“Every time a woman is seen in tefillin or tzitzit, the Jew at prayer in the common imagination becomes more fluid…”
This is a guest post by Avigayil Halpern. Avigayil is a senior at the Hebrew High School of New England. She is a Bronfman Youth Fellow for 2013, a Rising Voices Fellow, through the Jewish Women’s Archive and Prozdor, and an alumna of Drisha’s Dr. Beth Samuels High School Programs. She maintains a personal blog at theprocessofthetaking.
The first time I wrapped tefillin was on Masada, in Israel last summer as a Bronfman Youth Fellow. It should have been highly meaningful: I was watching the sun rise, standing in the ruins of a final Jewish stronghold, and I was with tremendously inspiring peers and teachers. Instead, when my counselor handed me the green velvet bag, I stood holding it, nervous and unsure of what to do with myself. As a childhood friend of mine wrapped the straps around my arm and hand and helped me adjust the head-tefillin, I stood still, repeating the brachot after him. When I prayed, any concentration that might have stemmed from the tefillin was canceled out by the strangeness of the physical sensation; the tefillin were powerful because of what they were, not because they grounded me.
My prayers that morning were punctuated by quibbles between my friends — the chazzan was going too fast, a more slowly praying participant was “backseat leading” — and repeatedly counting to make sure we still had a minyan as people wandered away. After we finished, my friend helped me unwrap the tefillin.
It was not until three weeks later that I was taught properly how to don tefillin myself. It was in a rush, the afternoon before my program left Israel, when we were all dashing around packing stray socks and squeegeeing the tile floors. Judith Rosenbaum, a program faculty member, Jewish women’s historian, and personal mentor, took me aside and taught me how to put on tefillin. She showed me how to twine the bands around my fingers, needing to practice on herself; it is not often that one wraps tefillin around another’s hand.
These anecdotes, my first tefillin stories, aren’t simple and spiritual. My experiences were confusing and mundane. Those moments did not ring with feelings of empowerment or reclamation. My Orthodox background, contrary to what I had expected, did not make the tefillin feel taboo — by the time I actually wore them, I had long been considering the idea. What sticks with me about these experiences is how natural it felt to be taught this mitzvah by a woman. I didn’t feel alone, as I had expected; I was part of a chain of tefillin-laying women.
My experience when I began wearing tzitzit was radically different. While I had previously considered wearing them, my first pair was an impulse buy. I was shopping on Ben Yehuda Street with a friend, and wandered into one of the tourist-geared Judaica shops that pepper the boulevard. I began to pick up packaged tallitot katan, examining them to see if I could find a small size. When the only pairs out were in a men’s medium, I asked the store’s proprietor (a friendly-looking, white-bearded, American-sounding Chareidi man) if they had tzitzit in smaller boys’ sizes. He answered in the affirmative, and began to hold up very small garments. “I’m looking for one that would fit a twelve-year-old boy,” I said. My friend added, “It’s for her little brother.”
I walked out of the store, three pairs of tzitzit in hand, grinning. I wore them for the first time the very next day. It was a Friday, and my group was venturing to Tzfat for Shabbat. As we walked through the city’s narrow stone alleyways and blue-painted synagogues and cemeteries, I grinned each time I caught sight of my fringes. They were both very strange and intimately familiar, totally new and yet totally me. Several times over the course of the weekend, I was approached by friendly strangers inquiring as to why I, a woman, was wearing tzitzit. The first time this happened, two young Chareidi woman came over to me at Kabbalat Shabbat. I wasn’t prepared to answer their question, and simply stammered out “it’s a mitzvah!” The twenty-somethings smiled, and one of them said, “That’s so interesting, I’ve never seen that before. Does your Rav think it’s okay?” I grinned and assured them that yes, my rav permits it. I didn’t attempt to explain to them that the community of people I consider to be my “rav” is large and diverse; while not everyone around me approves of my tzitzit, the people I look to for religious guidance, my “rebbeim,” are supportive.
My experiences of tzitzit and tefillin are unique. Some women wear tzitzit under their clothes, as a private reminder of the Divine. Some women have been laying tefillin since their Bat Mitzvah. Some women find these practices radically spiritual, while for others they are entirely mundane. Each woman’s experience is different. But we share a common bond; every time we perform these mitzvot, we shift Jewish practice a little bit. Every time I explain to a little girl that “yes, girls can wear tzitzit too, isn’t that cool?” as she curiously twists the strings between her fingers, she is more likely to feel that she, too, can own this mitzvah. Every time a woman changes her Facebook profile picture of one of herself praying with tefillin, the cultural image of the praying Jew becomes a little more female. Every time a woman is seen in tefillin or tzitzit, the Jew at prayer in the common imagination becomes more fluid, less likely to have a beard.
The Jewish world needs to hear women’s real experiences with these mitzvoth. It is for this reason that I have founded V’Tzivanu: Women, Tefillin, and Tzitzit, (v’tzivanu translates to “and has made us a mitzvah”) a blog project which will publish women’s writing on tefillin or tzitzit twice a month. Recent uproar in the Jewish blogosphere about women and tefillin has led to an increased presence of women’s voices and stories, but this is insufficient. V’Tzivanu is a project for my past self, the tenth grader who Googled “women and tefillin” and found only an explanation of why women’s spiritual superiority leads to our exemption from mitzvot. This is a project for older women, who have been laying tefillin for decades and have faced obstacles of which I have never dreamed. This is a project for Bat Mitzvah girls, who will see that Jewish womanhood is so much broader and deeper than a set of candlesticks. This is a project for the Jewish people.