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I used to crochet yarmulkas for boys. Now I'm crocheting stuff for myself. Here's what I've learned.

I started to crochet again. It’s different this time around, since I stopped 15 or 20 years ago. Back then, I was pretty much crocheting one item: yarmulkas. I was pretty good at it, and designed my own color schemes and patterns. My husband seemed to like them, though he lost or destroyed with wear and tear most of the ones I have made him. I’m guessing that the rest of the yarmulkas I made, probably 200 of them, are no longer being used either. But actually, I have no idea.

I spent a lot of time as a teenager crocheting yarmulkas. It was an excuse to do something more interesting during boring classes. It was also, significantly, a creative endeavor that allowed me to explore my artistic side. But mostly, it was a way to get boys’ attention.

There was a certain social code to making boys’ yarmulkas. It was a gift that was often reserved for that “special someone”. If you made one for a boy, you were sending a certain signal of interest. I went through a few boyfriends in high school, and they all fared well in this department. But a girl could also make a yarmulka for a guy she was friends with, and that was its own sort of signal, although it risked wavering between unknown status changes and fluctuations in mutual interest. My yarmulkas also came with engraved messages on the back. “Love, elana” could mean a lot of things. Giving a guy a yarmulka was a form of non-verbal communication, with all its implications.

There was a stage when I was something of a goto person for yarmulkas. I found myself making them for some of the boys in my class, even ones I wasn’t really friends with, or didn’t even necessarily like. I remember boys who barely spoke to me coming up to me asking me to make them yarmulkas. I never said no.

There were a few reasons I kept at it. One was that it kept my hands busy so I didn’t have to think about how bored or unhappy I actually was. I think that this is a strategy that many women engage in – that we are encouraged to engage in. If we spend enough time in the kitchen or running around after our beloved children, we won’t have time to think too much about what we really want for ourselves in life. Or who we are subservient to. Keep us busy enough and we won’t get around to protesting.

Another reason I kept at it was that I was hoping that it would make boys like me, even as friends. The boys in my class, some of whom I sat with for 13 years together in school, were notoriously obnoxious to the girls in my class. Some of them would pass us in the hall and not even offer a nod in acknowledgment. Even my own cousin, a boy who was in this boys’ clique, would pretend that he didn’t know me. The only girls that were acknowledged were the ones belonging to a particular “cool” group that was composed primarily of girls in other classes. I certainly wasn’t in it. Neither were most of the girls in our class, 401, the so-called “smart” class. Being in the “smart” class had no effect on the popularity of the boys. But it could be a killer for the popularity of the girls.

Anyway, despite the boys in my class not knowing that I existed, many of them found ways to ask me for yarmulkas, which I made in the hopes of changing impressions of me. For the most part, the efforts failed. Boys walking around with my beautiful creations often continued not to talk to me.

The third reason I kept at this with minimal protest, I think, is that it was part of a larger socialization into what it meant to be a girl. I was serving others, serving the needs of men, not making anything for myself, and not insisting on what I wanted in return. It was part of a practice that stayed with me for years – decades – of not putting myself first, not insisting on my own needs, not being adequately rewarded for my work.

I have quite a long list of work that I have done for free over the years. Tons of writing for little or often no pay, with claims that there are no budgets or whatever, only later to find out that my male colleagues were paid. SO. MANY. TIMES. I have taken jobs that I was clearly overqualified for, I have been blocked opportunities for advancing into positions that reflected my training and experience because my skills were needed in the lower-paid/lower-status work, and I usually just went with it. I have done this too many times to count.

I give away my work and my skills for free for all kinds of reasons – for the greater good, for engaging in tikkun olam, to be considerate of the people I’m working with or for, because I don’t want to be confrontations, because it’s so uncomfortable to ask, because I’m afraid of becoming unliked after I ask. Lots of reasons. All of them are bad reasons. All of them.

I think about my teenage self, making zillions of yarmulkas for boys who barely spoke to me, and I am heartbroken about her desperation to be liked. But more than that, I want to shake her up, to get her to stop doing it, and instead tell her to make something for herself. What a shame that I put all that creative energy into stuff that I lost forever. And one more thing about girls making boys' kippot:

The yarmulka is arguably the most visible symbol of orthodoxy, the one most associated with its identity. To be "kippah srugah" -- the knitted skullcap -- is an entire world of cultural definitions. And yet it belongs exclusively to boys. Girls' identities are hidden behind the heads of the men and boys they associate with. So girls are literally sewing up boys' identities, and creating the system in which they are by definition invisible.

Well, it may have taken me to my fifties, but I’m finally listening to myself.

One small way is reclaiming crocheting. Today, I’m using larger needles and macrame thread, I’ve learned new and more elaborate stitches, and I’m making a rug. One that will brighten up the room, that I can enjoy in my own home. For me. I’m making it for me. Because I can. Because I matter. My needs matter. My desires matter.

This internal dialogue I’ve been having has started taking me to surprising places. I’m thinking about a certain change direction in my life. I think that I’ve dedicated too much of my life to what the world needs. I’ve spent my whole life feeling responsible for the state of the world, thinking that I need to dedicate all my energies to fixing things. Sexism, hatred, poverty, inequalities. All that is important, but my efforts have often neglected one thing: me. I realized that I need more artistic endeavors, work that enables me to create for the sake of creating, for the pure joy of bringing my energies into the world. It has taken me a long time to define this as a need. But I have come to the conclusion that every human being needs to create in this world. And without that, without working in a way that answers our own internal drive, we will be missing something. My needs matter, too.

I may be 51 years old, but I’m still learning what it means to live. Still fixing so much of what was wrong in what girls were taught about life. It’s never too late to heal. And right now, I’m starting with a rug. It’s just the beginning.

Dr. Elana Maryles Sztokman is an award-winning Jewish feminist writer, anthropologist, and activist. Her most recent book, Conversations with my Body: Essays on my Life as a Jewish Woman, is available from Lioness Books here

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