Episode 5: Ari Lev Fornari
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.