Wednesday, June 06, 2007

The Emergence of the Clown Tallit

upon reaching my bar mitzvah i received my first tallit. it had a striping patters that was beautiful and very colorful. by now these rainbow tallitot have become ubiquitous.
Seeing a posting on the JITW listserv where someone allergic to wool was gifting his rainbow tallit reminded me that folks might be interested to hear the story of where these tallitot came from. Zalman had left Philadelphia only a few years before my bar mitzvah, but until recently i didn't know the story of how he came up with the unusual design. I was able to read about it here.

The beautiful B'nai Or (Children of Light) prayer shawl, sometimes called the "Joseph's Coat " tallis, was designed by Rabbi Zalman Schachter, formerly known as the B'nai Or Rebbe. Over the years, I have met many Jews who bought a B'nai Or tallis simply because it was beautiful, or because they like rainbows --- without realizing that there is a "legend in the making" behind this robe of rainbow light.


The story begins many years ago, back in the 1950's, when Reb Zalman was still a Lubovitcher Hasid. One day, he was meditating on the Midrash: How did G-d create the world? He wrapped himself in a robe of light and it began to shine. Suddenly Reb Zalman had a beautiful inspiration, almost a vision, of a prayer shawl woven in vibrant rainbow colors. It was radical -- and it was beautiful!

Reb Zalman's very first colored tallis was made in the 1950's from an Anderson clan tartan. It was very nice, but he still preferred stripes, not only because that is traditional for prayer shawls but also because he somehow sensed that it should have bands of color, like a spectrum. Reb Zalman later presented the plaid tallis to a Scottish convert to Judaism named Anderson.

This is a great Zalman moment. What a beautiful way to celebrate someone's family and clan and give it power during a process that can often lead to alienation from one's original home.

Other experiments included embroidering colors on a regular tallis, or appliqued stripes, and with each new design, the rainbow vision became clearer.

Around 1961 or so, the present design was ready for the weavers. But in those days, tallis makers were all very orthodox people who were not about to participate in this "crazy idea." Reb Zalman trekked from one Brooklyn tallis manufacturer top another, but was flatly refused by all.

"What is this you want? A Purim (clown) tallis?" one pious old Hasid asked at the Munchatzer tallis factory. "Is this some kind of new sect or something?"

[rainbow Tree of Life diagram] But the design Reb Zalman envisioned was far from being a "clown tallis." Each of the colors, as well as the width and arrangement of the stripes themselves, was based on the seven lower Sefirot (mystical levels) of the kabbalistic Tree of Life diagram, co-ordinated to the colors of the rainbow.


There is an interesting desciption of the choices of stripes, widths, borders, and how each was chosen and relates to the sephirot at this point in the original piece. I threw ellipses in above as it disrupts the narrative flow though i suggest that anyone interested in kabbalah take a peak.

So, the pattern kept coming through clearer and clearer, and the quest for a weaver continued outside the Orthodox community. The very first tallis in the B'nai Or pattern was made from reindeer wool by a woman in New Haven, Connecticut. This was lovely, but Reb Zalman still was not completely satisfied, because the cloth came out more like a blanket than a prayer shawl, and it hung rather stiffly. The search went on...

Then while visiting Montreal, Reb Zalman looked in the phone book and found the listing of Karen Bulow, Vetements Religieux - a Christian vestment company? Would they be willing to do it? After a brief conversation over the phone, Reb Zalman ran ecstatically into the street and hailed the first taxicab! Yes, they could make it, but he would have to buy five of them, because it wasn't worth setting up the loom for only one. 'Of course, yes, I'll gladly take five!' he said with delight.

At last the original tallaysim were woven: Reb Zalman got one, Abraham Joshua Heschel got one, Everett Gendler got one, Arthur Green got one... And the fifth tallis? I don't know. Perhaps it belongs to all of us, because these five tallaysim opened the door for Jews everywhere to begin personalizing their prayer shawls and expressing their own visions of Jewish spiritual renewal.

A few months later, Reb Zalman was hired as 'religious environmentalist" at a Ramah summer camp. So here was this Lubovitcher Hasid, combing the Manhattan garment district for colorful remnants, especially scraps with stripes and bright colors, so that he could teach Jewish kids how to make their own tallaysim! With a rented sewing machine and a trunk full of cloth under his bunk, he set up his "tallisarium,' the very first grassroots do-it-yourself prayer-shawkmaking venture.

I have learned from a variety of places that Zalman did some wonderful and exciting things at Ramah before he was asked to move elsewhere. I think the cause of the splitting of ways was discomfort around Reb Zalman's suggestion that campers also make brachot in english using traditional nusach and trop (musical and chanting systems). In the years since, this approach has become quite common and another example of ZSS being ahead of the curve.

Years passed, and those Jews taught other Jews, who taught still others. Reb Zalman never copyrighted his design, so that eventually it was picked up and produced by a tallis factory in Israel, marketed as the "Joseph's coat' tallis, although some manufacturers toned down the original psychedelic "neon' colors to more muted tones. Today, multi-colored tallaysim are commonplace -so much so, that a young man once walked up to the now gray-haired Reb Zalman and asked, 'Where did you get your rainbow tallis? I also have one. Yours is exactly like mine!"

Reb Zalman smiled lovingly. 'Yes, baruch Hashem, I also have a rainbow tallis...' he paused, a faraway look in his eyes, '... we're both wrapped in the Creator's Robe of Light." The vision had come full circle.

I love hearing these stories of the origins of common rituals and experiences. I continue to be amazed at how much of the contemporary Jewish experience got its start in the 1960s.


At 6/06/2007 , Blogger bpt said...

Some of the stuff is really great, and some is really bad and keeps hanging on. I remember when the sing-songy repetitive "vSHAMruu" melody was brand new and cool, in the early 70's. I was on the periphery, so it's probably from the late 60's. Now I want to run out of the room when I hear it. Which is pretty much every week.

At 6/08/2007 , Blogger EAR said...

Re: v'SHAMruu, Gustine Matt told my mom that this version was written by then-JTS rabbinical student and now-Rabbi Moshe Rothblum in the late 1960s. It was composed at her kitchen table, which she of course shared with Rabbi Hershel Matt z"l (who is one of those people I'm terribly sorry I will never have the privilege of meeting). Apparently this version of V'shameru was meant to be sung slowly and beautifully, certainly not the way it's generally sung today.

BZ has sometimes gotten people to sing it the way it was meant to be sung (we think) by playing it slowly on his guitar. It's quite nice this way!

At 6/08/2007 , Blogger EAR said...

PS: I forgot to say thanks ZT for posting this article. I knew part of the story about the tallit, but not all of it. And not that Ramah kicked out Reb Zalman. Bah and fie.

At 6/20/2007 , Blogger yitz.. said...

umm by 'contemporary jewish experience'
what exactly do you mean?

there are LOTS of Jews out there who don't wear rainbow tallitot and don't [generally] sing carlebach..

At 8/17/2010 , Anonymous wool tallit said...

A tallit with one fringe missing is placed on the shoulders of a deceased male before the casket is closed.


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