#TorahForTheResistance: Should We Wear Tallesim (prayer shawls) or Other Ritual Gear at Protests?

On January 17, I was arrested along with 85 other Jews calling on the US Congress to pass a clean Dream Act to protect 800,000 undocumented young Americans from being deported from the only country they’ve ever really known. My Grandma Fannie z”l came to this country as a teenager, almost certainly illegally, and I stand with the Dreamers in her memory. Read more here: http://weareheretostay.org/. The Jewish civil disobedience action included a huge range of Jews from secular to black-hat Orthodox. Our arrests made national news, because apparently “Jews support immigrants” is a man-bites-dog story.

Wearing a tallis in that moment made me feel braver and more present. When I was arrested, the officer carefully un-draped my grandfather’s giant white wool tallis from my shoulders while searching every (clothed) inch of my body, and stuffed it in a big ziplock bag. I felt diminished.

The Torah teaches that the tzitzis themselves – the intricately tied fringes on the corners – are a visible reminder of how we ought to act. We’ll look at them, it says, and remember all the mitzvot, the divine Way we should live. And we’ll do them.

The Torah also describes other ways of dressing for spiritual awe and danger, in the simple vestments of the high priest on Yom Kippur. Once a year he would enter the empty space at the Holy of Holies and make atonement for himself and all our people. Though the world of the temple is far from our Judaism today there is an echo between the preparations of the high priest, taking off his elaborate ritual finery, washing himself in water, and re-dressing in humble white, and how we prepared for civil disobedience. We took everything out of our pockets, left behind all our bags and phones and water bottles. We put back only a photo ID – proof of ourselves – and cash for bail – freedom. And then many of us put on a tallis.

In this era of fascists and bigots, and the urgent need for near-constant resistance against their hateful agenda, may we all merit to show up creatively, passionately, and OFTEN. Showing up visibly as Jews adds depth to our political voice.

Jewish ritual gear and garb speaks proudly of our Jewishness and our devotion to the Torah’s moral vision. Lots of folks who don’t wear a yarmulke/kippah regularly do put it on at rallies or protests. Wearing tefillin at a rally would be pretty metal (tefillin are pretty metal). And I’ve gotten chills hearing the shofar blasted in the streets.

But the tallis is the greatest protest garment. It’s widely worn in settings of sanctity, and represents a prayerful mode. It’s not esoteric or elite like tefillin. It’s much more noticeable than a kippah. And any Jewish adult can wear one with pride without having to know a lot or be some particular kind of Jew.

The protest tallis connects and communicates.

My tallis has opened dozens of conversations at large rallies and marches. Jews can identify me. Non-Jews can (sometimes) identify me. At the 2017 Women’s March a random guy yelled “GO GO SUPERHERO CAPE!!” Not sure if that was a joke, but I liked it. Large crowded events can be ironically isolating if you’re not great at chatting up strangers, and in a tallis you wear your identity and values (over) your sleeves.

A tallis creates a holy space out of too often boring, crowded, or grimy settings. When we wear tallesim, we look regal and glamorous. Feeling beautiful is powerful. Looking beautiful helps communicate who we are and what we want to bystanders, the folks back home, and potentially a global audience on TV and Facebook Live and The Gram. A tallis shows allies who is with them, and opponents who they are up against.

On the rare occasions I attend rallies or protests on Shabbat, it’s a way to bring more Shabbat to the action. And if you normally aren’t a shul-goer, but your activism is motivated by Jewish values or history or Torah or spirituality, wearing a tallis is an outward sign of that motivation and a way to beautify the mitzvah of “praying with your feet,” to paraphrase our teacher Rabbi Heschel.

If I thought that the protest tallis was only for show, I’d never encourage anyone to wear one. And if you are putting a tallis on just to look “authentic,” or you never wear one, let’s not have this be your first time – religious gear deserves more respect than that.

But as long as you aren’t putting it on cynically, it is powerful. Does wearing a tallis make you feel dignified, prayerful, strong, proud, protected? Does it bring the balance of humility and righteousness that political action demands? Does it play ironically off your vulgar and hilarious sign about tiny hands off your pussy? (Note: if you think this is disrespectful, OK yes, and – some vigorous anger is called for in 2018. Feel free to keep it PG, or …not. We all get to wear a tallis in this revolution.)

The thing I’ll remember for the rest of my life, from the Jewish action in support of the Dreamers, was the Dreamers themselves. No news camera could capture the electric connection between our Jewish group and the young people who came to witness us. I ended that day at my dining table with two young women, one undocumented and the other with undocumented parents, telling me how watching Jews get arrested while taking a stand for their community cracked open the isolation and fear they carry. This was the first time they knew they had real allies.

My beloved Jews, we have work to do. Not everyone needs to get arrested, but when young Americans from immigrant families have no clue that the Jewish community stands with them, we are not living out God’s demands on us. And when we’re living in times that demand visible, sustained, and proud resistance, it’s time to get out your tallis, or whatever it is that serves as a reminder to you, and let’s get going.

This piece of #TorahForTheResistance is written by Rebecca Ennen, a reverent and irreverent Jew and a professional social justice warrior. She trained and worked professionally in avant-garde theater and Israeli-Palestinian conflict dialogue, and now raises money and leads local grassroots Jewish political organizing in the District of Columbia (still no voting representation in Congress) and Maryland. The child of an atheist Brooklyn Jew and a lapsed Midwestern Catholic, she loves shul, church, God, dystopian science fiction, and Dunkin’ Donuts.

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