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Tucson tallit artist: ‘Everything is generated by story’

The Rosh Hashanah-inspired pomegranate tallit Beth Surdut created for Rabbi Malka Drucker of Santa Fe, N.M., includes a quote from Psalm 96.
Beth Surdut
Beth Surdut

From Providence, R.I., to Santa Fe, N.M., to Tucson, with many stops in between, tallit maker Beth Surdut has always been an artist. Her approach to Judaism is as expansive as her art, always growing and changing. “Being brought up Jewish you’re brought up to have an inquiring mind,” says Surdut.

Her family belonged to a Reform congregation during her childhood in Providence. She became a bat mitzvah “on the cusp of when girls were offered a strong Jewish education. I’m spiritual but not religious. I’ve always been proud to be Jewish,” she says. “I think it’s delicious to come from a heritage of learning.”

Both her parents were artists but not professionally. “My father was a lawyer. The question was: Would I go to art school or law school? When I was a kid I didn’t ask for stuff. I asked for classes. I wanted experiences,” says Surdut. “Everything I do is generated by story.”

Desert Bloom Tallit
Desert Bloom Tallit

She began painting on silk in the late ’80s, and soon her work was included in a group exhibit at the Renwick Gallery, a branch of the Smithsonian Art Museum in Washington, D.C. Four years ago, she merged her love of Judaism with her passion, creating hand-painted silk healing shawls, tallitot and Torah covers. “A large number of my tallit clients are older women,” she notes, “who didn’t have a chance to have a bat mitzvah.”

Surdut moved to Tucson in mid-March, but she started on her current path while living in Santa Fe for six years.“I was at services. I had made a hand-painted scarf with pomegranates to celebrate the New Year. Rabbi Malka Drucker [of Santa Fe’s HaMakom (The Place)] saw it and said, ‘I want one,’” says Surdut, who previously had a 10-year career designing and fabricating architectural art glass in Washington, D.C.

The tallit she painted for Drucker shares the same prayer as Surdut’s own pomegranate tallit: May the words of my mouth and meditations of my heart be acceptable in Thy sight, Adonai, my rock and my redeemer (Psalm 96:1).

“I work with my clients to help them step out of the chatter of life into meditation,” says Surdut. “You don’t have to go to temple to wear a tallit. You can pray anywhere.”

Her road to Tucson began in 2013 when she attended the Tucson Festival of Books. She won the TFOB Literary Award for Nonfiction for “Listening to Raven,” a book of essays, shared stories and intricate drawings. “Each time I came here I felt more welcomed,” says Surdut, who also had a tallit client here that year. “Tucson has a much larger Jewish community than Santa Fe, plus there’s the energy of the university.” She presented a talk on the modern tallit at the Tucson Jewish Community Center in January 2014 and took on another client. That was “the turnaround” to move here.

Surdut has also worked as a journalist and commentator, covering topics from sewers to senators. Her essays have aired on National Public Radio, including a six-part series on the business of art. She has written for the Boston Globe, Hebrew College magazine, small-town newspapers and other publications.

“What’s really interesting to me is the stories that generate the prayer shawls. They become your personal house of prayer,” which you can wrap yourself in for comfort, she says. “The stories I hear are so personal and sometimes devastating.”

One girl for whom she made a bat mitzvah tallit has a sister with a rare blood disease. “Her mother said she wanted her healthy daughter to feel her arms around her whenever she put it on,” says Surdut, who spoke with the girl to find out what she liked. “She said, ‘I like hearts, flowers and pink. I like walking through people’s gardens.’ She really liked the phrase ‘Live, laugh, love.’ That family has so much strength and tsuris (trouble).” Another client was from the Republic of Georgia. Her parents were murdered there. “She found out that somewhere along the line she was Jewish. The woman, a scientist and filmmaker in her 40s, became a Jew by choice,” says Surdut. “She wanted me to paint her dream of going with her grandfather into the mountains” on her healing prayer shawl.

“I’m a visual storyteller” whose creations “send me to places of study where I would otherwise not go,” she says. “I put on my journalist hat as an interviewer and researcher, my spiritual hat as a Jew, and my artistic hat as a designer — but prayer comes first.”

All of Surdut’s silk painting is done freehand. “The whole idea is this is just for you,” she says, adding that it’s important to her to “pay it forward.” Surdut recalls how one client ordered a prayer shawl “to give to some nice Jewish woman who needed it.”

“I woke up one morning feeling I was supposed to be making a scarf but didn’t know who it was for. I turned on the radio and heard that Gabby Giffords had been shot,” says Surdut. “I made a healing scarf called ‘Heavens’ because her husband was an astronaut. Rabbi Malka sent it from our congregation.”

For Surdut, there’s “no separation between work and play.” Most important, she says, “For everything I do I practice the art of paying attention. That’s what I get excited about, if someone looks at my work and says, ‘I never paid attention to that before.’”