Deborah Katchko-Gray
Pioneer woman cantor, artist and Bubbie.

A Tale of Two Tallitot

The tallit I made and sent to Anat Hoffman to replace her coffee stained one.

Prayerful Creations is the name I call my tallitot- prayer shawls that are unique, made with a technique called, Swedish Weaving. It’s a needlework art that I was introduced to as a cantor in Norwalk, CT by Ellen Temkin, my stitching mentor and dear friend. I’ve been making these tallitot for about 30 years. I started to make them for my four sons, dreaming of B’nei Mitzvah with rows of homemade tallitot I made for family wearing them for holidays and special simchas. I now make them as commissioned pieces, or as gifts for friends and family.  Recently I made a brown tallit, kind of coffee colored, hoping someone would enjoy wearing it.

Imagine my horror when I saw a coffee splattered stained tallit in the news. I could not imagine what it would feel like to be praying and have someone so enraged that they threw hot coffee at your back, while you were praying, at the holy Kotel in Jerusalem. Anat Hoffman, Chair of Women of the Wall was the victim of this horrendous experience; an act of violence and abuse, inexcusable, and hopefully one with consequences.

When I saw the coffee stained tallit, I thought I must send Anat a new handmade tallit as a gift, and why not one already brown, although with beautiful earthy colors. I thought it would be symbolic, that the brown stains have been replaced with a tallit sent with love and admiration for her bravery and conviction that women should be able to pray as they wish at our holy Kotel.  My correspondence with Anat has blossomed into two zoom speaking engagements with her, one with my synagogue on May 23 and one with the organization I founded in 1982; the Women Cantors’ Network on June 6. I am so grateful for others to learn more about her dedication and struggles.

In all the years I have been making and giving out tallitot; easily several  hundred, I have never known a tallit to be defiled, attacked and abused. It sickened me to see her beautiful tallit stained, and it pained me to think hot coffee was thrown at her while she was in prayer. She could have been burned G-d forbid! Ironically at that moment, her siddur was open  to the page of the Prayer for Women of the Wall, a prayer written 20 years ago by a WOW member, Rahel Jaskow.

It is time for Women of the Wall to receive protection from the extremists who are not afraid of using violence. It is time for the Western Wall Heritage Foundation’s chairman, Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz to respect the prayers of all women and make security and safety a priority. It is not reasonable or safe to allow violence as an expression of disdain for a different approach to Kol Ishah- the voice of a woman.

On a positive note, the  recent ruling by the Israeli Supreme Court to adapt a more pluralistic view of Jewish identity by granting the right of automatic citizenship to foreigners who convert within the State of Israel to Conservative or Reform Judaism is encouraging.  According to the Israel Religious Action Center only about 30-40 foreigners convert, but it is a huge statement about religious freedom in Israel and respecting the diversity of practices in Judaism.

Anat Hoffman is also the executive director of the Israel Religious Action Center. She remarked, “ It’s a tremendous sense of relief and gratitude and gratification. This verdict really opens the gates for Israel to have more than one way to be Jewish”.

This ruling will surely enrage the extremists even more. The sight of women praying with tallit, Torah and song will  continue to be seen as “ provocation”. It is time for the Western Wall Heritage Foundation to make the Kotel safe for all Jews.

A tale of two tallitot — one created in an atmosphere of respect, love and safety and one attacked with hot coffee while in prayer. May our prayers be heard, and may there be respect and shalom for anyone praying anywhere, especially in Jerusalem.

About the Author
Fourth generation cantor, second woman to serve a traditional synagogue and founder of the Women Cantors' Network. Deborah studied with Elie Wiesel z"l and continues to be inspired by his teachings. First recipient of the Debbie Friedman Miriam Award. A cantor in Ridgefield, CT since 1999, cellist, tallit Swedish weaving embroiderer, mother of 6, grandmother of two. Wife and friend.
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