My first time wearing a tallit was at my bat mitzvah photo shoot. To be completely honest, it was pretty artificial, as most bat mitzvah photo shoots are.
I grew up in a Conservative Jewish synagogue that leaned towards the traditional side of things, so I never really witnessed many women wearing a tallit. But the photographer insisted that the shots would look more “authentic” if I was wearing one. I remember thinking that me wearing a tallit would be anything but authentic, but at 13, I was very easily swayed and frankly wanted the photos to be over with. (Which was a mistake: My bat mitzvah photos are pretty much everywhere. They were downloaded onto at least 20 different digital platforms, and they’re currently still the screensaver on my dad’s desktop computer.)
The notion that I would be wearing a tallit was mostly unrealistic. For those who are unfamiliar, a tallit is a Jewish prayer shawl with fringes called tzitzit that come off of its four corners. Different sects of Judaism have different ideas about who should and shouldn’t wear them. I rarely saw women wearing them at our synagogue and even less women in meaningful ritual roles. However, I never really questioned it. I didn’t look at wearing a tallit as an option for myself, and for years I never felt an urge to try it out. If anything, the idea of wearing one was out of my comfort zone. I didn’t think I was missing out.
Once or twice I tried wearing one with tefillin at different youth group programs, but within 20 minutes, I would decide that it wasn’t for me; it felt like I was faking it. Tefillin are small leather cubes containing Torah passages that people wear attached to leather straps on their arms and foreheads during weekday services. Looking back, it felt inauthentic because seeing women in prayer shawls and tefillin felt like a Reform Jewish thing. And as I was not raised Reform, it never seemed right for me.
Flash forward to my first summer out of high school, when I worked at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin, a Conservative Jewish overnight camp. At this camp, morning services are routine; male campers are obligated to wear a tallit and tefillin, while female campers are encouraged to. When I began as a counselor, one of the first issues I encountered —alongside classic camp problems like missing toiletries and not-so-classic ones like campers literally smuggling in George Foreman grills — was that a handful of my female campers came to me feeling uncomfortable wearing their tallit and tefillin when they didn’t see any of their female-identifying friends or counselors doing so. Feeling fully comfortable in the environment of my camp and knowing that it would only be a two-month commitment, I decided to wear a tallit and tefillin for the rest of the summer so that my campers would believe that it was an option for themselves. It was a practice that I carried on for two more summers as a counselor.
To my surprise, the decision to wear a tallit and tefillin at camp was one of the most empowering Jewish choices I have ever made for myself. Wearing a tallit gave me an opportunity to explore a new piece of my Jewish identity, and it was moving for me to watch my campers start to feel comfortable observing rituals that they previously thought were off limits to them as girls. I soon found myself immersed in a small community of female counselors sporting these ritual objects and had an opportunity to learn from some of the most badass women I’ve ever met.
At the same time, wearing a tallit and tefillin that summer was also one of the most challenging decisions. I faced critique from others while also dealing with inner conflict. One of my male co-counselors said that he hated when women tried to use Jewish ritual as a platform to “make a point.” A number of people questioned why I was doing this all of a sudden, and I was expected to have a satisfactory answer that would settle their concerns. Because I feared these sort of responses if I ever tried to wear a tallit and tefillin at my even more traditional community at home, I never did.
Until this year.
At the end of this past summer, in what can only be described as the most Jewy parting gift I’ve ever received, my campers made me my own tallit. I had told them that I didn’t have my own one at home and they wanted to help. While my immediate reaction was embarrassingly mushy, underneath it all, I felt nervous at the idea of wearing a tallit at home. I didn’t want to let my campers down by not wearing it, but I imagined that I would feel like a fraud no matter what I decided to do.
Just as I had predicted, when I wore the new tallit at my synagogue this August, I felt overwhelmingly uncomfortable. It felt like the room was staring and I had mentally prepared an explanation something along the lines of “oh hey don’t mind me I’m just trying this thing out!” It was like waiting to be caught in a lie. But when I look back at it, I’m sure no one was staring the way I thought they were. My feeling of discomfort came from within; I’m facing a sort of tallit imposter syndrome. (I would say tefillin imposter syndrome as well, but it isn’t a practice that I’ve tried publicly outside of camp.)
Imposter syndrome is a term for feeling inadequate and/or feeling like you’ll be exposed as a fraud. Tallit imposter syndrome definitely isn’t an official term, but I’m here to maybe make it one. While I’ve been using it jokingly with friends to describe my current situation, it feels deeply true.
At my school’s Hillel High Holiday services a few weeks ago, wearing a tallit felt more comfortable, but still not totally right. My inner sense of doubt prevailed so much that when I went to Chabad services later on, I decided against wearing my tallit entirely. I’m still not quite sure what my move is going forward.
I’ve been asking myself more and more how uncomfortable a Jewish practice can make me before it stops being an important challenge and starts being unproductive. Should Jewish practices be the path of least resistance, or are we meant to struggle a little? I’ve come to terms with the fact that I probably won’t find a 100% accurate answer, but I think that maybe it’s okay to fall somewhere on the spectrum. Jews love a good gray area, right?
Wearing a tallit and tefillin as a Jewish woman doesn’t make you a better or worse feminist. It also doesn’t make you more or less Jewish. Frankly, I don’t think anyone gets to be the moral arbiter on this issue.
Jewish ritual observance is a really weird realm and I’m definitely occupying a strangely liminal space at the moment. Regardless of my tallit imposter syndrome, I am working on reconciling my traditional upbringing with my current feelings about the intersections of feminism and Judaism. And while it all feels awkward and uncomfortable, that’s okay. My Jewish identity, and comfort with ritual observance, will continue to change. Maybe some days I’ll wear a tallit and/or tefillin, and some days I won’t. Either way, I’ll figure it all out at my own pace.
Image via Gali Tibbon/AFP/Getty Images