How a wedding dress became a tallit
I wore my wedding dress twice—once, as expected, at my wedding. Then it stayed in a box in a closet until years later, when my synagogue hosted an event at which I was to appear as The Bride. I nerdled for days about what to wear, until my husband dared me to see if the dress still fit.
Thanks to the triple threats of pregnancy, age and gravity, parts of my body have shifted. But a dare is a dare. I retrieved the dress, not knowing what to expect. Amazingly, the zipper actually zipped! So, I wore it a second time.
I considered donating it to a thrift shop after that. Instead, I put it back in the box, not quite willing to let it go.
Because what I noticed then was how special that dress made me feel. Not because it was my wedding dress. What really got me was that when I put that dress on, I felt love—the love my husband and I shared then and do now, as well as that of all the others who were at our wedding and are no longer alive. It was a feeling I really didn’t want to let go.
At about the same time, I’d begun thinking about wearing a tallit, the traditional Jewish prayer shawl. I’d suffered from tallit envy since I was a kid. I loved how men wrapped themselves in a special shawl for prayer. I marveled at how gracefully they swished around the synagogue during services. They seemed to be in a club that I wished I could join.
Meanwhile, at my Conservative, egalitarian synagogue, Temple Beth Ahm in Aberdeen, a succession of young women of bat mitzvah age were ascending the bima wearing them, each clearly special to the wearer.
I decided I would, too, do something special to me. The challenge was to figure out what “special” meant.
When my husband and I had gone to Israel for what we were sure would be the only time, we had two young sons. Planning ahead, we brought back a set of tallit and tephillin for each. Predictably, however, when they got to bar mitzvah age, each insisted on picking his own.
Never one to toss what could be reused, I tried wearing one of their rejects. After all, what could be more special than a tallit purchased in Israel?
I said the prayer, I kissed the collar, I wrapped it around my shoulders, and I felt … nothing. Nada. Zilch.
Frustrated, I asked our rabbi at the time what a tallit was supposed to do; what was its purpose. He said the act of wrapping the tallit around you concentrates your mind on prayer, which is what you’re supposed to be thinking about in synagogue. Plus, much like a mezuzah, it separates the private you from the public you.
Now I was really determined. So I borrowed my husband’s old tallit, the small one he wore at his bar mitzvah, which had been replaced in Israel by a large, blanket-sized one.
It worked, sort of. It did quiet my mind, helping me focus more on praying and contemplation than on the grocery list or the errands yet to be run. But, just like my son’s reject, it felt good but not right. That’s when I decided I wanted something all my own.
I looked in all the usual places: the temple gift shop, a local Judaica store, and an assortment of sites online. Nothing I saw looked like something I’d really love to wrap myself in.
Then I realized I was seeking a feeling, not a look–the feeling I got from my wedding dress.
But was it possible?
Of course, everything is possible if you look online long enough. Eventually I found a woman who promised to transform my very simple A-line peau de soie dress into a stunning tallit, complete with a bag made out of extra fabric.
Then came a new challenge: What name, she asked, did I want embroidered on the corner?
Mine, of course. But which one? Thanks to Hebrew school, I had two.
The first day of Hebrew school my teacher said we had to ask our parents what our Hebrew name was. The next day, I dutifully reported as instructed: My name was Golda.
Impossible, said my teacher. That’s Yiddish, not Hebrew. Your Hebrew name is Zahava. Since I understood neither, either was fine. So I became Zahava, leaving Golda behind.
Then, just before our wedding, my family rabbi called and asked for my Hebrew name. I answered, confidently, Zahava. When I hung up, my dad asked what the Rabbi wanted. I told him.
“And?” my father asked.
“Zahava,” said I.
“Wrong!” said he. “It’s Golda. You are named for my mother.”
I love that story, because it exemplifies what can get lost when we leave the past behind. That’s why, when asked what name I wanted embroidered, I was torn. Was there any way to use both, so the story didn’t get lost?
My father’s name has been carried on by grandsons. My granddaughter, the first girl in several generations, was to have been named for my mother, Bernice. But, in a switch announced at the bat simcha, she was named Zahava!
That solved my dilemma. One corner is embroidered with the name my father gave me, Golda. The other has the name my granddaughter and I share.
My wedding dress was beautiful in its simplicity. As a tallit it is unique, allowing me to breathe in my past while concentrating my thoughts on the present.
Joann Abraham began chronicling Jewish life as editor of Monmouth County’s Jewish newspaper, now defunct, and has written for national and international publications. She is a contributing writer to Jlife Magazine.