T’rumah and the Making of Beautiful Things

Last week, we read one of my favorite passages in Torah –  T’rumah. I fell in love with this parsha over fifteen years ago. I remember that my enthusiasm and delight surprised most of my then congregants, who complained when we met for Torah study that the text was repetitive and boring.

“It’s magical,” I insisted. “It is filled with color and scents. Everything, everything is made by human beings who long to engage in a delightful excess of thanks, of creative energy. It’s inspiring!”

The tabernacle, I would point out, is made of every single kind of art. Who created a lampstand fashioned in metal and adorned in nature – petals winding about its seven branches and cups fashioned in the form of almond blossoms? Who stitched draperies made of fine twisted linen, in the richest and deepest shades of purple and blue and wine-red? Who hammered out the gold clasps used to hold cloth together? The work of our ancestors’ hands is described here, and it is amazing.

Once my son, Erik, told me that my little business on Etsy, Not My Brother’s Kippah, was one of the most powerful parts of my rabbinic calling.

The most magical havdalah tallit I ever made…using a vintage sari!

Certainly, almost as soon as I entered rabbinical school, I started making kippot, and then tallitot. My first efforts were all gifts. They were meant to redress a problem: in those days, my fellow female students mostly purchased either a flimsy wire kippah or wrapped their heads in a scarf.

The most magical Star of David I ever found…

Since then, though, I’ve made a number of tallitot for transgender teenagers who otherwise felt confined in a market that catered entirely to a binary reading of human needs – products that were clearly marked for “boys” or “girls.” Gender is no longer defining who visits my site or purchases my work.

Among all those kippot, tallitot, tallit bags, and the like that I have made, I have loved most the sense of magic in the making. There is always a dance going on, a dance of light, of color, of touch, of symbol in every stitch. When I reuse fabrics or scraps of the same, or otherwise rely on recycled materials, I know that my making can respond to the needs of a planet suffering from the horrific waste and pollution the fashion industry engenders. If I am going to create, I want to think about how to do that sustainably.

Magical Tree of Life Kippah

No one ever told me that selling things I made could actually offer spiritual benefits – for me or for my clients. Recently, I had a client who had recently lost her mother; when we settled on a sunset orange sari as the base for her tallit, she told me: “that was my mother’s favorite color.”

Those who made the tabernacle knew that the making of beautiful things is a tikkun.  They knew that their endeavors were magical, and thus spiritual. They made things from the earth, reflecting the earth, and for the express purpose of connecting the earth with its divine source.

I will never read T’rumah without thanking them.

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My Law is Better Than Your Law

Esther kippah
Esther’s High Holy Day Kippah in raw silk

Recently, I received an email from someone who looked over my website, www.notmybrotherskippah.com. I had made the point that I do not use leather when making my kippot.

Goyisherebbe (that was the author’s email address) wrote, “There is no problem wearing leather kippot on YK anymore (sic) than there is wearing a leather belt. The only prohibition of leather is in wearing shoes. Mishna, 8th perek of Tractate Yoma.”

There was neither salutation nor signature. A non-Jewish rabbi? Someone who thinks their rabbinate is a little “goyish”?

Whatever the appellation, the email deserved a response. I wrote:

Dear goyisherebbe,
Thanks so much for your comment! …[T]here are rabbinic authorities who have suggested a prohibition against wearing any garment that is made from a living creature on Yom Kippur, and it is minhag in some communities to think and act in that way. For those whose custom it is to abstain from all such garments, my kippot can support their practice. For example, Rabbi Moses Isserles (quoted in Agnon’s Days of Awe, p. 201): “…how can a man put on a garment for which it is necessary to kill a living thing, on Yom Kippur, which is a day of grace and compassion, when it is written, “And His tender mercies are over all His works”? [Siddur ha-Minhagim].

But I got the point goyisherebbe was making. I promised to go back to the website to clarify the leather matter as one of minhag rather than halakhah and thanked my correspondent. Goyisherebbe was right to make me rethink my language.

I did not get a response, but I didn’t expect one, either. Goyisherebbe had found an opportunity to correct and did so in summary fashion, without any special kindness, conviviality, or grace.

Halakhic one-upmanship can be a brutal sport in Jewish circles. During the time I was in rabbinical school, I twice observed students justifying reproofs by appealing to Leviticus 19:17, “you shall not hate your kinsfolk in your heart. Reprove your kinsman but incur no guilt because of him.” In both cases, the apparent offender had not violated any halakhah I know of. There were, as there often are, egos in play.

In fact, one student invoked levitical law while openly humiliating a colleague, violating a cardinal halakhic rule against embarrassing someone according to the Sixth Commandment. Our sages interpreted the prohibition against murder to include causing the blood to drain from someone’s face, thus “shedding blood.”

As a rule, Jews don’t tell other people whether they are going to end up in hell or not. Most of us don’t think there is such a thing.

But we are perfectly capable of judging each other’s knowledge, practice, and observance of Jewish law, despite the fact that most of us are not exactly experts on the subject.

In fact, sometimes I am astonished by the Jews who grant themselves permission to use halakhah as a spiritual cudgel – even when those self-same Jews don’t (for example) possess any Shabbat practice to speak of.

Jews, Jews. We must stop using one of the sweetest contributions of our tradition to intimidate each other. Halakhah is a thing of beauty (at least it’s meant to be so), not a means of belittling. Halakhah is meant to uplift and enoble us, not to limit and confine us.

It’s the first day of the secular new year, about a quarter of the way into 5775. So very much is wrong with this world. In the name of halakhah, we are to name things we find troubling. We must call for redress of injustice. We should pursue justice and love peace.

We can use our exploration of the ethical to act.  But humility is a prerequisite. Kindness is essential.

Halakhah tells us that.

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Not My Brother’s Kippah

I make kippot.  It was a hobby until last weekend. Before I left for the annual Ohala conference, my husband, Ralf, suggested a name for my new business (see title, above).

My business’ name is not simply a clever joke. It’s an answer.

Like so many Jewish women, I know what it is to have Judaism used against me, to crush me and make me small.  I have been told to cover my elbows.  I have been the victim of angry demands: How dare I continue singing when he walked into the house?  Didn’t I know that a woman’s voice seduces?

His brand of Judaism was enraged, extreme.  He was, when I knew him, so far right that some family members joked about where he might have been the night Yitzhak Rabin, then Israel’s prime minister, was assassinated.  He wanted to kill every Palestinian, and said so.  He made me want to run screaming in any direction away from anything Jewish that wasn’t academic, and therefore, safe territory for me.

How could I make teshuva when coming back would mean accepting humiliation I had known when I was young?

And yet.

And yet, when we were first married three decades ago, Ralf took my grandmother’s prayerbook out of the discard pile and brought it back to me.  In the late 1990’s, my then six-year-old son took to davennen as if he were born inside its cadence when I dared attend services at a nearby havurah.  Now and again I’d remember – with a kind of longing – my grandfather’s davenning  the Maxwell House haggadah.

What is all that about the journeys that begin with tender, tremulous steps?

The sign on the trail: “Jewish Renewal.” While walking I found men and women opening up the world of halakha and making it more than safe – a source of delight, in fact.  I listened to women singing without restraints, teaching with power and humor.  We all stood together at Sinai – many of us, women and men, with our elbows uncovered.

I had begun making kippot for friends.  I vowed I would only make a kippah when I knew whose head would wear it.  I deviated just slightly, making some for my congregation so that children and adults could choose one as they entered services.  A kippah with a penguin?  Beads and butterflies?  Glittery gold fabric?

For years, at every Jewish Renewal event I attended, women asked me if I sold my kippot.  I would explain, see the sadness, and persist.  I would not sell.  I would only give.

Three years ago, Rabbi Nadya Gross, mentor, teacher, and friend, began bugging me.  “There are women out there who need your kippot,” she said.  “What’s out there for them?”

There are hats that can get too warm and scarves that can look like shmattes. For a while, kippot of beads and wire were in fashion.  Pretty, but insubstantial. Frankly, I want to feel my head covered.  My kippah is a manifestation of sorts, the hand of the divine cupped over my keppe to bless it.

I gave in and began sewing for people I did not know.  My son designed some of my work – making my beadwork asymmetrical, surprising.  My husband matched fabrics and flowers I would not have put together.  I sewed until I woke up at night with my fingers raw and sore.

Then I left for Denver, and the annual conference run by Ohalah, a trans-denominational association of rabbis, cantors, rabbinic pastors, and students of those professions.  Later, I will tell you stories.  Stories of the way women crowded around the table, the way men bought kippot for female friends.  One of the kippot my son designed went to a woman just waking from a coma.

I will tell you the way those men and women nearly cleaned out my stock and asked me for a website, please.  I will tell you stories that made me cry with relief and gratitude.  Stories of women sitting in rows with feathers, flowers and beads on their heads, walking the hotel corridors wearing the kippot I’d made in ways I had never imagined – rakishly, in different directions, with grace and charm.

I want to thank everyone at Ohalah, in Jewish Renewal, for helping me manifest a peaceful, colorful, gentle answer to any who would crush Jewish women and make them small: These are not my brother’s kippah.

May the palm of God’s hand cup the beautiful keppes they adorn.  May those women grow surer and stronger wearing them.  May Jewish Renewal’s path widen in yet more welcome, and may we give answers of love and healing to all who walk even the smallest step with us.

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Jewish Renewal, II

Maybe a bunch of Jews are longing for sweet and crazy-joyful celebration of who they are and what they do (and what God might have to do with all that). Or perhaps lots of people just find red boots fascinating. Another possibility? Jewish Renewal readers are out there just waiting to see something more about their own movement available on the world-wide web.

My posting on Jewish Renewal’s red boots produced more reader comments and more subscriptions to this blog than any other I’ve written – including the one on male lactation in the Talmud.

I mused about this some as I heard my Inbox bing and bing and bing again with comments and subscriptions and suchlike. Clearly, I had hardly begun nourishing the longing out there for Stuff on Jewish Renewal. I like to cook, after all, and I know that a good meal includes more than the main course.

My favorite dessert is dark chocolate mousse. I make it frequently. So, for a little textual dessert…

Jewish Renewal is an evening of Shefa Gold chants. One verse becomes the rich exploration of soul, of the Holy Breath that sustains our lives. Rabbi Shefa’s melodies and harmonies become mantras to live by; their beautiful repetition engraves them on the heart. Her Torah commentaries stretch the spirit. In them, she gives her readers the right to honor their own knowledge, their inner Torah, and to see it revealed in texts written thousands of years ago.

Jewish Renewal celebrates spontaneity, an in-the-moment approach to prayer as well as attention and intention to our deep roots and history.  Spontaneity: At Temple Or Olam’s Shabbat services I will happily sing in rhyme about the folks walking through the door, the children dancing in our midst, or matriarch Ruth Kingberg’s loving hugs.  Whatever is happening is a happening thing.

Here are the deep roots of Jewish tradition: We know that our relationships and friendships are about godding the world toward a meshiachzeit we long for, a time of real and lasting peace.

I like to sing about that, too, and my liturgy gives me age-old ways to do just that.

Jewish Renewal is the way our mashpi’ahs (spiritual directors) begin reflecting, considering, and even crafting healing rituals when they identify yearning for shleimut, wholeness. It is the way Rabbi Burt Jacobson brings us to Baal Shem Tov text study by beginning with meditation. It is the way we soak ourselves in the richness of tradition and Torah, the liturgical year and the practice of Shabbat.

It is the kippot on my congregation’s welcome table at every service.

I began making kippot years ago, and started mostly with pretty head coverings for all the girls of our congregation. I love to sew as I love to cook. Pink and purple and blue, beaded and braided and trimmed – I added some every year. I began finding little animal appliqués and made kippot for our toddlers. Ducks, alligators, donkeys, giraffes. I started making some for my colleagues and friendswith rich colors, with sparkles and beads and flowers.

I’d sewn blessings into each one.

God knows, we need blessings. We are wounded and small in so many ways, cut off from our own richly attired texts and traditions

How do we connect with a language we don’t understand but still use to sing our prayers? How do we find meaning in all the acts that seemed inexplicable to us in our youth? In what ways can we nourish our Judaism while enriching the world?

By renewing our understanding, our connections, our love of who we are, where we have been, and where we must go to make this world the one we hope and long for. We of Jewish Renewal can and long to do just that among fellow Jews and Muslims and Christians and Buddhists and agnostics and atheists and all the rest of humanity who are in pursuit of that thing we call a better world, a world renewed.

Keyn y’hi ratzon. May it be so.

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