Assaults on transgender individuals, assaults on women’s rights to control their own bodies, assaults on the environment… the list is long, the sadness and anger is overwhelming.
I am not great at hope. It’s hard to be, as a historian of the human experiment. We are a short-sighted species, woefully arrogant and selfish. Our much-vaunted intellectual talents are more often used to take than to give. We say much more about love than we should; our words are not commensurate with our deeds.
Still: my soul has to say otherwise. Now and again, I come face-to-face with an innocence and courage that sustains me, that offers a model of hope for my saddened soul.
Early this past summer, an old student of mine from the ALEPH Ordination Program sent me an email. His grandson, a transgender child, was having a b-mitzvah and he was looking for a tallit.
The making of Jewish ritual wear is a hobby and side-business of mine, one that initially grew out of my frustration with the kind of kippot and tallitot that were marketed for women. In those olden days, there were “women’s colors” and “women’s themes.” Kippot were inevitably the same as those meant for men, just in the shades that, presumably, men would never wear.
Over the years, I found I was making ritual wear for all sorts of folks – LGBTQ+ individuals often showed up at my Etsy shop, Not My Brother’s Kippah. Some cisgender and heterosexual men, too, who were just as interested in smashing binary expectations as I was.
I told my former student that I would be thrilled to take on the job of co-creating a tallit with his grandson. Said young person and I started by talking on the phone about his interests.
I asked simple questions – learning the nature of the person is key to the design of any tallit. The child, I learned, loved insects – especially bees. And then I heard about a passion for all things heavenly – stars, moons, constellations.
“Goodness,” I said. “You want it all on your tallit, then. Bereishit bara Elohim et hashamayim v’et ha’aretz. At the start of it all, God created heavens and earth.”
“Yes,” he answered, and I could hear the grin in his voice.
A tallit with everything. A tallit of all creation at once. I went to all my favorite embroidery sites and started sending my new client links to embroidery patterns of bees, stars, and moons.
But nothing I chose was his choice. In the end, he found the pattern that said it all.
A crescent moon, covered with a fine honeycomb, dripping with honey. Bees buzzing around the moon. A honeymoon.
Here is a child who has forthrightly told the world who he is, regardless of how the world might want (or insist) on seeing him. Here is a young person whose playful nature and whose innocent energy has led him to rejoice in his impending adulthood Jewishly. He is acting, I think, out of hope and love for the world he lives in. There is courage in him.
Who am I to disregard such strength? And who am I to feed sadness, rather than joy, despair rather than hope?
The knowledge of the historian is not always commensurate with the knowledge of the soul. And the human experiment must be a repository for courage and hope, too. Else, there is no experiment.