A Travelling Tallit
Five questions for
rabbi Bea Wyler
On June 26, 2022, the Jewish Museum Hohenems opened the exhibition «Stuffed Jews? History, Present and Future of Jewish Museums» («Ausgestopfte Juden? Geschichte, Gegenwart und Zukunft der Jüdischen Museen»), showing a tallit (prayer shawl) from the Jewish Museum of Switzerland’s collection. The shawl was crafted by Rabbi Bea Wyler, who in 1995 became the first female rabbi of a post-war congregation in the German-speaking world. To replace the shawl, our museum acquired a second tallit, hand-made by Bea Wyler, which will temporarily take the place of the travelling tallit. Upon her visit to the Jewish Museum, the historian Barbara Häne spoke to Bea Wyler about Judaism – and artisanship.
BH: Bea Wyler, you made two tallitot for the collection of the Jewish Museum of Switzerland, thank you very much. How did you learn the craft of making a tallit?
BW: When I was studying for my ordination at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, I was interested in the halakha, both in theory and in practice. I wanted to make myself a tallit and chose silk as material. I then made several more tallitot, which I sold, and I used the money to finance part of my studies. As to the craft, meaning the sewing itself, I learned it in needlework classes in school.
BH: What are the steps to making a tallit?
BW: First, you need a cloth with four corners, the minimum size is prescribed. The stripes are applied with a brush. I knotted the tsitziyot (show threads) myself from silk yarn. I still have about 20 kilometers of kosher silk yarn at home, because I had to have the yarn specially made by a spinning company that normally supplies large firms. For the company, my order was only a «laboratory quantity.» I poked the holes for attaching the zizijot with a carpet needle.
BH: How long does it take you to make a tallit?
BW: That’s hard to say, since you don’t make the shawl in one go. You need to take several breaks, among others to let the dye dry. If you count washing, ironing, measuring, sewing the hems, and tying the zizijot, including waiting times, it takes three days. Today I only make tallitot on request.
BH: In traditional circles, only men wear a tallit. How did your congregation react to you wearing one?
BW: In New York, many community members wore tallitot that I made them, after they noticed my tallit and asked me to make them one too. Once, when several people wearing my tallitot showed up for minyan, a visitor asked, «Is this a special cult?» [Wyler laughs]. Today, women pray with a tallit even in orthodox circles. My parents both wear the tallitot I made them.
BH: Would you say that you experience your Jewishness in part through artisanship? I know for instance that you like to cook, and that preparing meals is a part of the way you choose to practice Judaism.
BW: That’s true, I love to cook! I especially like to prepare food for the holidays – in large quantities. For this year’s Shavuot, I decided to bake something special: Cholera. Yes, the name is correct. It’s a baked cake with leeks, potatoes, apples, and lots of cheese, of course – a Valais specialty, and perfectly suited for Shavuot.
BH: That sounds delicious. Rabbi Wyler, thank you very much!
verfasst am 27.06.2022