A friend who is a rabbi once told me that, to her, Judaism was like her grandmother's sweater, discovered in an old trunk in the attic. She found that it fit her well with very little alteration, and she knew it had been created with love and care. As a sweater designer this made perfect sense to me. I often find older garments that are beautifully constructed but need a bit of re-blocking, a little finishing work, just a tiny repair to make them perfect for the modern-day wearer. I knew that my friend--perhaps without fully realizing the knitting technicalities of her comment--had happened upon the perfect analogy for many Jews.
This is a lovely sentiment, but where does it leave those of us with non-Jewish sweaters in the attic--or even no sweaters at all? Knitting a sweater can be a time-consuming activity--it requires skill, patience and, in most cases, a good set of instructions. Crafting an interfaith identity can demand just as much skill and patience. Often we're left to write our own "instructions" by piecing together bits from our own past interactions with churches, synagogues, and other spiritual paths. I have come to believe that those of us who choose to take on this daunting task can knit together a "garment of the soul" that will suit each of us and help us feel more secure in our chosen role as interfaith child, partner or convert.
I am a non-Jew married to a Jewish man. We have two Jewish children; we enjoy participation in weekly Shabbat (Sabbath) services; and we are active in our shul (synagogue). I am in the process of creating my own "interfaith sweater." I feel that everyone who is seeking a spiritual path is, in essence, creating her own spiritual garment.
I love taking an analogy to its extreme to discover previously overlooked angles of interpretation. As I worked through the comparison of my own faith to a knitted garment, I uncovered facets of my spiritual journey that I had not encountered.
I am known as a knitter who can "design on the needle." This means that I can create a complex sweater as I knit, working through the shaping and stitch patterns in my head. This skill has come from knitting and ripping out many, many stitches. Years of study, creating and revising patterns, and making literally hundreds of garments has given me the technical prowess to design on the fly. It is through the discipline of study that I find my greatest freedom. When I know a stitch pattern intimately, then I can add to it, change it, and create my own unique motif--riffing, jamming, improvising. However, I also design sweaters by using meticulous charts and schematics, and by measuring gauge carefully.
Often members of my congregation or other Jewish friends mention to me how seamlessly I seem to fit into the life of our temple, how easily I have picked up the rhythm of the services, the tone of the blessings. What they may not have noticed, however, are the hours of study, the constant introspection, the trial and error--knitting and ripping out--that make up most of my spiritual journey. Because I continue to put so much time and energy into my Jewish education, I feel a great measure of freedom when I participate in Jewish events. I go through a lot of "fittings" to make my spiritual garment suit me well.
Once I have developed a stitch pattern, whether it is a sturdy cable or a lacy filigree, the yarn that I choose to use affects the look of the garment. Two knitters could use the same pattern with the same skill level, but their sweaters would be individual and unique, depending on their choice of fiber. Even though my spiritual life now revolves around Judaism, the motifs and patterns of my Methodist grandmothers are woven throughout my own garment.
My own "fiber"--the intrinsic "content" of my own soul is made up of my past--my family heritage and my childhood religious experience. The twist of my yarn, the way my fiber has been spun, is determined by the development of my life philosophy and my own moral code. Some folks' spiritual fiber is spun very loosely, some are so tightly wound they could almost be called twine. We can choose the pattern for our spiritual sweaters, but in a sense we're stuck with the fiber we're born with. It is up to us to choose how to spin it out into a beautiful and useful yarn.
I see this independent spirit echoed each week as my fellow congregants daven (pray): we say the same words; we sing the same blessings; but the fabric of prayer that we weave is individual and beautifully diverse. The discipline of learning Hebrew, rehearsing melodies and anticipating the eccentricities of my own temple allows me a great feeling of freedom when our congregation comes together for services.
A well-knit garment is half finished until it is blocked correctly. Blocking is the process where one forms the knitted garment to the final shape. One can block using water, steam, or a combination of the two, depending on the fiber involved. Only I can knit the pieces of my interfaith garment, but I need my spiritual community to help me block it. Most sweaters block better with a little bit of heat. Mistakes in the knitting process cannot be reversed by blocking, but blocking can enhance good knitting and help smooth over uneven areas.
The friend who compared her connection to Judaism to her grandmother's sweater is a tall woman. She would have to take that sweater, re-block it to suit her frame--perhaps even add a bit to the cuffs. Certainly, she would have to skillfully darn a few moth holes, and maybe add some new buttons or even a bit of colorful embroidery. I'm starting with a completely new garment, but the two of us can work together, helping and learning from each other.
I wonder how my own children and grandchildren will alter my spiritual sweater. Will they create their own, perhaps basing it on my pattern? Recently a Reform rabbi mentioned to me that he had witnessed a huge explosion of new colors and textures in tallit (prayer shawls) design within his congregation. I personally feel that it's the women--the female rabbis, cantors and active women congregants--who are bringing their innate knowledge of the power of garment to the bima (podium).
Perhaps my interfaith sweater will be a hand-knit tallis (prayer shawl)?