Artist’s prayer shawls tell stories of their own

Artist’s prayer shawls tell stories of their own

Rachel Kanter weaves ‘midrash’ on the lives of Jewish women

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Rachel Kanter with two of her tallitot on display at Congregation Shomrei Emunah in Montclair. Photo by Johanna Ginsberg
Rachel Kanter with two of her tallitot on display at Congregation Shomrei Emunah in Montclair. Photo by Johanna Ginsberg

Every tallit artist Rachel Kanter sews is more than a prayer shawl. “I like to study text when I work,” she said. “Each piece is usually a commentary on the text — a midrash, really,” on women’s lives.

Design motifs have included women’s names, waves, photographs, and circles. Examples of her work have appeared on the cover of Lilith Magazine and in the collections of The Jewish Museum and Temple Emanu-El in New York City.

Kanter talked to NJJN surrounded by her ritual artwork on a recent morning at Congregation Shomrei Emunah in Montclair, where she is a member and where her tallitot are on exhibit through May.

Kanter made her first tallit in 2002, shortly after her first child, Siona, was born. (She and her husband, Andy Ely, have two more children: Pacey, seven, and Avital, five. The family lives in Montclair, and the children attend the Golda Och Academy in West Orange.)

After Siona’s birth, she said, “I was flirting with the idea of wearing a tallit, and I realized that if I wanted her to grow up thinking it is normal, I have to do it.”

Finding the right tallit proved challenging. When she wore a traditional prayer shawl, she said, “I was not comfortable. I felt I was wearing my dad’s clothing. I had to ask what I wanted it to look like, and what I wanted it to say.”

By the time Avital was born, “praying with my tallit on became very difficult. It was always falling off, and I was always doing a hundred things, and toys would be dropping. There was a disconnect between my life as a new mother and my spiritual life. How could I combine these?”

She hit upon the idea of an article of clothing more associated with women: the apron. She infused the practical garment with her own contemporary designs, based on women’s experiences, and added tzitzit.

She loved the idea that it’s “an iconic women’s garment,” she said. “I liked elevating it and making it holy.”

At 40, Kanter shrugs off criticism from some people who have told her the apron is the antithesis of contemporary feminism, sending women right back into the kitchen.

“My associations with the apron are so positive,” she countered. “They remind me of being at my grandmother’s — we went to my grandparents’ house every Friday night for Shabbat dinner. It’s about the love of making food, having Shabbat meals and holiday meals there. I really think there’s something very holy about food and the table in Judaism.”

The apron design, however, is meant as a conceptual piece — not something Kanter actually uses for prayer or expects others to use.

Her own purple tallit, she said, “is shaped more like a vest. It’s loose and billowy, sheer silk, with blue and green waves. It’s based on a text that talks about God’s breath. To me, it feels nothing like a man’s tallit. It has none of the traditional vocabulary, it’s not striped, it’s not rectangular, there’s no atara.”

‘Wardrobe of tallitot

The word “tallit,” literally “gown” or “cloak,” was a rectangular garment worn by men in ancient times. At the four corners are the tzitzit commanded in Numbers 15:38-41. According to Jewish law, women are not technically prohibited from wearing tallitot, but Orthodox practitioners and other traditionalists frown on the practice. Women in liberal movements began wearing them in large numbers in the 1970s and 1980s as they advocated for more egalitarian practice.

Kanter grew up in Syracuse, NY, in a kosher home, active in the family’s Conservative synagogue. She went to day school and Jewish summer camps and participated in a volunteer program in Israel after college.

Fiber arts have long been part of her life. Her mother, she said, was always doing something artistic. “She sewed, knitted, and crocheted. She made the quilts for our beds, and she made a beautiful family huppah.”

Kanter holds undergraduate and master’s degrees in fine art, and ultimately combined the two major facets of her upbringing and has been doing what she calls “Jewish art” since college. For over 10 years she has been part of the Artists’ Beit Midrash at the Skirball Center at Temple Emanu-El, where she first conceived of the tallit series.

Her work also includes a portable fiber arts “mikva,” a farm series that includes tallitot made from corn feed sacks as well as tablecloths, and a set of embroidered hand towels that are her reaction to “Eshet Chayil,” the prayer praising a woman’s traditional roles as a wife and mother.

As for her prayer shawls, she suggests that just as people have collections of Kiddush cups and menoras, they ought to have collections of tallitot.

“Why wouldn’t people have 71 different tallitot? You could have a whole wardrobe of tallitot to wear at different times of the year and for different experiences.”

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