Fringes Episode 4: Noam Mason
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.