Throw, Pinch, Beat, Change Feet – Paula Chaiken

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My husband lost his tallis the Yom Kippur after we were married. The prayer shawl, brought from Israel by his beloved aunt and uncle in time for his bar mitzvah, disappeared from the break fast at his cousin’s house. We suspected his little cousin, a shy girl with brown hair, of taking it. A search of the house revealed nothing. He went without a tallis for many years. 

Throw, Pinch, Beat, Change Feet. Throw, Pinch, Beat, Change Feet. 

What most impressed us about the JCC in the town where we moved was the tallis-weaving program. For a fee, anyone could weave a kosher prayer shawl. You picked your own colors, but not your own time. The waiting list ruled. When you received your call, you cleared your calendar for two weeks and went to weave, Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays from ten to four, with a break for lunch.

“Cream and royal blue and black,” I said as I rubbed the wool between my thumb and forefinger, taking in the rainbow of spools: primaries, pastels, every shade from white to black, and metallics, too. 

Steve, the weaver, an artist actually, was retired from his family’s furniture business, and Elena, his Russian-accented assistant had been a micro-biologist in the old country, reduced to a volunteer at the JCC here.  Elena demonstrated how to wind the wool onto the spool then fit it into the shuttle. Steve positioned me at my loom. I tried to get comfortable on the seat, narrower than a piano bench and certainly less cushy. “Throw, Pinch, Beat, Change Feet,” they taught. 

Throw the shuttle between the rows of thread. Pinch the edges of the fabric, creating a neat seam. Beat the threads, pulling them tightly. Change feet on the treadles.  Start again. 

“Throw, Pinch, Beat, Change Feet,” I chanted silently, all the while thinking. Thinking, “I don’t have the patience for this.” Thinking, “Those poor kids in Pakistan weaving Oriental rugs.” Thinking, “My back hurts.”

Two weeks. Throw, Pinch, Beat, Change Feet. Throw, Pinch, Beat, Change Feet. I heard the cadence in my dreams. 

I remember my husband not being delighted enough, enthusiastic enough, appreciative enough, when I gave him his tallis, my own handiwork. What is the appropriate thank you for such a gift? An enveloping hug, a love poem, a morning to sleep late? But with three kids and a career and a half, we were lucky to swap a kiss on the way out the door. 

Throw, Pinch, Beat, Change Feet. Throw, Pinch, Beat, Change Feet. 

I put my name on the wait list a full year before my eldest son’s bar mitzvah, wanting to be sure to finish the tallis with plenty of time to plan party favors, go dress shopping and create seating arrangements. 

Cubs colors – red and royal blue this time on a background of cream – to go along with his party theme – Chicago, city of his birth, city of his heart. 

I wove next to Marsha, a retired teacher with short grey hair and a bubbly voice, who was weaving a chuppah, the canopy for her daughter’s wedding. A chuppah is twice as big as a tallis and takes at least a month to weave. While we wove, Marsha, a generation older than I, shared life stories and lots of wisdom with me. From her example, I vowed to be a better wife, a better mother. 

After the fabric was finished, my son tied the tzit tzit, the fringes on the corners, himself, under the tutelage of Ann, a local social worker, dedicated to Judaism. I watched his clumsy fingers knot. I cried. 

I remember my son not being delighted enough, enthusiastic enough, appreciative enough, with the gift of his tallis, my own handiwork. But what teenaged boy would be?

Throw, Pinch, Beat, Change Feet. Throw, Pinch, Beat, Change Feet. 

My second son’s bar mitzvah felt a little ‘been there, done that.” The weaving, no longer a priority, came after a spring break trip, after a yoga retreat, after a Mother/Daughter weekend, but I still left plenty of time for the minutia of planning. 

Red and grey with some silver threads. Because red is his favorite color. And it looked good. 

I had my grandfather’s tallis, the man for whom this son was named. It was falling apart, so I pulled the threads out and incorporated them into the fabric. Literally weaving generations together. 

This time I tied the tzit tzit, with Steve’s help, worried about getting it right, making the tallis kosher. My son was busy playing baseball, doing homework, studying his Torah portion. I didn’t bother Ann, who cared for her ailing husband. 

Was this son appreciative of my gift?  I don’t remember. 

I have one more tallis to weave, for my youngest son. His favorite color changes every year. Right now, it’s chartreuse, or maybe orange. 

Throw, Pinch, Beat, Change Feet. Throw, Pinch, Beat, Change Feet. 

I sat next to my men at Yom Kippur services this year. Seeing them in a row, wrapped in their talleisim, the same pattern, same wool, same weaver, brought me to tears. 

I wondered if they could feel the love I put in the talleisim, the time I spent, the way my back hurt. I wondered if they would wear them for the rest of their lives. If they would feel my embrace after I’m gone. I wondered if, one day, many, many years from now (please G-d) they would be buried in them, tzit tzit cut off, or if they would pass them down to their (G-d willing) children. 

At the close of the service, I hugged my husband, my boys. As I kissed them and said, “Good Yuntiff,” I felt the wool of their talleisim, admired the pattern, the neat edge, appreciative of my efforts at weaving. 

Throw, Pinch, Beat, Change Feet. Throw, Pinch, Beat, Change Feet. 

 

 

Paula Chaiken is the busy mom of three boys. She runs a public relations consulting firm, is the author of I Know Grandpa, a picture book, and volunteers throughout the Jewish and general communities of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania.

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5 thoughts on “Throw, Pinch, Beat, Change Feet – Paula Chaiken

  1. Tommy burket

    A lovely story, Paula, beautifully written. I especially like the part about weaving in the threads of the grandfather’s Tallis. Thanks for this!

    Reply
  2. Susana Weiss

    Dear Paula: The way you write express all the love you have inside of you and the patience and dedication you put in each tallis it’s only made with the love of a mom, a wife, a person with details. A friend that is special and great.

    Reply

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