I never imagined I’d have an identity crisis when I was in my 50s. But when my husband and I moved to our new neighborhood, I had to remind myself who I was free to be as I walked out of my home each Saturday morning.
My husband and I observe parts of Judaism differently from one another and we belong to different synagogues. Before the move we were too far away from our respective synagogues to attend so we prayed together in our home, creating traditions together that felt right for both of us. What unites us is much stronger than what differentiates us religiously and we are both motivated to help the other one feel at home in each other’s holy places and to each feel holy in our home.
Now that we’ve moved walking distance from our synagogues, a lot more thought has to go into prepping for the in-synagogue prayer experience and for a while, a big chunk of that for me was, “Who is praying in my body today?” I felt like I was one person on the weeks where we turned right out of the front door and a different person on the weeks when we turned left out of the front door. When I turned right, walking in the direction of my synagogue, I was a woman who felt knowledgeable, actively participated in services, and who carried a special prayer shawl or tallit from Jerusalem that I wore when I prayed. When I turned left, walking in the direction of my husband’s synagogue, I was simply a member of the women’s side of the synagogue and I was empty handed, carrying no tallit.
In my synagogue it is common to see a woman wearing a tallit, and I’ve been wearing one for about 30 years. Every time I place it above me to say the blessing before letting it fall onto my shoulders, wrapping me in the history of our traditions, I feel an internal transformation from every day to holy day. In my husband’s synagogue no woman wears a tallit; only men do. Before we were married, when I’d visit my husband’s synagogue every few months, it felt easy for me to act like everyone else, respecting the customs of the congregation, praying without the shawl, although I did miss it. But now that we were able to attend regularly, my expectations for how I worship had changed. I felt a disconnect between my spirituality needs and my desire not to upset others. It’s possible I’d be wearing something that represented something I wasn’t sure I felt like representing. I wasn’t looking to make any statements; I just wanted to be me.
Adding weight to the heaviness of my thoughts is a quote I have at the top of my daily to-do list: The way I do Anything is the way I do Everything. It reminds me to be thoughtful about how I interact with others, challenge myself, and do my work, what I choose to focus on, how I view my life and how I choose to act at each given moment. It reminds me to find as much joy in the mundane as I do in the exceptional times. And it reminds me to bring myself wherever I go. Shabbat mornings were not aligning with my mantra.
My inner values were at war. I buy into the “When in Rome…” proverb. As a newcomer to the community, when I didn’t see any other woman wearing a tallit, I did not wear one. I didn’t want to be judged, call attention to myself, or make anyone else uncomfortable. The thing is, I was making myself uncomfortable. I started feeling like my wings were clipped. And as I felt myself morphing from a visitor to an actual member of this beautiful community, I couldn’t imagine faking who I am for years to come. I started dreaming of a way to be my authentic self in all of my congregations and communities.
I shared my inner conflict with my husband and my children, who encouraged me to follow my heart. Now I just needed to figure out which decision would make my heart lighter. It was hard to work through the fear that I might insult someone else by being true to myself. Once I was able to put it in those terms, everything about the choice felt different, and I realized that I was gaining inspiration from my own daughter’s strength. If she could spend every minute of her life being the only public transperson in her communities for years, then I could take the risk of putting on a shawl that identified me as different, every other Saturday.
The day arrived when “to wear or not to wear my traditions on my shoulders” felt like a now or never decision for me. If I was going to show up as myself, then it made sense to do it from the beginning of my relationship as a regular congregant. I tucked my tallit bag into my backpack as we walked to my husband’s synagogue. I wasn’t sure what choice I would make once I arrived but I wanted to have options. When we arrived, I made my way through the throngs of people into the small coatroom. I was alone. I opened my backpack and removed my glasses, as I always do. I noticed my tallit. Experiencing a burst of pure clarity, I whipped out the tallit, said a blessing, and draped it around my shoulders. I felt the power of the decision I was making. There was no going back into that closet once I emerged. Eyes cast down, I quickly crossed the hallway in the main entrance, opened the door to the women’s side of the synagogue, walked down the aisle past the women who were already there, and sat toward the front of the section. I felt like there was a bullseye on my back but when I would sneak a peek through my peripheral vision, no one seemed to be even noticing me. I felt the silk of my shawl, wrapping it around myself closer at times as, sitting alone, I prayed my way through the service. Toward the end of the service a new friend came and sat right next to me, giving me strength.
A colleague of mine noticed me from the men’s section of the synagogue and later asked how it felt to be the only one on my side of the separation wearing the shawl. I realized I felt more comfortable than I expected and that there were a few moments when I could get out of my own head without feeling completely exposed.
Fast forward a couple of months and I can reflect on the experience a lot more now. I can laugh at how nervous I was one week when the rabbi entered a pew in the women’s section to face me. I was bracing myself for the admonishment I had been expecting about the tallit. Instead, he ignored the tallit around my shoulders and asked me a completely unrelated question about a mutual friend of ours who was sick. I can bask in appreciation for the woman who approached me to let me know that her young daughter was enamored with my tallit, comparing it to the garb of a queen; she herself, she shared with me, wears a wig to cover her head modestly in public. She ended with “You do you.” I can feel gratitude to the women who’ve approached me telling me how beautiful they think my sheer purple tallit is. Last week a young woman in her 20s told me I was a badass; I loved that. And I am relieved that most of the time I’m just another congregant, a happy member of the community, who is praying in the way that lifts her soul and feels authentic.
This lesson has created ripples for me that have extended into other opportunities and I’ve noticed myself using the phrase “I brought myself into that moment” when describing some newer situations. I now have more confidence and evidence that if I share what’s important to me with others, I likely will not be judged harshly but will simply be accepted for who I am. And most importantly, I can know that I remembered that the way I do anything is truly the way I do everything. So at least I’m checking something off of my daily to-do list!