I don’t remember very much about my bat mitzvah ceremony, for some reason, but I do have a strong memory about getting ready the morning of. It was time to get dressed and we hadn’t talked about what I would wear. There was a baby blue terry cloth outfit in my drawer, a material popular in the late 1970’s. A matching top and skirt my mom had bought me at Lord & Taylor. It was an outfit I thought was extra special because it was purchased for me, and not a hand-me-down from my older sister. Also, it was from an expensive store we rarely went to, and I was excited to have shopped there. My final touch, I remember, was the plastic pink flower comb I thought would look nice if I pulled my hair up and stuck in front of my curly bun. It made me feel pretty and I was pleased with my efforts.
A couple of years earlier, my mom and I were walking on a street in Israel, while on a two-week tour of the country. It was a million degrees out so we were in strappy sundresses, taking in the little shops on a cobblestone street. Suddenly, a group of older religious men were screaming at us about our “inappropriate attire,” as our shoulders were exposed. We had greatly offended them, it appeared, so much so that they decided to throw small stones at us. My mom grabbed my hand, and we started running. It wasn’t easy trying to go fast in my sandals down the uneven street and I was afraid but also shocked that my shoulders could elicit such a response. I never had thought about my shoulders before.
Those memories flood over me when I reach to cover my daughter’s shoulders as we are taking pictures of her wearing her tallit, her prayer shawl, after her bat mitzvah. She has been called to the Torah over Zoom, a technology so far from anything imaginable in the stories about leprosy and revenge that my daughter must make sense of for her D’var Torah, the speech she writes connecting her life experiences to the teachings in this ancient scroll. And I notice she is wearing her tallit around her shoulders now, although not covering them, smiling very proudly for the culmination of years and years of study.
There are no elderly religious men around, and there is no one who will throw rocks at us for the act of showing her beautiful shoulders not covered by the thin straps of her rose gold dress. She looks quite stunning in the cactus garden in front of our temple, and I am sure the photos will be amazing. But I am aware that according to tradition the shawl should be covering her shoulders and I reach to raise it higher. I make sure her body is not seen.
Her shoulders are beautiful, and her arms are strong from years of athletic pursuits. They get covered by a cloth adorned in Hebrew letters and a symbolic Tree of Life.
Should I have let her wear the tallit hanging slightly below her shoulders and not worried that they were exposed for her photos? In the temple during the ceremony, I made sure it was worn as required, and she was draped and covered. But here outside, celebrating her achievement, why did I insist she present herself in that way?
Was this the way to teach her that she is strong and independent, and her body is her own? I am not so sure. I felt like I was having a “from generation to generation” moment. Making her cover a part of her body that the dress she was wearing seemed fine about exposing.
When my mom and I ran from the stone-throwing elderly men, I had no idea how powerful I truly was. Or that I was going to someday give birth to a daughter who is passionate about women’s rights and would say in her D’var Torah: “I think playing sports really does turn demoralizing sexist energy into true confidence.”
I wonder, years from now, what memories she will carry from that day. I will be thinking of her gorgeous shoulders.