.
I had the pleasure of talking to Noam Mason, fiber artist and tallis-maker. Their work is stunning and our conversation has stuck with me in the many months since we spoke.
Their tallis project is called Kol Amotzai: Kol Atzmotai is a project of Noam Mason, a Boston-centric genderqueer Jew. Kol Atzmotai was born out of a love affair with fabric, textile art, and the bold, imperfect marks of linocut printmaking. Each KA tallis is made completely by hand. My work draws from a sense of doykeit, or hereness, and combines liturgical motifs with designs from the natural world. Kol Atzmotai quotes from a line in Nishmat, a liturgical poem recited on Shabbat and festivals: Kol atzmotai tomarna, Hashem: mi khamokha? All my bones cry out to you, Hashem: who is like you? The tallis is one of many embodied rituals within our tradition- by wrapping ourselves in a beautiful tallis, we allow our very bones to pray.
Reach out to me with any questions or comments at firstname.lastname@example.org
Some photos of Noam's work:
Some definitions and links from our conversation:
Shavuos (Shavuot): A holiday in commemoration of the revelation of the Ten Commandments at Mt. Sinai. Every year on the holiday of Shavuot we renew our acceptance of G‑d’s gift, and G‑d “re-gives” the Torah. Often celebrated with staying up all night studying Torah (or other Jewish text).
Kavod: Kavod is multi-ethnic, multi-racial community led by young Jews in Greater Boston, committed to each other and to building a liberated world for all people. We live out our values through vibrant Jewish ritual, transformative social justice organizing, and collective responsibility.
Kab-Shab (Kabbalat Shabbat): a series of psalms and blessings that start the Friday Ma'ariv (evening) Shabbat services.
Atarah: The "crown" or "collar" on many tallitot that contains the words of the blessing you say when donning the tallit. Some people put their own words or no words on the atarah.
Hiddur Mitzvah: the principle of enhancing a mitzvah through aesthetics.
Mayyim Hayyim: Mayyim Hayyim is a 21st century creation, a mikveh rooted in ancient tradition, reinvented to serve the Jewish community of today. Located in Newton, Massachusetts.
Antonio Fonseca: Noam's printmaking teacher
Fringes Podcast Transcript
Transcription by Tim Hipp at www.transcribeyourpod.com
Emma June: Hello. I’m Emma June, and welcome to Fringes, a no frills kind of podcast where I talk to trans and gender non-conforming Jews about our experiences with tallitot and tzitzit. Tallitot are Jewish prayer shawls and tzitzit are the knotted fringe on the bottom of them. For deeper definitions about this, check out the first episode. Today, I’m interviewing the talented and lovely Noam Mason, who is about to introduce themself.
Noam Mason: Yeah, thank you. My name is Noam. I use they/them pronouns. I am 21 years old. I currently am a student at Bancroft School of Massage Therapy, where I am earning my massage therapy license. I am a mikveh guide at Mayyim Hayyim in Newton, which is an inclusive mikveh, an inclusive, egalitarian mikveh. I’m a huge bookworm and my best friend is my cat, Jamie. He’s grey.
Emma June: Sweet. Well, I guess we can just dive right in with the question I have started with everyone, which is just what your first memories with a tallis are, what your first memories with tzitzit are. Yeah, like what do they bring up?
Noam Mason: Yeah. Absolutely. So, I actually converted to Judaism. I began that process when I was 18. I finished that process when I was 19-ish. Ish because I actually totally forget when my mitzvah date was. So, I come from a conservative shul in Worcester, Congregation Beth Israel, where there’s a pretty neat striation of tallis practices. Most men and many women wear tallisim. The size, and the materials, and the colors vary a lot. It’s like a really colorful place to be when you are looking specifically at the tallisim that people wear. So, most folks in my community don’t wear a tallis katan, but most people do wear a tallis gadol, or like a shawl-style tallis in shul, so it was sort of my first memories, I guess, are as a young adult and a feeling of anticipation. This very big feeling of anticipation, because it was not within my practice to wear a tallis before I finished my conversion.
So, I had a lot of excitement, and just looking forward to being able to getting to the point where I was going to be able to wear a tallis for the first time. I knew it was gonna be a very, in some ways a very tangible symbol of what role I played in my community, both pre and post-conversion. But I think more importantly, it was something I was and continue to be drawn to as someone who connects very strongly with tangible and tactile ritual. So yeah, so I guess the first memories that come to mind are like of appreciation, of just sort of the beauty of this ritual object, and that sort of anticipation of building up towards something that I knew I wanted to take part in.
Emma June: Was there anybody in your congregation’s tallis who you coveted in any way?
Noam Mason: Oh my gosh. I wouldn’t say coveted, but endlessly stared at during services. So, there is a woman in my shul who I totally regret that I don’t know her name, but she wears this beautiful, dark green, lacy tallis, and it’s like deep forest green, and it’s not just lace. I think there must be a layer of cotton behind it or something, because you’re looking at lace, but you also don’t see through to whatever she’s wearing underneath it. I don’t know. It’s a gorgeous tallis. Very fun to look at.
Emma June: Wow. That sounds very entrancing.
Noam Mason: Oh, absolutely.
Emma June: I really like what you said about finding importance, or I like hearing that you find importance in tactile objects. I feel like I relate to that, and also feel curious, like what about a tallis triggers that for you? If that makes sense.
Noam Mason: Yeah. Absolutely. So, I guess being an artist and being a person who loves fabric, and sewing, knitting, all that fun stuff, from a super young age I just have always loved to fiddle with fabric and string. I’m a very fidgety person, so the idea of having a built-in fidget toy during our three-hour long services, having something to twirl around in your fingers the whole time. But I guess from what is a spiritual standpoint, it’s like a… I guess something that comes to mind is there’s this really nice verse, I guess it’s used as a meditation right before you make the bracha when you put on the tallis. It’s from Tehillim. I totally looked this up before the interview.
So, it’s from Tehillim and it says that Hashem is clothed in splendor and majesty, wrapped in light as a garment unfolding the heavens like a curtain. So, for me that’s like a super powerful line and I think what it comes down when I say that, it means a lot to have something tangible, because I can take this… all these beautiful, liturgical images that we’re working with, and connect it to this very physical thing that just as we see this imagery of like light and the heavens being unfolded like a garment, I’m sort of participating in that as I’m wrapping myself in a garment, so it’s sort of that pairing of these really big, abstract ideas, that then we can sort of distill down into our ritual objects. I think is sort of what comes up for me in terms of tangibility and physicality.
Emma June: And so, are you wearing a tallis regularly?
Noam Mason: I do. Yes. So, I wear a tallis gadol in shul that I made for myself. And the rest of the time, I also wear a tallis katan, so wearing a tallis that I created for myself is like just wicked exciting. It’s a little bit self-indulgent. Little treat to take my art with me to shul. And wearing tzitzits daily is a relatively new practice for me and something that again comes back to that tangibility, like it’s a point to continually ground myself to throughout an otherwise busy, and stressful, and not at all spiritual day, to kind of have something that I take with me and wear with me all the time to sort of return to.
Emma June: Yeah. Could you talk more about your daily practice versus the more in shul practice of wearing a tallis gadol?
Noam Mason: Yeah. I’m not sure that I would say there’s a huge difference between the practices for me. I think wearing a tallis feels very meaningful, kind of no matter in what setting or format I do it. I guess there’s a bit of a difference in wearing something that becomes part of my clothing for the day, and that becomes part of my outfit, and then the fact that I wear it every day becomes almost like a uniform, I guess takes on definitely a different cadence to it than wearing a tallis in shul does that you take, you put on, and then you take off at the end of services. But yeah.
Emma June: Did you make your tallis katan also?
Noam Mason: I did, and that was more for practical purposes than artistic purposes. I could not find… I didn’t look super hard, to be completely honest, but I didn’t expect to find a tallis katan that was shaped in a way that would be comfortable for my body. I also have a lot of sensory sensitivities and so would not really be comfortable wearing something like wool under my shirt all day, so I made mine out of just a very soft cotton t-shit and make slits up the sides and reinforce the corners and whatnot.
Emma June: Right. Wow. It’s just… I guess I’m like… Okay, I would love to know how you decided to start wearing a tallit katan, and I would also love to know more about the process of you making your tallitot, and I don’t know where to start, so I’m curious if you have a place to start in all of that.
Noam Mason: Yeah, sure. I can begin with wearing a tallis katan.
Emma June: Great.
Noam Mason: So, that’s a practice I took on actually just this summer, which doesn’t feel all that long ago, and actually the first day that I wore my new tallis katan that I had made was the day of the Boston Dyke March, which actually also fell right before Shavuos, so it felt like a very auspicious time to be starting this practice. Shavuos is like one of my favorite holidays, so that was exciting and like sort of this fun moment of… Am I allowed to swear on this?
Emma June: Yeah.
Noam Mason: Okay, great. This really fun moment of like gender fuckery, of being able to take on this new practice, which definitely has some gender coding and a lot of gendered weight behind it within our tradition. And the first time doing that was the day of the Dyke March, so that was really fun. But I remember the first time I saw someone who was not an Orthodox man wearing tzitzits, I think it was at a Kavod kab-shab and potluck. It was just like a wild experience for me. It hadn’t even occurred to me that people who were not really observant men could wear a tallis katan. It wasn’t something that was on my radar at all. And so, I remember I was with a friend and I immediately was like, “What’s going on with that? What info do you have for me on this? I need to know what this is, what this means,” and ended up doing a ton of learning about that, because kind of as soon as I realize that this was even an option, I was like, “Oh my gosh, I want to do that.”
It just immediately was like, “Oh, that is a practice that would fit so beautifully into sort of like what I consider meaningful within my Jewishness.” So, yeah, so I did a lot of learning and thinking about it, spent a lot of time kind of trying to decide if this was something I really wanted to take on for myself. I think there was a lot of going back and forth, of like, “Am I just doing this for the visibility of it, or is this something that’s truly meaningful to me, and my Jewishness, and my gender?” There was a lot of soul searching there of considering my intentions. And yeah, so I think it was also especially a big decision because the community that I come from in Worcester, most people do not wear a tallis katan, so it was something I would kind of… making a decision and taking on a practice that was a little bit different than what most people in my community do, so that sort of added to it being a big decision.
But it’s become a very important part of my practice. It’s kind of a moment to pause on a stressful commuting morning, like not just throwing my clothes on and running out the door, but really taking a minute to like really be in the moment as I’m getting dressed, and have a moment to make a bracha, and it’s brought a really strong sense of belonging in my own skin for me, and my own body. I always think of that line from Nishmat, Kol atzmotai tomarna, Hashem: mi khamokha?. It’s all of my bones cry out, Hashem who is like you? So, I think a lot of it, like what it means to live in my bones, in my body, as a person who’s kind of worked within the matrix of dysphoria and transness my whole life, so what it means for not just me to be able to express simultaneously religious or holy expressions and express that I love my body, but for my body itself to be able to create holy expressions, like for my own bones to be the ones sort of praying, that’s a really powerful idea for me, and I think this sort of combination of my body and sort of all the weight that that holds within my gender and my transness, and then combining that with something that holds sort of spiritual weight and significance and a lot of communal significance for me is just very powerful.
So, it’s sort of like taking on the practice of wearing the tallis katan for me was a little bit less about my gender and it was very much like a choice that was Jewishly motivated, fit into my practice. But since then, it’s the fact that I wear a tallis katan has become now an inherent part of my gender expression. So, they’ve kind of become intermingled and tangled up, and it’s pretty neat.
Emma June: Yeah. Well, it strikes me that it’s just one of a few ways I can think of to visibly represent a sort of… It’s like an object that is both visibly Jewish and visibly on some bodies transgressive, and often honestly depending on how its worn on a lot of bodies that are not visibly Orthodox, as well, somewhat transgressive, but that it kind of can hold this gendered and Jewish experience visibly.
Noam Mason: Yes. Absolutely.
Emma June: I don’t know. For me, it’s hard to think of many objects that could do that. Yeah. Wow. Everything you just said was just very… I’ve never… The image of bones crying out is not one that I focused on before, and now I’m just a little stuck on it. It’s very striking.
Noam Mason: Yeah. This is the pitfalls of being an anatomy nerd, is you definitely fixate a lot on all of the body-focused imagery in our liturgy.
Emma June: It’s a good way to be. Well, can I now I guess direct us towards you not just as an anatomy nerd, but as an artist and creator of beautiful things, I guess like I learned who you were partially through ending up on your Instagram and just watching all of your stories of how you made the tallitot that you’ve made and just feeling like, “Oh my gosh! I have to talk to this person!” So, I personally am just very, very curious how you came to making your own tallitot and then also would love to hear about the ones you’ve made particularly.
Noam Mason: Cool. Well, first of all, thank you so much for looking at my Instagram. Yeah. I really appreciate it. Yeah, so I… Oh, gosh. Okay, where to start this section? Okay, so I have had a lot of different sort of artistic pursuits throughout my life. I think a lot of people land on their one thing, like maybe they are really, really good at drawing, or maybe they’re like an oil painter or whatnot, and I feel like it took me forever to do that. And I sort of dabbled in so many different things. Drawing, painting, sewing, weaving, et cetera, et cetera, my whole life.
And when I was in undergrad university, I began taking a printmaking class, which was totally off the cuff. I just… I was working towards an art major and I just needed a class that semester and it was what fit into my schedule. I’m pretty sure I didn’t even know what printmaking was before I took this class, and it was like transformative. I fell in love with the process of printmaking. Particularly I really, really love linocut printing, so where you carve designs into linoleum and you cover them with an ink and you can print them onto paper, or fabric in this case.
I had a spectacular professor. His name is Antonio Fonseca. And you should totally check out his website. Very talented artist. And he was really influential in my sort of questioning of where can I go with this, what can I do with this, because I’ve never been a person who really likes to make art on paper that then just hangs on a wall. That feels like… I feel very strongly about art should be usable, art should be wearable, art should have some sort of tangible purpose, and while art hanging on a wall is very beautiful, and lovely, and I love to partake in it, as in buy other people’s work, it’s not something speaks to me super strongly to make myself. And so, I was talking with Antonio about just different ways that I could take my printmaking and I settled after a little while on realizing I’d like to be working on quilts, where I was creating the patterns myself, like creating the visual patterns on the fabric myself using linocut.
And soon after that, I finished my conversion process and it sort of struck me that like, “Oh my gosh, I’m going to be wearing a tallis soon, and what is a tallis if not just a large, beautiful, really meaningful piece of textile art?” And I love textile art. I’ve just sort of realized this intersection that textile work can have with printmaking, so it just sort of fell together of realizing like, “Oh, I really, really, really want to make my own tallis. That’s the perfect project for me to be working on.” And it admittedly took forever. I was working on this tallis so slowly. But I eventually sort of settled on a design. I think the design part took me the longest, because it was like all the frazzled nerves of being fresh off of conversion, like, “It has to be meaningful. The imagery has to speak to who I am Jewishly.”
It doesn’t. It just needed to be pretty. I was overthinking it. But, so I eventually sort of settled on this design where each of the stripes that we traditionally see on a tallis were going to be created with linocut printing in sort of these repeating patterns, so I have one stripe of blue that is in the shape of water, one stripe of a brown-black that is representing crumbling earth, a stripe of brown branches, and a stripe of green American beech tree leaves. And yes, and the atarah is dyed, and embroidered, and so it was a long process, and I think it was… I struggle with large projects with feeling motivated continually through them, and this was like the first project that even though it took me forever, I felt excited about each and every step, like no part of it felt like a drag, like, “Ugh, I have to do this so I can get on to the next step.”
It was actually really, really engaging at each point that I was at, so I realized after finishing this tallis that this is something I would love to keep doing, and I feel very honored that I’ve had a couple friends ask me to make tallisim for them. So, I’ve recently finished two for two of my friends, Victor and Bunny, who are members of my synagogue in Worcester, and yeah, it’s been a really spectacular process sort of engaging more fully with the concept of Hiddur mitzvah, like not just seeking out beautiful ritual objects, but like really pouring myself into them and creating these beautiful ritual objects has been really, really strong, really powerful, and as I was saying before, it took me like a very long time to feel like I’d settled into what my shtick was within my art practice, and I’ve kind of come to a point where I feel like this is it. I feel like creating tallisim is kind of my thing.
So, yeah, it’s just been a really strong, powerful practice, and it’s something that I don’t really know a lot of people that do, that do create their own tallisim. I know a couple people here and there who’ve done it, and it’s always really, really exciting to talk to other people who’ve created their own tallisim of like what was your process like, and what led you to want to do this, and whatnot. Yeah, so that’s a little bit about that.
Emma June: Yeah. Wow. What is it… You mentioned at the beginning of this interview that sometimes it feels almost selfish to get to wear your own art in shul. But I’m curious to know more, like what does it feel like to then have spent all this time trying to make something that felt right to you and then getting to just wear it now?
Noam Mason: I think maybe a little more self-indulgent than selfish. It’s like, “Ah, this is a little treat.” Yeah, it feels… I mean, it feels huge every time I put on my tallis. I poured so much of myself into this and I spent… It’s things like it took me three months to research and find the perfect fabric that I was going to order to use, like every little step was really… A lot was poured into it. So, I think it’s hard to put into words what it feels like. I think it can feel like a lot of different things, but I think it sort of captures a sense of excitement, of pride, I think it captures a sense of how actively I’ve been able to participate in my own life Jewishly, which I think is really, really huge, and I don’t think it should have to be subversive for trans people to really, fully experience our Jewishness. But the fact of the matter is sometimes it is, so that there’s definitely some sense of that going on.
And then I think there’s also like just, as I’ve said, I just love the liturgical imagery that surrounds tallisim and sort of having imagery on my tallis that sort of echoes the nature that I grew up in, like I specifically chose… Beech trees grow a lot in my hometown, so this was like… This is imagery that echoes a lot of my really close relationships with and memories of nature, and little pockets of nature that I’ve been able to be around my whole life, so I think there’s another sense of groundedness in wearing something that is so deeply personal, and then there’s also just like a sense of expansiveness, of wearing something that’s a little bit different, like I think all tallisim are very, very meaningful, but wearing something that’s not just… that echoes a lot of the traditional imagery that we see in tallisim with the stripes, and the corner square, and the atarah, and sort of having the same basic format, but having it be something very personal, and imagery that’s very natural I think feels very expansive and exciting to me.
To be able to take a very traditional object and sort of maintaining what we expect from it traditionally, and halakhically, and then sort of riffing off of it to see where else could this go, what else could this be? Which I guess is also probably a good way to describe my Jewishness in general.
Emma June: Yeah. Well, I’m curious to hear more, like you brought up how… about feeling… Sorry. Okay, I’m trying to figure out how to word the question I want to ask. I basically want to know… You talked about with your tallis katan that it has come to take on this meaning for you as a trans person as well as a Jew, and you mentioned being trans in what this tallis that you’ve made means to you, and I’m curious if this tallis has also taken on any gendered feelings for you.
Noam Mason: Ooh. Yeah. Hm. That’s a really good question. I think… I guess sort of the two things that come to mind are again, just how physical and tangible this object is. Anything that is related to my body that comes up when I’m praying will sort of end up taking on some element of bringing up feelings of transness and gender for me. So, like being able to wrap my body in a ritual object definitely evokes some sense of protection and belonging in my own body, which is very trans feeling, growing up feeling most of my life like it was very difficult to feel protected and belonging in my own body, so this is sort of a powerful practice of that now. And I guess the other thing that comes up is sort of the idea of having an object that is… having a ritual object, a tallis, that is very traditional in its format, like it’s got a nice white background. It’s got the fringes that run along the border. It’s got the stripes in the traditional direction, sort of the overall visual effect is a lot like a basic blue and white or black and white tallis.
But then having what composes the stripes and what the atarah looks like being very bright and colorful, I guess like in my shul, this is not a blanket statement, but to some extent, women tend to be more likely to wear brightly-colored tallisim, where men tend to be a little more likely to wear traditional black and white or blue and white tallisim. Which is not to say that is true of every man or woman in my congregation. That is definitely not true. But a little bit of a trend, so I guess there’s a fun little marriage of those two styles within my tallis.
Emma June: That’s neat. Wow. Yeah. I guess I feel really struck by your tallis and by your process, partially, and by your decision to make your own. I think partially because to me it feels like really, like hearing you say all this, it really feels like you are owning this object as your own in a way that… I know that many, many women wear tallisim now, and I also just… I guess for myself, I just can’t get away from this idea that the tallis is traditionally for men, and then they made women’s tallisim almost, and that I, like hearing you speak about making your own just has made me, has moved me in a direction of feeling just like, “Oh my gosh, you just got so…” There’s so much power in choosing how this looks for yourself and how, what it physically feels like, and which parts of the tallis speak to you, and don’t, and how affirming that sounds in a world that kind of… Definitely not all tallisim were produced for one type of person, or any other, but I don’t know. A lot of them are, and a lot of places will be like, “These are our girls’ tallisim.”
Like, “You have a son being bar mitzvahed. Check out this one.” Like what you’re talking about, about the trends in what you see. On the other side of it, at ADVAH, where I work, we don’t gender our tallisim, but other people will when they buy from us. They’ll be like, “I’m looking at one for my daughter, so these seem like the options, right?” And we have to be like, “If you think she’d like them, but not because it’s pink.” Or like, “Not because it has any color on it.”
Yeah. It’s just a very… It just sounds very affirming to make your own in light of all of that to me.
Noam Mason: Yeah. I absolutely adore… Wow. I’m realizing just now this probably speaks a lot to my own gendered or whatever outlook on life. It actually never even occurred to me looking through ADVAH’s website that they weren’t categorized by gender. I have always just looked at the websites like, “Oh my gosh, what beautiful tallisim.” And it never even struck me that they weren’t categorized by gender, so wow. Didn’t even think of that. Spectacular. Yeah.
Emma June: Yeah. It’s like a pretty low bar, you know?
Noam Mason: Yes.
Emma June: In my mind. Yeah. There are definitely a lot of other people create it, anyway, when they interact with our stuff.
Noam Mason: Absolutely.
Emma June: Yeah. Well, I’m curious just what… If there are things that I haven’t asked you that feel relevant, if there’s something on your mind through this conversation, or right now that you would like to share?
Noam Mason: Oh gosh. Wow. I don’t think anything in particular jumps out at me. I guess I’ll do the shameless self plug of you could look at my tallisim on my Instagram, which is HomeBody.png, HomeBody.png. I at some point will be creating a more organized and professional looking website, but the time hasn’t happened yet, but I do really adore creating these and creating these for and with people, and it’s always such a gratifying process when the tallis is finished and then I get to tie the tzitzits with whoever it’s going to be for. The last two that I created were for two friends who actually had never tied tzitzits before, so it was really fun to be able to do that with them, and it being like a learning process for them and the first time they’d done that, so it was really fun.
So, yeah, reach out to me on my Instagram if you’re interested in creating something together. Shameless self plug.
Emma June: Absolutely, and there will be show notes, and I would love to… I’ll put the link to your Instagram in the show notes, as well.
Noam Mason: Oh. Fancy, fancy.
Emma June: I know. Everyone should go look. It’s just very beautiful. Very inspiring.
Noam Mason: Thank you.
Emma June: To me, at least. Yeah. No, we love the self promotion here. Everyone should see your tallisim. Yeah. Well, it’s just been such a pleasure and a joy to get to talk to you.
Noam Mason: Absolutely. Yourself as well. Thank you so much for having me and for all your questions and for listening and for your time.
Emma June: Thanks for listening to Fringes, my passion project supported by ADVAH Designs. For more definitions and links, as well as a transcription of this episode, please check out the show notes on our website, ADVAHDesigns.com/FringesEpisode4. That’s A-D-V-A-H-D-E-S-I-G-N-S dot com/F-R-I-N-G-E-S-E-P-I-S-O-D-E-4. The show notes will also include Noam’s Instagram and other links to their work. Please look at it. It’s so gorgeous.
As always, the interviews I do and the stories I get to share through this podcast cannot possibly capture the breadth of experiences in this world. I’m inevitably leaving people out. That said, this project is growing. If your story feels left out and you want to share it, please reach out to me at email@example.com. That’s E-M-M-A at A-D-V-A-H-D-E-S-I-G-N-S.com. This podcast is coming out on a biweekly basis. A huge thanks to my producer, Sarah Resnick, and to Home Despot, non-binary Jewish musician of my heart and creator of our intro. Thank you for listening. See you in two weeks wherever podcasts can be found.
Oh how the tables have turned! In an attempt to make sure you get a taste of who I am and why I'm doing this project, I decided to have my friend Liel interview me. Liel has their own episode forthcoming, but this one is about me, Emma June (EJ). At this point, the interview was done about 6 months ago. It's amazing how much can change in 6 months, even just about how I feel in relation to tallitot. It's obviously more than that: coronavirus and quarantine, brutal and systemic racism, social uprising, impending economic disaster, the continued rise of fascism.... But listening back to what I thought before all this is odd! I feel really connected to some of what I said, but changed from other things. I can't imagine getting to perform for an audience again, can't imagine going to services inside. My relationship to my body has changed these 6 months. My relationship to being Jewish has changed. I am always and forever changing, though! I couldn't be where I am now without the thoughts of the past. And I guess I have to believe that those thoughts still matter, still are part of my story, and might matter to someone else.
Also follow me (in drag, ch'ai treason) and my Jewish drag troupe Turmohel on Instagram
Reach out to me with any questions or comments at firstname.lastname@example.org
Daven(ing): to pray
Fringes Podcast Transcript Episode 3
Transcription by Tim Hipp at www.transcribeyourpod.com
Emma June: Hello. I’m Emma June, and welcome to Fringes, a no frills kind of podcast where I talk to trans and gender non-conforming Jews about our experiences with tallitot and tzitzit. Tallitot are, put simply, Jewish prayer shawls, and tzitzit are the knotted fringe on the end of them. For deeper definitions, check out the first episode. Today, the tables are turning a bit. This is an interview of me, done by my friend, Liel Green, who will be featured in a later episode sharing their own thoughts and experiences. But for now, I hope this little slice of my personal thoughts and questions provides a little insight into who I am and why I’ve undertaken this project.
Without further ado, the interview.
Emma June: Hello!
Liel Green: Hey. So fun to be here with you, EJ. Yeah, so I guess just to intro this, I have the immense, immense kavod, honor, of being here with the creative mind, energy, and heart behind this podcast, Emma June Youcha! Woo! Yeah, I think I was wondering if you could… Do you want to give a little intro for yourself? I don’t know if you’ve had the opportunity to really do that, because you’ve usually been in the other role.
Emma June: Yeah. Well, okay, my name is Emma June Youcha. I sometimes am referred to as Emma, sometimes as Emma June, sometimes as EJ. I like all of those names and that’s just a facet of my life. I use they/them pronouns. I work at ADVAH Designs as well as at a bagel store in the Boston area, where I live. I am a part of a Jewish drag troupe called Turmohel. I live in a Jewish income sharing coop called the Riot Bayit and yeah, I’m just trying to figure my life out, you know?
Liel Green: You’re doing it.
Emma June: And make the world a little bit better and more interesting.
Liel Green: For sure. For sure. Yeah, so I guess the first thing that, to kind of go down what this podcast is about, so I was wondering if you can talk about one, like what… So, I’m sure people who are listening to this very niche podcast have some sort of idea of what it’s about, but I wanted to hear from your words what this podcast is about. Why you’re doing it, how it got started, et cetera.
Emma June: Yeah. Well, I guess… So, I tie the tzitzit, the fringes on all of the tallitot that get made through ADVAH Designs, and that just means I spend a lot of time sitting and tying these fringes, and at a certain point in doing this, I started reflecting on like who’s wearing these, and what does it feel like to wear this object? And how do people connect to it? And noticing in myself a lack of understanding of how I connected to them, even though I spend so much time with them, and even though I spend so much time in Jewish space, I’m trying to understand my… what my Jewish practice and life looks like, that this is a piece that I don’t actually understand that well for myself. Especially I think because I’m genderqueer and because the tallis that I have, I was lucky enough to get a very well made and very beautiful one for my bat mitzvah, but it’s just not an object I feel very connected to. I wear it on High Holy Days and at services, but I basically just had all of these questions and really just wanted to talk to other trans people about how they engaged with this object.
And the more I learned about how tallitot work, the more I felt like there’s opportunity for such creation here. And I also feel like sometimes there’s a trend to take things that are very binary, like the tallis has been presented in my mind as something that’s originally for men, and now there are also women’s tallitot, and that when something is explicitly gendered, I know a lot of people and sometimes myself will just shy away from it and say like, “That’s not for me. I don’t get to wear it. There’s no way that I get to engage with whatever that thing might be.” And that I just really want to… I think I wrote in my email to at least somebody asking them to be on the podcast, I just want to make kind of a gender-full existence. Not a genderless existence. I want more access to more things, and opened doors because of gender expansiveness, and I felt myself like not feeling that way about a tallis, and wanting to hear from people who have felt that way. Or if they haven’t, why they haven’t.
And I did a lot of research going into it, wherein I found very, very few people talking about or engaging with trans people and this particular ritual object. And that, to me, also… It felt like a niche that I actually didn’t see a lot of content or thought in currently. And so, that also is part of why I decided to make something about it instead of just believing that I was sitting alone in the corner, being the only one wondering.
Liel Green: Wow. Yeah. It’s such a gift, what you’re doing. And thank you so much for sharing it. I really connected and I’m very intrigued by what you just mentioned about gender-full versus genderless. And so, I want to try to incorporate that into the next question that I was planning on asking you, which you touched on a little bit, but I’m wondering if you can kind of… I don’t know if this is a challenge or not and you totally don’t have to, but incorporate the lens of gender-full versus genderless in talking about your own personal connections to and experiences with tallitot, past and present. So, in thinking about what your current and past, and you can even dive into the future-
Emma June: The future!
Liel Green: … connection, yeah, and experiences with wearing a tallis. What felt gender-full and what felt genderless, and ways that come… It’s very striking, the idea of gender-full as something that can be so liberatory, freeing. And also, so deeply hurtful when something is full of the gender you don’t want.
Emma June: Right.
Liel Green: And so, oftentimes you kind of think like, “Oh, the way to get away from this, the hurtfulness of gender, of something being full of gender, is by making it genderless.” But that also kind of… It empties in some capacity is what I’m kind of hearing. Empties the expansiveness that is possible. Yeah, so I was wondering if you can talk about all that a little bit pertaining to your own personal experiences?
Emma June: Yeah. Well, I guess, so I grew up in a reform synagogue in D.C., and I don’t always know how to reflect on it. I think that many people did wear tallitot. Certainly not everybody, and I remember my b’nei mitzvah class, like many people got one, although I don’t think everybody. It wasn’t something I was surrounded by. Neither of my parents wear one. But when my bat mitzvah came around, it was very important, I think, also to my grandparents, particularly my grandmother that I had one, which is like a curious thing to look back on now to me. And I know when my brother had his bar mitzvah, he got one also.
But we are maybe the only people in our families on either side with a tallis. And certainly, the only people who wear them at any family events now. And I think that I’m feeling somewhat inarticulate about it, but I don’t know. Mine is like it has this rainbow woven into it.
Liel Green: Nice.
Emma June: And this was also at the period of time in my life where I was a straight ally.
Liel Green: Foreshadowing.
Emma June: Some foreshadowing. I couldn’t have predicted. There was no way to tell that I was queer.
Liel Green: None.
Emma June: Even to myself. And I think when I look at it now, it just feels like, “What was I trying to do, or say, or what was I picking?”
Liel Green: Did you choose it?
Emma June: I did. Out of like a very limited array. I think something I’ve heard from a lot of people I’ve talked to is that they have pushed themselves to wear a tallis or to wear a tallit katan, the undershirt, and that it sometimes, in Judaism, we don’t feel connected every time we do something. And that’s okay, and it’s also about the practice of continuing for the moments where you do feel connected, and that I am really hard on myself that I don’t feel very connected to the tallis that I chose for myself. And I think in terms of the gender-full genderless aspect, I think I also feel like shouldn’t I like this? It has a rainbow on it. And then I’m like, “Ugh, but I’m anti-corporate gay,” and then I kind of get… I just overthink everything.
And I think that I move myself away from the experience of feeling like wrapped and held by a tallis, or trying to know what… I don’t know if I believe in G-d or not, and I think that’s another piece of wearing a tallis, is that it is a reminder of G-d, and G-d’s existence, and… But I’m trying to understand what I’m trying to feel connected to, as well. Like it all poses pretty big questions, I think. It all meaning the tallis. A tallis poses really big questions in my mind, and I think gender is a really easy way for me to run away from a lot of those big questions, because I can just say like, “This is… It’s really gendered. I just don’t feel comfortable.” And I think that’s partially true, but I also believe that… I don’t know. I think I’ve spent a lot of time rejecting a lot of things because they were gendered, and that has just led to me approaching my life in a negative, like, “Oh, I can’t or won’t do that because it is these things.” Instead of saying like, “What do I actually relate to? What do I feel confident in? What do I feel connected to? What does create moments of joy?”
And that I want to find that in Judaism, and I believe that I find that really deeply in clothing, and appearance, and expression in a lot of other facets of my life, and a tallis is such a beautiful piece of Jewish expression. But I want to figure out how to own and make my own, especially because I spend so much time making that possible for other people and seeing that happen for other people in my work life. And believing in it, but just not believing in it for myself.
Liel Green: Yeah. I think it sounds from what you’re saying like the… As opposed to the tallis as a ritual item, as a ritual piece being kind of an answer or a stagnant thing that will automatically, or that has automatically connected you to the divine, it’s instead kind of a vehicle towards this connection, or like can it be a vehicle for this connection is kind of the question, like the tallis as a process versus the end goal, almost. Or the tallis being able to facilitate this process of connection, and of emerging, of becoming. That also seems kind of, from what you were saying, and also from knowing you a little bit, just also related to the ways I’ve heard you kind of talk about gender and queerness is as an emergence, or a becoming, or like as this process… Yeah, which feels kind of essential to gender queer existence, is this fluidity as opposed to a rigidness that kind of knows… It’s a false rigidness. Nothing is ever as rigid as possible, or as rigid as we think it is.
Another thing that I’m interested in hearing more about, so you mentioned that you’re in Turmohel, a Jewish drag troupe based in the Boston Area, big fans. And you were talking about how in other facets of your life, you really are able to kind of connect to this kind of adornment, or fashion, or just like connects through external means. And I was wondering, one, does that come up in your exploration of drag and Jewish gender as art, and also… Yeah, just how does… Do you feel like those two things relate or bridge your interests and your questions around your own personal connection to wearing a tallis and the ways you engage with Jewish gender and queerness through your art?
Emma June: Yeah. That’s a big question. I guess when I think about being on stage and performing something just very Jewish, it feels like my mind is like automatically often making connections between songs, and things I hear, and stories that I’m told, and movies that I watch, and that because enough of my life’s content has been Jewish that I’m constantly making personal references to my Jewish life, and that Turmohel is creating a chance to explore those artistically and publicly, and to explore political ideas, and weird ideas, and random YouTube videos I really love, and kind of make them more of a statement and a chance to understand what it means to perform something that is both Jewish and gender queer to me at the same time in front of somebody else, in fact, in front of like 100 people, and there is something to me that feels like being able to perform is a chance to feel… I feel both really very connected and really very disconnected from my body when I’m performing. And really connected to the audience and really disconnected from the audience.
And I think sometimes performing feels like one of the moments that feels the most like out of the world that I’m used to, and there’s something that feels kind of holy about that. And that feels kind of like a version of prayer or honoring somebody, which sounds funny, because when I think about my numbers I’m like, “I did a number as Gimli the dwarf from Lord of the Rings talking about anti-Semitism and eating a cabbage.” So, it’s not exactly like obvious, or even appropriate, or what we would normally think of when we think of talking to some version of G-d, but I think as I’m figuring out what I do believe in or what I do think is holy, I think performance and the stage holds a real part of that for me. And is such a piece of where I get to be exulting something, even if that thing is like my friend, and myself, and my culture, and my people, and my confusion, and my questions.
And I do think getting to love questions feels like a piece of drag and a piece of wearing a tallis, and just a huge piece of being Jewish in my mind. So, that’s one tie in. And I think I also feel like curious about wearing a tallis on stage and about doing some kind of performance or number that is about this particular ritual object, given how much time I’ve spent thinking about them. But I haven’t done one up to now. I think I would like to, and I think a conversation that I hear a lot from people in my community, and in Turmohel, is that we sometimes wonder what we are allowed to wear, particularly if we are not convinced of our faith in G-d, or Orthodox, or even regularly practicing, that I hear a lot of people doubt whether or not… Like can I wear a kippah to this protest? Or can I wear a kippah when I perform? Or can I have a tallit katan on? And to me, I think this is mine to play with. And I feel really excited about getting to do that and about having a stage and a platform and an audience to do that with, hopefully in a way that also encourages that audience to want to play and explore more, also.
Liel Green: Does it, so my question is does it feel like a performance to wear a tallis? You know, just when you’re davening, when you’re praying? Does it feel like a performance to you? Because I think the way that you spoke about performance was so beautiful in terms of the opportunity it kind of… how it allows you to transcend or to connect to something beyond the present moment, or how it’s actually creating something else as it’s happening. So, I’m curious if it feels like the performance may be a different kind of performance, but a performance nonetheless to wear a tallis. And if so, what do you feel like you are or would be performing through wearing it? Whether on stage, or again, during davening?
Emma June: I mean, I do think it’s a performance. I don’t always feel like I know why I wear it, but I feel like I’m being told to by somebody, even if it’s just myself, and that I make a choice to put it on, and I sit in it, and a pray in it, and I kiss the Torah with it, and I go through all of these motions. It doesn’t feel like natural or obvious to me all of the time, so it definitely feels like a performance. Although sometimes I think performance can feel natural, but anyway, that’s tangential of that.
Yeah. I think… Wait. Sorry, what was the second part of your question?
Liel Green: That’s okay. The second part was what are you performing through wearing the tallis? And I think specifically… Yeah, I was thinking about how performance, whether it’s on the stage or the kind of, sort of quotidian everyday performances, like you’re… They’re connected, so there’s this idea of a citational chain, so your current performances are connected to your past performances, but also they’re creating something. They have the potential to create something completely new. And I’m really interested in that in terms of the idea of drag, and also just the things that we choose to wear on our bodies, or the motions that we choose to do. And especially if something like wearing a tallis isn’t necessarily something you grew up with.
So, I agree with you that performances can and usually are… feel natural, and that’s kind of the thing about them that you don’t really notice about what we are performing, but these kind of alternate performances that come about and are facilitated through queer ritual innovation, or through just ritual objects and items, have the opportunity to kind of interrupt and also recreate. And I was just wondering… I don’t know. I don’t really have a full question, but just what you were talking about with being on a stage and performing in that capacity, and that being really connected to dress, and makeup, and what you wear, versus also wearing a tallis.
Emma June: Yeah. Well, I don’t think I have a very clear answer, because I think that I’m still confused about what I am wearing a tallis for, that I don’t always… I don’t really know exactly what the performance is for, and I think that’s part of why I’ve felt like I have so many questions for other people. Or why I want to hear other people’s stories, or that’s at least part of it.
And what it makes me think of is just how as a queer person, as a drag performer, I have all these memories of seeing people out in the world, both regular people and also drag performers, who I look at and kind of just so deeply admire in passing, or in the more long-term way, the people who just through look the way they do, through the work that they have put into how I get to see them, I feel like something else is possible, or like I’m possible, or like what I want is possible. And I’m trying to think. I feel like there are people who I see in tallitot that have made me feel that way, where like seeing… I don’t know. There just is like a few people that stick in my mind where I can just imagine them wrapped in their huge tallit gadol, and I think, “Oh my goodness. Can I imagine feeling that way in that object?” I can see how raw, and open, and also closed and held this person is in front of me, and I want to feel that way. Or seeing somebody who is like gender queer and wearing tzitzit, and just like walking somewhere. And just feeling so moved, and knowing I guess that like… Wearing a tallis is an unapologetic act of wearing your Jewishness. And yeah, you like want… I want that for myself, and I feel really moved seeing other people really embrace it. And moved by other people who’ve… Yeah, made their tallitot, or who come and just always wear one, and always… I don’t know. It’s just how I see that person.
Yeah. I think that they’re moving objects.
Liel Green: Wow. That gave me goosebumps. Yeah, I think for the profound gender-full pleasure, and the love, and joy that comes from the… It seems very, like there’s an intensely communal aspect. I mean, and I feel like in that sense, it’s kind of a performance where there’s like… It’s an internal sort of thing, and that it’s also like you’re watching other people doing this thing that you so, so want. And I’m sure that they’re struggling with it, too. You know, it always looks kind of seamless from the outside. But this idea of feeling possible.
You were talking about how you kind of… You facilitate to the experience of… So, you facilitating this experience for other people, so you physically tying tzitzits for other people, and you creating, and recording, and conducting these interviews for this podcast. How queer ritual items kind of make it possible, make us possible, make you possible, and I’m wondering if that, like through these interviews and through the actual tying the tzitzits and through your own experiences, how have you felt possible? Or like what feels… I think you kind of touched upon how you feel possible, but like what feels possible? Through queer ritual items, and innovation, and engagement with tradition.
Emma June: Yeah. Great question. I think my biggest… I feel like I want to make my own tallis.
Liel Green: Yes!
Emma June: Which I really hadn’t considered before. Even though I feel like I should have. And I also think… Yeah, just it feels more possible to talk about ritual and think about ritual in my own life because of this podcast, and to know that I don’t have to have answers to try things is something that really has come out of talking to people for me. And that… Yeah, also that no one other person does have an answer for me, but only their own questions, and maybe their own answers, but that I’m I think gonna try to make my own tallis.
Liel Green: Yes! Oh, so that actually leads me to one of… Yeah, that actually leads me to one of my final questions, which is what is your ideal tallis?
Emma June: Great question. I think… Oh, I wish I could weave.
Liel Green: I bet you can.
Emma June: Maybe I’ll learn just for this. It would be very colorful. I think probably like base yellow, but maybe also every other color. And I don’t know, I also… Well, I’ve just seen so many beautiful ones now, but I think it would probably just have a lot going on on it. Anyone who knows me knows that I tend to be surrounded by a lot of patterns and colors, and… Yeah. Gravitate towards that all the time. Yeah, I think I would want one that makes that… It actually makes me think about my room, which is yeah, just very, very bright, and covered in things, and something that I’ve thought a lot about a room, and my room in particular for myself, is that I cover it with all these things that remind me of all of these different people, all these different places, all these different experiences, colors that make me feel at home, and that makes me feel like I am in my home and I am surrounded by… like it brings me closer to everything I’m surrounded by, and it makes it okay for me to be alone in my room, and it makes it an exciting place to share with other people. And yeah, I guess my ideal tallis would make me feel those things, that I am at home in my body when I’m wrapped in it, and that I am also with G-d, or with my questions, or with my questions about G-d, or with my community, and my people, and my loved ones, and so I guess I’m trying to create a room out of a tallis-
Liel Green: Yes!
Emma June: … is my ideal tallis!
Liel Green: I feel like that’s the point of it, like it’s for you to feel at home, and I think as queer and trans people, it’s really hard to feel at home in our bodies. And again, that’s a generalization, but I think… I’ll speak for me.
Emma June: I feel that way.
Liel Green: Yeah. Yes. For us, for the two of us, and I’m sure many others, it’s so hard to feel at home in our bodies, and it’s such a profound gift that Judaism offers us to have kind of like accessories, and help, and feeling at home in our bodies, especially during such an intimate thing and such an embodied action and experience as prayer. So, I love that you said that. Yeah. Emma June, you are a dear, dear friend, who I feel in complete divine collaboration and coalition with. And I’m so, so grateful to have had the opportunity to interview you.
Emma June: Dude, thank you. This is awesome. It’s fun to be on the other side.
Liel Green: Yes. Yes.
Emma June: And I really appreciate it. All right. I’m gonna press stop recording.
Liel Green: Yes.
Emma June: Thanks for listening to Fringes, my passion project supported by ADVAH Designs. For more definitions, as well as a transcription of today’s episode, check out the show notes on our website, ADVAHDesigns.com/FringesEpisode3. That’s A-D-V-A-H-D-E-S-I-G-N-S dot com/F-R-I-N-G-E-S-E-P-I-S-O-D-E-3. As always, the interviews I do and the stories I get to share through this podcast cannot possibly capture the breadth of experiences in this world. I’m inevitably leaving people out. That said, this project is growing. If your story feels left out and you want to share it, please reach out to me at email@example.com. That’s E-M-M-A at A-D-V-A-H-D-E-S-I-G-N-S.com. This podcast is coming out on a biweekly basis. A huge, huge thank you to Liel Green for interviewing me and asking such thoughtful questions. Please stay tuned for their episode upcoming. Thanks also to Sarah Resnick, my producer, and musical wonder Home Despot, for the music. And thank you for listening. See you in two weeks wherever podcasts can be found.
Pidge is such a gem! Getting to hear what their experience has been growing up trans in a reform synagogue right now, how they chose their tallit, and what wearing it feels like for them was a delight.
They passed along these photos of their tallis (one with their cat!):
With any questions or comments, reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Bar/Bat/B'nei Mitzvah: a ceremony held in the synagogue, usually on Shabbat, to admit as an adult member of the Jewish community a Jewish boy/girl/person or people of 13 years who has successfully completed a prescribed course of study in Judaism. B'nei Mitzvah is plural, often meaning multiple people are participating in this ceremony, but has been used more recently as a more gender neutral word to describe this event for trans and non-binary people doing it.
Goyim: or "goy" in the singular, is the Yiddish word for a non-Jew/gentile.
Fringes Podcast Transcript Episode 2
Transcript by Tim Hipp at www.transcribeyourpod.com
Emma June: Hello. I’m Emma June, and welcome to Fringes, a no frills kind of podcast where I talk to trans and gender non-conforming Jews about our experiences with tallitot and tzitzit. Tallitot are essentially Jewish prayer shawls, and tzitzit are the knotted fringe on the end of them. For deeper definitions, check out the first episode. In today’s episode, I had the pleasure of interviewing someone who, for the purposes of this podcast, is known as Pidge. They will introduce themself.
Pidge: Sure. My name is Pidge. I’m a sophomore in high school. I’m a Reform Jew and my pronouns are they/them and he/him. That’s kind of it.
Emma June: Awesome. Well, I guess I start with everyone I’ve interviewed so far, I’ve asked just like the first things they remember about a tallis, because I’m just curious to know where we first remember them. So, what are you first memories with them?
Pidge: I think first memories would be probably when I used to go to… There’s an Orthodox or conservative shul that we go to up in New York with some non-nuclear relatives, and I can vaguely remember being there and having my dad’s tallis draped around me, and braiding the tallis strings together, the tzitzit. So, that’s kind of the first I remember of it in general. When I started realizing the sort of… When I learned the kind of religious connotations of it was probably when I was about 12, before my b’nei mitzvah.
Emma June: Yeah. Did somebody sit with you and teach you about it?
Pidge: Yeah. We have a fantastic cantor who helps train kids for b’nei mitzvot, and I was… I mean, there’s obviously the blessing that you say over it at the b’nei mitzvah, and that was… There was kind of an explanation of it there. There was also one given to me by the tallis shop owner.
Emma June: Wow. Where did… So, you got one for your b’nei mitzvah?
Pidge: I did. There’s a shop in… G-d, I think it’s Brookline. A traditional Jewish shop that I went in and I looked at, they had racks and racks of tallitot, and I picked one out from there.
Emma June: Wow. How did you decide which one you wanted?
Pidge: I wanted a less traditional color scheme, so I started off by looking at ones that weren’t white and blue, and then I filtered out the ones that weren’t all black, and I ended up finding one with a really pretty dove motif on it. It’s yellow. It has gold and white and orange stripes, and it has these cute little golden, glittery doves along the borders, and I thought that went really well, because my real name vaguely translates to Dove in a language I’m not going to say, because that’ll definitely give my real name away and out me to everybody. But I thought it was fitting.
Emma June: Yeah. That’s very beautiful sounding. How do you… Do you wear it if you go to services now? Or do you wear it in any other circumstances now?
Pidge: I mostly wear it at services where I know there’s going to be a Torah involved, like Rosh Hashanah celebrations, and Yom Kippur, other b’nei mitzvot, stuff like that. But I do wear it from time to time in everyday services, like Friday night services, stuff like that.
Emma June: Yeah. Did you have an understanding for yourself when you were being b’nei mitzvah-ed, that you were non-binary, or trans, or whatever word you use for yourself? I’m sorry, I didn’t ask before I asked the question.
Pidge: No, that’s fine. I use non-binary as a more specific term, but I do consider non-binary a part of the trans community, so I can use either interchangeably, really.
Emma June: Sure.
Pidge: I did have an understanding of that, yes. I wasn’t really out and I was still trying to figure everything out. I wasn’t sure if I was gender fluid or if I was just questioning, or what was going on, but I knew that I wasn’t completely the gender I was born in at that point.
Emma June: Yeah. Did that feel like it affected… Did knowing that feel like it affected what you looked for when you were trying to find a tallis?
Pidge: A little bit. I didn’t want anything… I mean, obviously I didn’t want anything that’s like overly specific gender connotations, like there was one I looked at that was vivid pink and the text along it read something along the lines of, “Our beautiful child.” And I was like, “Hmm, maybe not for me.” But apart from that, I don’t really think it affected too much of it. I just… Yeah.
Emma June: Yeah. How does it feel when you wear it now?
Pidge: It feels comfortable and it feels kind of safe, like I can just… Like, you know when you pull a really soft blanket around your shoulders and you can just kind of hug yourself with it? I’m aware it’s not a great analogy, and that I’m struggling for words, but it’s kind of a safety object at this point, I guess.
Emma June: Yeah. This is a big question, but I guess what does it make you feel safe from?
Pidge: Just the world in general. I use it as almost a barrier, like how you’re supposed to associate certain things with certain situations. I kind of associate my tallis with, “Okay. We’re out of everything now. We’re in a quiet temple at this point. Everybody’s going to be quiet and respectful, and I’m not going to have to deal with the stress of daily life.” You know? So, it’s kind of like… It represents a barrier for me from the stress of the real world, I guess.
Emma June: Yeah. And it brings you kind of into a different real world, I guess.
Pidge: Yeah. Yeah, you’re right. Real world might have not been the best word, like the non-secular world??? The non-goyim world.
Emma June: Sure. I mean, it is a separation, and it’s interesting to me that Judaism uses a piece of clothing. I guess I’m fascinated by how people use clothing in general, and yeah, that we’ve got this shawl blanket covering thing to remind us of things that are holy is really… It’s just very fascinating to me.
Pidge: No, you’re absolutely right. I mean, we tend to… Okay, I was going to go into a thing about how society uses different objects to demarcate different places, but that’s completely irrelevant here. But it’s kind of nice, almost, that instead of using something that’s really difficult to get, it’s just… Well, I say just. It’s an item of clothing that we use to represent ourselves that can be so easily customized.
Emma June: Yeah. It definitely can. I guess that kind of leads me toward I think there’s a lot of creativity that’s possible with a tallis as an object, like the rules, the Halakha around it is really like, “Well, it’s supposed to have four corners and you’re supposed to tie these fringes onto it,” and other than that there’s not that much that you need to fulfill the mitzvah. And we have these very gorgeous, fancy tallitot, or really traditional ones, or really… All these different ways. But you know, somebody could sit at home and make their own super easily, and they would be just as valid halakhically.
Pidge: Yeah, exactly.
Emma June: Yeah. Do you ever think about making your own or what you would make for your ideal tallis?
Pidge: I’ve considered it before. I considered it when I was looking at the process, but it was… Well, A, it wasn’t an option that my parents gave me, which is honestly fair, because I at no time have ever had the free time to do something like that. But also, I don’t… At this point, I’ve found that I’ve grown pretty attached to my current one and I don’t know that I want another one. That being said, an ideal tallis would… I don’t know what material my current one is made out of, but it would be made out of something that’s not so… My current one is very slick to the touch, which is not the ideal texture for me, which is a stupid thing to want to change, but it’s… I think that’s the only thing I’d change about it is making it slightly nicer to the touch.
Emma June: Yeah. That makes sense to me. Yeah. Have you ever, in your Jewish community, are there people whose tallitot you admire or who have taught you things about how to wear one, or to feel safe in one?
Pidge: Oh yeah. My dad introduced my to the concept of a more triangle-shaped tallis, which I really enjoyed but didn’t end up being able to find one, which is a little disappointing, but ultimately okay. I also have a friend who made a gorgeous rainbow-themed one that… Well, I say rainbow themed like it’s like they’re draping a massive pride flag over their shoulders, which is not true, but it’s got these really pretty intricate rainbow designs they hand weaved into it, which I admire very much the dedication an the talent that that requires.
Honestly, my class, my grade of Hebrew school students seems to have… We seem to have kind of learned that we can have… Oh, did I just cut out? Okay. Good, great. Because my computer turned off. We seem to have learned that we can kind of have what we want if we make it ourselves, so a bunch of us did end up customizing ours. And I didn’t, but I like mine anyways, so…
Emma June: Yeah. That’s awesome. I think I’m so curious about… Well, I guess I know that I got a tallis that I don’t relate to at all now, because when I got it, I didn’t really understand very much about my gender or what I would maybe have wanted in the future. So, future EJ was not super happy with 13-year-old EJ’s choices. And I’ve wondered, I guess, like would I make… what kind of decision I would have made if I had maybe known more about myself at that period of time.
I think part of my pursuit with this podcast is trying to understand how it is that people, especially trans people, feel connected to their Jewish ritual objects and connected to their tallis, and like what makes them feel those things.
Pidge: Yeah, and for me it was largely that… Well, I knew what my favorite colors were, and I knew what I was trying to spread, which was I wanted people to see me and think I looked happy, and looked approachable, which is… I mean, my fashion sense right now is a lot of black clothing, which means a lot of people think I don’t look approachable at all. But the fact that I’m not remotely photogenic doesn’t help with that, obviously, but I feel like I kind of saw the yellow tallis, and it’s a very bright, very saturated but pale yellow, and a very sunny color, and I felt like I could kind of use it to broadcast a message to others, as well as myself, because I can look at it and it makes me feel happy, you know?
Emma June: Yeah. Yellow is such a good color.
Pidge: It is.
Emma June: Yeah. I’ve almost never seen anyone in a yellow tallis. That’s very bold and special. Yeah. Do you feel like there are any questions that I’m not asking? Like there’s anything you know about yourself that I don’t know about you?
Pidge: Well, I mean I did almost make the very brash thing, the very brash decision of coming out during my b’nei mitzvah.
Emma June: What?
Pidge: Yeah. I was actually going to. There’s a part of our service that we do in our synagogue where we have this whole speech planned as to how we have interpreted our Torah portion. And I had a whole thing planned out that I would end it with a very dramatic coming out statement, which I now realize was a very bad idea at the time, as it would have made the day about my sexuality and my gender instead of about my accomplishments as a Jewish person. And my cantor and my rabbi ended up talking me out of it, which was probably the right decision on their parts, and it was a very impulsive decision on mine, but that was… It was an interesting decision on 13-year-old me’s part.
Emma June: Sure. What a public venue.
Emma June: Dang. I get the impression from you that your Jewish community is very… that you share a lot with them and that they’re pretty supportive. Am I hearing you correctly?
Pidge: Yeah. Well, my cantor is lesbian, or possibly bisexual. I’m not 100% sure, but she has a wife. And our rabbi is a woman who has… which is always very… You can kind of tell the environment that a synagogue is in by their staff, by their clergy. If they’ve got several old men who are crotchety and talk exclusively about Torah, and about Talmud. I mean, obviously it’s fine. It’s kind of what a temple should… It fits the purpose of a temple well. But it’s always nice when you know that you can come to your rabbi and your cantor, and to your clergy and teachers for help and for counsel. But yeah, they’ve always been some of the most open-minded people I’ve ever known. And some of the kindest, too.
Emma June: That’s really, really lucky and amazing.
Emma June: I think that’s… I mean, in my head, that’s really what a rabbi should be there for, and what a cantor and clergy should be there for.
Pidge: Exactly. It’s been really nice having a place to go. Our Hebrew school traditionally meets on Wednesday. I wasn’t able to go today because of an audition, but it was… It’s always really, really nice to have that little island of peace in the middle of my week, you know?
Emma June: Yeah. That’s very… I feel like I’m… Well, what were you gonna say?
Pidge: That many of the other classmates that I have are transgender and they’ve managed to make a way for b’nei mitzvot to be b’nei mitzvot and not exclusively bar/bot mitzvahs.
Emma June: In your synagogue writ large?
Emma June: That’s amazing!
Pidge: It’s fantastic and I’m very lucky. I feel very blessed to have an accepting synagogue.
Emma June: Yeah. Wow. How did your synagogue come to that?
Pidge: I’m not entirely sure, to be honest. I mean, I joined when I was nine, and before that, we still had our fantastic lesbian cantor. We had a different rabbi, who was also fantastic. He was very good with kids, which I feel very thankful that I had that kind of influence on my life. But I don’t know too much about the history of our synagogue. I know we got it off of a family, and that it used to be a proper house.
Emma June: Wow. Wow. Yeah. It’s really exciting to hear that. It makes me want to talk to… I grew up in the reform movement, as well, and it makes me want to talk to my old rabbi and see what they’re doing or if they’re talking about, if they’ve had b’nei mitzvot called that, or what they’re experiencing now. Because it definitely… I’m only 24, but it wasn’t that way when I was there, for sure.
Yeah. That’s amazing.
Pidge: Yeah. Honestly, I feel really thankful and really blessed to have a synagogue that’s that accepting and that makes tallit and b’nei mitzvot and all that kind of just another thing that trans teens can experience without feeling so left out.
Emma June: Yeah. And so, am I hearing from you also like just not really experiencing a feeling of feeling left out?
Pidge: I mean, not at synagogue, no. It’s always school putting… They were like, “Oh yes, we’re being inclusive and putting gender neutral bathrooms. We’re putting them as far away from the classes as we can physically put them.” So, I mean it’s nice to be accepted at synagogue, even if I can’t… even if I still have to deal with the whole whoopsies, school isn’t going to be super inclusive of you, or even that inclusive at all, you know?
Emma June: Yeah. Definitely. Definitely. It makes me feel pretty proud of your synagogue for making a space that feels that way to you.
Emma June: Yeah. That’s amazing. Yeah. I guess I feel like we’ve answered a lot of questions. One thing we haven’t talked about I’m curious if you’ve engaged with at all is like have you heard of a tallit katan?
Pidge: I don’t think so. No.
Emma June: If you’ve ever seen Orthodox men, they’re the vests that go under, like the undershirts that have tzitzit tied on the ends.
Pidge: Oh yeah. Yeah, I’ve seen those.
Emma June: Yeah. I know of many trans people who choose to wear those, like not because they’re Orthodox, or maybe they are, but also just as kind of a tool of gender expression. And like being able to wear tzitzit in a style that’s a little bit… that feels more gender affirming to some people, or to be able to wear tzitzit every day. And I guess I was just curious if that was on your radar, if you’d ever thought of that before, if you’ve done it before?
Pidge: I hadn’t heard of it, actually, before just now. I don’t think I’d ever consider it. I think it’s a fantastic idea for those who find themselves on that side of the spectrum. I think I’m content to leave the tallis and the tzitzit as something that I reserve for special occasions and for temple and stuff like that, and I’m content to not go around with that under my clothes, because I don’t know that I feel safe in my school environment to do that. Not because I’d get bullied or harassed or anything, but because I’d end up… Which I know I’m very lucky that I wouldn’t have to deal with any of that, but I feel like I’d be fielding a lot of questions, and a lot of people going, “Well, why are you doing it, anyway?” And a lot of criticism, I guess. And I know I’m lucky I wouldn’t have to deal with anything physical, I hope, but I don’t know. I don’t think I’d ever consider it, but I absolutely find that a valid form of self-expression. I think that’s fantastic that people are doing that.
Emma June: Yeah. Absolutely. I was just curious, because it’s another… just like a different avenue of approaching the tzitzit. Yeah. Do you have any lingering thoughts, or feelings, or insights?
Pidge: Not really. As a species, we don’t… I don’t know. As a species, we don’t spin around in circles enough. That’s my lingering thought.
Emma June: Like physically spin around in circles?
Emma June: I give you that. I don’t think we do it enough.
Pidge: All right. That’s my lingering thought/insight.
Emma June: Thanks for listening to fringes, my passion project supported by ADVAH Designs. For more definitions, as well as a transcription of this episode, please check out the show notes on our website, ADVAHDesigns.com/FringesEpisode2. That’s A-D-V-A-H-D-E-S-I-G-N-S.com/F-R-I-N-G-E-S-E-P-I-S-O-D-E-2. As always, the interviews I do and the stories I get to share through this podcast cannot possibly capture the breadth of experiences in the world. I’m inevitably leaving people out. That said, this project is growing. If your story feels left out and you want to share it, please reach out to me at email@example.com. E-M-M-A at A-D-V-A-H-D-E-S-I-G-N-S.com. This podcast is coming out on a biweekly basis. A big think you to my producer, Sarah Resnick, and to Home Despot, genius of the guitar and voice who made the music. Thank you for listening. See you in two weeks wherever podcasts can be found.
In the first ever episode of Fringes, I had the immense pleasure of interviewing Joy Ladin. I can't say enough amazing things about getting to talk to her.
Joy Ladin, Gottesman Chair in English at Yeshiva University, has published nine books of poetry and two books of creative non-fiction, Through the Door of Life: A Jewish Journey Between Genders, and The Soul of the Stranger: Reading G-d and Torah from a Transgender Perspective. She serves on the Board of Keshet, an organization devoted to full inclusion of LGTBQ Jews in the Jewish world; links to her poems and essays are available at wordpress.joyladin.com.
She did a talk recently, available here: “Shekhinah Speaks: Gender and Divinity.” Hadassah Brandeis Institute. Via Zoom. July 23, 2020.https://ensemble.brandeis.edu/
She's also been doing a weekly JewishLive conversation program called "Containing Multitudes" Tuesdays at 2pm. Recordings of those conversations are here: JewishLive.org/multitudes.
Some definitions and links from our conversation:
Sephardi: A Jewish diaspora population originating from traditionally established communities in the Iberian Peninsula; most were expelled from the region in the late 15th century. They have a distinctive diasporic identity that they carried with them to North Africa, South-eastern and Southern Europe, Anatolia, and the Levant, as well as the Americas, and all other places of their exiled settlement.
Ashkenazi: A Jewish diaspora population of historically Yiddish-speaking people who settled in central and eastern Europe.
Tefillin: Tefillin or phylacteries, is a set of small black leather boxes containing scrolls of parchment inscribed with verses from the Torah. Tefillin is worn by observant adult Jews during weekday morning prayers. In Orthodox communities, it is only worn by men, while in non-Orthodox communities, it may be worn by anyone.
Parashat Sh'lach on MyJewishLearning, the site we were looking at.
Halakhah: Halakha is the collective body of Jewish religious laws derived from the written and Oral Torah. Halakha is based on biblical commandments, subsequent Talmudic and rabbinic law, and the customs and traditions compiled in the many books such as the Shulchan Aruch.
Sukkot: A Jewish harvest festival beginning on the 15th of Tishrei and commemorating the temporary shelters used by the Jews during their wandering in the wilderness
Sukkah: A sukkah or succah is a temporary hut constructed for use during the week-long Jewish festival of Sukkot. It is topped with branches and often well decorated with autumnal, harvest or Judaic themes.
Hallel: Hallel is a Jewish prayer, a verbatim recitation from Psalms 113–118 which is recited by observant Jews on Jewish holidays as an act of praise and thanksgiving.
With any questions or comments, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Fringes Podcast Transcript
Transcript by Tim Hipp at www.transcribeyourpod.com
Emma June: Hello, and welcome to Fringes, a no frills kind of podcast where I talk to trans and gender non-conforming Jews about our experiences with tallitot and tzitzit. My name is Emma June, though you may hear me referred to as Emma or EJ, as well. I’m a white trans Jew with a mixed Sephardi and Ashkenazi background. I’m a creator, lover of colorful things, and relevantly, the person who ties tzitzit and does shipping at ADVAH Designs, the small tallit business that is sponsoring and supporting this podcast. After spending so much time with tallitot at work and so little time wearing one, especially because I felt so alienated from the tallis I have and from so many that I’ve seen, I started to wonder how other trans Jews related to this ritual object. I found very little content online on the subject and decided to start asking around. Thus, a podcast was born.
Before we get to the first interview, let’s get some definitions down. First, tallitot. What are tallitot? Tallitot, or tallit in the singular, are prayer shawls worn by Jews that have knotted fringe on each of their four corners. This fringe, known as tzitzit, is tied with a prayer, and is what make tallitot ritually significant, what make them holy. A few other things to know: most traditionally, and for most of history, tallitot were only worn by cis men and boys. This has changed a lot, especially in the last 50 years. While in some Jewish communities, men are still the only ones to wear tallitot, they are now commonly worn by people of all genders.
There are a few kinds of tallitot. There’s the prayer shawl you most commonly see, which hangs over both shoulders. A tallit gadol is a larger tallit that is often worn over the head and down the back. A tallit katan is a small vest worn daily as an undershirt that has tzitzit on its corners. Tallitot can be made of most anything, so long as they have four corners and tzitzit tied correctly. I’m using tallit and tallitot, the Sephardic and Hebrew pronunciation of these words, but you will hear them being called by their Ashkenazi pronunciations, tallis and tallisim, by many of the people that I interview. And with that, I bring you to my first interview. I was so nervous, and she was so gracious and so brilliant. Let’s hear Joy Ladin introduce herself.
Joy Ladin: I’m officially the Gottesman professor of English at Stern College for Women of Yeshiva University, which is an Orthodox Jewish institution, and even though I’m not Orthodox, I am the first, and as far as I know still the only openly transgender employee of any Orthodox Jewish institution. And I’ve done a lot of speaking and writing about trans identities and Jewish identities, and about how they intersect, and published a couple of books where they talk about those things, most recently The Soul of the Stranger: Reading G-d and Torah from a Transgender Perspective.
Emma June: Yeah. I actually have that book in front of me right now. It’s very engaging, so thank you for writing it.
Joy Ladin: Thank you.
Emma June: Well, on this show, I’m really interested to be talking about tallitot and tzitzit. I’m trying to talk specifically about this and these ritual objects because… Well, I work tying tzitzit as one of my jobs, and-
Joy Ladin: Wow.
Emma June: I am trans and I think when I’m sitting there tying, I end up having a lot of thoughts about what’s going on, and who’s wearing them, and how I should be wearing them, or could be wearing them, and what they’ve brought up for me and what they might bring up for other people. So, I guess to start off, I’m curious what your first memories with tallitot and tzitzit are, if those are the same memory, if those are different, just kind of where that brings you back to.
Joy Ladin: Those are different memories for me. I didn’t grow up in a religious household at all. We were ethnically Jewish and part of that for my mother was she wanted us to be a part of the synagogue so that my sister and I would grow with, as my mother puts it, a sense of who we are. And she didn’t grow up with a religious background. Her mother’s family… very religious, but her mother was the non-religious child in a religious family. But they… My mother grew up in the Jewish ghetto in Montreal, and so she felt that that was enough to give her a strong sense of Jewish identity without a sense of Judaism as a religious practice, but she felt that we needed bar and bat mitzvah, and Hebrew school, that kind of stuff.
So, I was attracted to Judaism not because it was important in my home, because it really wasn’t, but because when we went to synagogue, it was the only thing that I’d encountered that was as strange as I was. Judaism is really strange. It’s very old and didn’t fit at all in our really kind of assimilationist middle class white Jewish lives. But it was different in all of these ways that weren’t… were supposed to be socially acceptable, like not even commented upon. So, I had this sense of gender difference that I felt was really problematic. I had to hide it. It wasn’t okay. But this weird Jewish stuff, Judaism stuff, was okay. And so, that was really attractive to me, so my mother, probably because she didn’t care very much about the practice of Judaism, was more about transmitting a sense of Jewish identity to her children, had picked a very strange shul.
It was the remnants of an Orthodox shul that had burned down, and most of the Orthodox members of that congregation had formed a new shul that was Orthodox, but there was a small group of Ashkenazic Eastern European refugees who were elderly and didn’t speak English very well, and they instead joined with the young families like mine, who I guess you would call them reform, but it wasn’t a formal identification. It was just not Orthodox, not too invested in anything except children in Hebrew school and bar and bat mitzvahs. And so, when I… I was really into going to services because I was attracted to the strangeness and because I was also looking for some kind of formulation, my relation… to G-d. But when I got there, there were these old men who were delighted to have anybody who was younger than 70 years old, and they wanted to share their Judaism with me.
And they would explain things to me in great detail, but of course I couldn’t understand anything they were saying. So, nothing that they said to me interfered with the strange idiosyncratic ideas about Judaism I was making up on my own. One of the things that they did was when I was still quite young, they started putting a tallit on me, and I didn’t realize this was something that I was supposed to be doing myself at first. But I remember them wrapping it around me, pointing to… for the prayer, the blessing that you’re supposed to say. And I remember having performance anxiety about it. It was a familiar feeling to me because I always had performance anxiety about acting male. I felt like I was always in danger of not doing it right. But I was also worried that I might do it too well, that if I performed maleness too well, it would undermine my sense of female identity.
So, I don’t think that I knew that putting on a tallit was a gendered act at first, because they couldn’t explain to me why I was doing it. So, I worried about whether I was doing it right, but I also remember really enjoying the physical feeling of it as a garment, and part of my kind of tormented relationship to gender was that I didn’t feel that it was okay to enjoy garments. That was something that to me was like a feminine thing, so it was too dangerous for me to do anything that might express my female gender identity. But that was okay here, and so these tallisim were old, and worn out, and they were just the standard American Jewish synagogue issue. They’d probably been… This was the 1960s. They’d probably been in use since the 1950s. But I liked the way that they felt in the sense of being surrounded, and it was always something that felt related to the forbiddenness of expressing my gender identity. This was a garment that was expressing something about my identity in a way that I usually felt like I couldn’t do.
Later, they would give me tefillin, but they never gave me the tallit katan, tzitzit. That I came to much later and in a very different way.
Emma June: When did the tallit katan enter the picture for you?
Joy Ladin: That was not until… That must have been my 30s. At that point I had… I was married. I’d been married for a long time. Since I got out of college. And had children, and I was a struggling academic. I had a PhD, but not a regular job at first, and I was… Partly because I was getting older, I think, but partly because of having children, I was struggling more and more with not… It was becoming more and more difficult to not express my gender identity, and I would have these gender breakdowns is the way that I thought of them to myself. It felt like an alcoholic binge. I would just be consumed by this desire for transformation, and that’s all I could think about, and it was very painful, and afterward I felt very ashamed and like I’d lost control. Because I carried on my childhood relationship with G-d, this feeling of a personal relationship, after these things, I would feel this sense of what G-d wanted me to do to… I thought of it as penance. I came to think of it in somewhat different ways.
But I remember I was on my way to my very first post-PhD job. I was gonna be teaching at Princeton as an adjunct for the first time, and I had had this gender breakdown, and I realized suddenly that what I was supposed to do, what G-d wanted me to do was start wearing a kippah all the time, and I’d never done anything to identify myself visibly as Jewish outside of the synagogue. I was… I had a Jewish identity. I had a religious identity. But I didn’t wear like a Magen David or anything that would identify me that way, and I always thought, “This is insane.” And I felt very uncomfortable, but I had a kippah and a tallit, because I did use it in daily prayers, and so I put it on.
So, I showed up for my first day of teaching bizarrely dressed. I was wearing a kippah, which I had gone to Princeton for my PhD, but I’d never worn a kippah there before, and wearing shorts, which is not what you’re supposed to do when you teach at Princeton. It’s a very conservative school. And probably really crappy shorts and shirt. I was just… I felt like a fish out of water in every possible way, and deeply ashamed, and on a later gender breakdown, I realized that I needed to start wearing a tallit katan, and I had to order one from the internet and I thought that was very… because I had never known anybody who wore such a thing.
Later, when I was starting to transition, I realized these things that I had thought of as penance were actually the first time that I had chosen to wear clothing that marked me as visibly other, and that expressed an identity that I normally had kept hidden. And I realized that in a way, that was practice for being trans, and that reflects the way that I felt about Jewish and trans identity my whole life, which is that being Jewish was a way of being different that I could express in some ways, and being trans was a way of being different that I couldn’t. And so, being Jewish sort of taught me about being a minority in ways that really were very useful… I started living as openly trans. Sorry, that was about more than the tallit katan.
Emma June: No, but it’s very beautiful to hear. I think the… It brings up for me kind of a question of passing, of where you get to be when you… How do I want to say this? That you can control how you appear to people and sometimes one is safer and hurts more.
Joy Ladin: Yes.
Emma June: And I think… Yeah, I’ve never I guess heard it framed the way you just said, of Judaism being the one that was at least more publicly acceptable. And that’s powerful to me. Do you still wear a tallis?
Joy Ladin: Well, rarely. For a few reasons. So, when I started realizing that I couldn’t live as a man anymore was a long and very difficult process, because so many people’s lives were built around my male identity and there are a lot of issues that are not related to tallisim here, but I had gotten a job at Yeshiva University and I was a very weird artifact to them. Not because I was trans. That’s a way I would become strange later. But because I was a non-Orthodox who was nonetheless religious, and that’s something that was like being a platypus or something. It was a bunching, mixing categories that weren’t supposed to go together in their world. And I was wearing a tzitzit and kippah and I was not Orthodox, so… Which they could see, because I was Ashkenazic, but I was wearing a Bukharan kippah that I was wearing because it stayed on my hair better.
Emma June: They do that.
Joy Ladin: Yes, and I didn’t feel it was okay to wear bobby pins, because part of my neurosis about hiding my trans identity, bobby pins in hair was part of the forbidden things that women do that I couldn’t allow myself to do. So, they hired me with this strange, really queer form of Jewish identity that had nothing to do with gender or sexuality, and as I was… I entered into therapy with a therapist to work on the gender stuff, and in one of our sessions she startled me by saying, “Is it comfortable for you to wear those things? Because aren’t those expressions of male Jewish identity?” And I realized yeah, of course. I was wearing them because I felt like I didn’t have a choice but to live in ways that expressed a male identity, and I took them off, and I immediately felt better. Not because I thought there was anything wrong with them in themselves, but because for me, they were part and parcel of maleness that I was feeling entombed in.
So, I stopped, gradually stopped wearing them, and that was part of my transition. And when I… Of course, I wasn’t ever Orthodox, so I never belonged to any shul in which it wasn’t egalitarian in terms of gender. In all of the shuls that I belonged to, it was normal for women to wear tallisim and kippah. And it was normal for anybody to wear tzitzit, but in services, that was normal. But to me, it didn’t feel comfortable. So, it’s something that I do, like I did it for the High Holiday. I wore a tallit. But, and I have a beautiful one that was given to me as part of a transition ritual. But it has never been something that I’ve been able to make my own as part of my real identity.
Emma June: Yeah. I think that’s something I’m very curious about, is how to grapple with these ritual objects that Judaism has brought us that kind of approach gender, or have been taught to us in such a binary way, and that because we don’t fit into that, it’s either something I think as trans Jews we have to reject or make something new out of. Or you know, find some in between way to engage with it. And-
Joy Ladin: Yes.
Emma June: I’m curious if that… I feel like you started to talk about it, but I’m curious if you have any more thoughts on that with your own practice?
Joy Ladin: Well, the tallit that I had used for most of my life was one that I was given at my bar mitzvah, and so it was really, and I used it all the time, because I prayed every day, and on my own. Usually not in services, but sometimes in services and when I had children, I would hold whoever of the kids was a baby while I was praying in the tallit, so it had little yellow poop stains on it, and it was very dear to me. And because it was bound up so much with my… It wasn’t just… My life as a man was bound up with my life as a parent and raising my children, and this certain of kind of relation to Judaism that was part of my life as a man. So, it’s strange. In general, I had a very binary idea, as many trans women of my generation do, that you’re either your true self or a false self, and it’s all one or it’s all the other, so the idea of having aspects of my life, which is true, like I value, I’m not rejecting being a father to my children. That’s crucial to me.
But I don’t really know how to integrate it into a full sense of who I am, and that tallit that I’ve had my whole life that I still have was part of that. So, I just stopped wearing it. Didn’t… Was kind of a short circuit. It didn’t feel right not to wear it and it didn’t feel right to wear it. So, at a certain point I had been living as myself for a few years and I was with, but not yet married to the woman that I’m married to now, and I felt like I needed some kind of a ritual to consolidate my new sense of who I was, and I worked with Rabbi Jill Hammer to put that… put something together, and my wife bought a tallit for me that was presented to me as part of that ritual, and I was sobbing. Tears were streaming down my face, and the tears were kind of a tallit, and there it was, this vision. It still looks new, because I’ve hardly worn it. The other tallit is so worn. This tallit is so new and it represents a… It’s beautiful, like a vision of a life in which my Jewishness, and my transness, and my gender all completely integrated, but that’s not a life that I have, that I’ve reached yet.
And I think what you were saying before about needing some kind of other relation to this gender ritual object. Obviously, I can’t wear it if it signifies maleness. Because I didn’t grow up female, wearing a tallit is not a liberatory gesture. It’s not an assertion that, “Well, I’m equal to men, therefore I can wear a tallit.” Because I know that according to the most conservative versions of Judaism, I’m still a man, and I should be wearing a tallit. So, how can I wear it in a way that is authentic to me and is not where… When I’m wearing it, I’m not distracted from the work of prayer by the conflicts around genderedness? I haven’t figured that out yet.
Emma June: Yeah, it’s a big question and kind of internal struggle. Yeah. I’m curious. You’ve written a lot about your relationship to G-d and spoken a lot about it, and I know that wearing the tzitzit is a commandment given by G-d in the Book of Numbers, and I’m curious, I guess… So, I’ve been reading your book, The Soul of the Stranger, and in it the way you describe G-d is as somebody who is also on the outside and who doesn’t fit, and who doesn’t have a body that makes sense to the world. And I guess I’m curious if you’ve thought of any ways to read a passage like the one in the Book of Numbers through the lens that you’re reading Torah in in your book?
Joy Ladin: That is a great question. Do you have the verse so I can look at it and not just make stuff up?
Emma June: Yes.
Joy Ladin: Which I’m also good at.
Emma June: Let me pull it up. I had it up and then I… The internet cut out, so-
Joy Ladin: Okay.
Emma June: Let me get it. Okay. Tzitzit fulfill the commandment in Numbers 37, in the portion called Parashat Sh’lach. “Speak to the Israelite people and instruct them to make for themselves fringes on the corner of their garments throughout the ages. Let them attach a cord of blue to the fringe at each corner. That shall be your fringe. Look at it and recall all the commandments of G-d and observe them, so that you do not follow your heart and eyes in your lustful urge. Thus, you shall be reminded to observe all of my commandments and to be holy to your G-d.”
Joy Ladin: That is definitely the commandment, but there is no Numbers 37. The last chapter is 36.
Emma June: That is… Okay. MyJewishLearning is then wrong, which-
Joy Ladin: Not to say fake news, but only…
Emma June: Okay. I’m gonna look again on Chabad’s website.
Joy Ladin: All right. This is saying 15:38, and then Deuteronomy.
Emma June: Okay.
Joy Ladin: Let’s look at 15:38 and see if that turns out to be the right…
Emma June: Well, I’m finding that it’s Numbers 15:37.
Joy Ladin: Ah, okay. Yes. Yes, it is. Okay. Good. Okay, so the context of this is the… It’s horrible. One of the many horrible things that happens in Numbers is in the verses right before that, they… Somebody is found gathering wood on Shabbat, and there’s no instruction about what should be done to them, and G-d says the whole community has to stone the man to death.
Emma June: Ah.
Joy Ladin: So, they do that. That comes right after the… Well, there’s a lot of stuff about… commandments around sin offerings before that. So, the context of this is anxiety about breaking the commandments that G-d has given. And the juxtaposition implies, but it doesn’t… The Torah doesn’t make clear usually the logical connections between things, so it feels like G-d might have said, “Ah, this dude forgot you’re not supposed to do this on Shabbat. I guess human beings need more than just commandments. They need a reminder that they should follow the commandments.” And so that, the commandment about tzitzit seems like an attempt to prevent further errors like the gathering of wood on Shabbat. So, if that’s right, there’s nothing gendered about the fact that it’s a man wood gathering wood on Shabbat. In terms of the way the story is told, gender isn’t a factor, and the community that gathers to hear the sentence, it’s the whole community, so that again is everybody, and they’re all supposed to be stoning him.
So, as near as I can tell, the way this stuff is written, this is before the later gendering rabbinic commentaries and Halakha put on all of these things. At this point, most of the commandments are given to everybody at once, and everybody is supposed to be responsible for following, and speak to the Israelite people, again, it’s not a gender-based thing. It’s not something that would be specific to men and exclude women, and in this formulation, it wouldn’t exclude people who don’t identify either as men or women. It’s just if you’re part of this people, you need to do this so you can… Basically, so that you can say to yourself, “Huh, isn’t that weird? Look. I got this fringe hanging under my garment. What the heck? What’s going on with that? Oh, right! I have to follow G-d’s commandments.” That seems to be the kind of technology that G-d has come up with here. And I have to say in a lot of the Torah, and here I would think this is an example, it looks like G-d is… has an experimental relation to human… Like G-d keeps trying to figure out what will work to set, to create a community in which human beings will actually remember that G-d’s there all the time and act accordingly.
And G-d does not seem to realize that anything that we do habitually, we’re just likely to forget. So, I have to say personally, when I was wearing tzitzit, of course I’m not a Halakhic Jew, so it couldn’t work quite that way, but I would just… I didn’t pay much attention to them. I didn’t look at them and immediately remember all the commandments. It was just like you get dressed in the morning, you put this stuff on, it starts to seem normal, and normal is… I don’t think I ever completely acclimated to it. I think it always felt somewhat uncomfortable to me to be wearing tzitzit. But I don’t think it ever functioned mnemonically to me. But the theory here is that… So, to me it looks like this is G-d trying to use what G-d knows about humanity, human beings are forgetful of what they’re supposed to do. They’re subject to impulses and urges. When they feel an urge, they’re liable to forget what G-d has told us to do. And human beings wear clothes. Hm. What if they could wear a kind of clothing that would remind them to do what I told them to do instead of what they feel like doing?
So, the perspective in my book is focusing on the awkwardness of G-d as a non-human being trying to relate to human beings. And to me, this looks like a good example of that. I’m not sure… The Torah I don’t think records a single example of somebody who’s about to sin, but looks down at their tzitzit and says, “Oh, right. Don’t gather sticks on Shabbat.” In fact, I don’t think it ever mentions it again. I don’t remember any point at which it comes up. So, to me it looks like G-d throwing spaghetti out to see what will stick on the wall. I think later, Orthodox practice develops this and elaborates on it, and makes it a more central thing than…. People build on it, but in the Torah it’s just like, “What the heck do you do to get people to remember that I’m here? And so, you shouldn’t do stupid crap like gathering sticks on Shabbat. I mean, come on guys. That’s pretty simple.”
Emma June: Right. Right. Wow. It’s interesting. It makes me think about like how to approach practice as more what helps me, or whomever, remain in touch with… I mean, I have a… I don’t know what I believe in, exactly, so I think for me it’s a question of engaging with that question. But just like what is it that can push us to remember how to be with our core values, or with our G-d, or with whomever.
Joy Ladin: Yes.
Emma June: And that that’s a really powerful way to approach maybe tzitzit or maybe something else.
Joy Ladin: Yeah. It’s a kind of very focused mindfulness practice. And the idea of wearing mindfulness, or wearing in your case, if you’re not sure what it is, what you’re wearing is a reminder that you should be actively not sure. You should be asking yourself that question and those questions. You should be walking through life clothed in the questions of where are you in relation to G-d, and Judaism, and all of that. I think that’s a really healthy way to think of it.
Emma June: Yeah. And it’s really… I mean, there’s something about it being about being clothed in those things, and how important to me as a gender queer person, clothing is something I do think about every day, and that has really impacted how I choose to move through the world already. It’s an active choice all the time. And I know that’s not true of every queer and trans person, but I do think it’s a somewhat common feeling. And so, I’m curious. Yeah, I guess I’m just struck by transferring that approach to Judaism, that the way that you clothe yourself matters.
Joy Ladin: Oh, I love that. So, it sounds like you can deepen your relation to this aspect of Jewish tradition by looking at what clothes mean to you as a genderqueer person. And then thinking about the similarities or differences in the tzitzit.
Emma June: Yeah. Yeah. I think so.
Joy Ladin: Fantastic.
Emma June: I’m curious. Are there any thoughts left ruminating for you? Or things you want to have said?
Joy Ladin: You know, this is probably neither here nor there, but I’m really, really… On my mind, I think because it’s Sukkot, and some of my most joyful memories of wearing a tallit are on Sukkot. It’s the one time in my life that I probably… will have ever owned a house. We had a small house kind of in wooded hills, basically. The house was a bit of a shambles, but it had a large amount of land, and enough so that for the first time in my life, I built a sukkah, and would build it every year, and then I would say Hallel in the sukkah in the mornings of Sukkot, and I would put on my tallit and I remember holding my baby in the sukkah, wrapped in my tallit, and singing and dancing to Hallel in the sukkah the morning. And it was hard for me to be happy when I was living as a man, but that was about as happy as I could get.
Emma June: That’s so special. Wow. Does your kid know about that now?
Joy Ladin: Nah. He couldn’t care less about my religion or really most anything about me. A very healthy 16-year-old in the difference.
Emma June: Wow. Maybe one day.
Joy Ladin: Yes. A girl can dream.
Emma June: Absolutely. We gotta.
Emma June: Thanks for listening to Fringes, my passion project supported by ADVAH Designs. For more definitions and links, as well as a transcription of this episode, please check out the show notes on our website, ADVAHDesigns.com/Fringesepisode1. That’s A-D-V-A-H-D-E-S-I-G-N-S.com/F-R-I-N-G-E-S-E-P-I-S-O-D-E-1. The interviews I do and the stories I get to share through this podcast cannot possibly capture the breadth of experiences in this world. I’m inevitably leaving people out. That’s what it means to tell a story. That said, this project is growing. If your story feels left out and you want to share it, please reach out to me at Emma@advahdesigns.com. E-M-M-A at A-D-V-A-H-D-E-S-I-G-N-S.com. This podcast is coming out on a biweekly basis. A huge thanks to my producer, Sarah Resnick, and to Home Despot, the musician behind the intro. And thank you for listening. See you in two weeks wherever podcasts can be found.