Ana Maria Trujillo When Beth Surdut sits down with people who want her to design a prayer shawl, or tallit, she asks, "What is your kavanah, your intention, when you pray?"

She said the answer is never quick, but when it does come, it always leads to a "spirited discussion" that eventually reveals the blessings people are seeking. Surdut then translates these prayers into Hebrew and weaves them into the colorful silk that becomes the tallit, to be worn at services and in private prayer.

Surdut recently decided to paint silk "healing head scarves," usually given to people who are undergoing cancer treatment. It happened when somebody came to her and asked her to make a head scarf for a cousin battling breast cancer.

"I picked a traditional healing prayer ... and wove it into the design so when she wears it, it can be seen. Or, she can flip it over and nobody else can see it."

Now that it's Breast Cancer Awareness Month, the project takes on more significance.

"I wish I had thought of this earlier with all the many, many women I've known who have had breast cancer," Surdut said. When a friend was diagnosed with breast cancer, doctors gave her a 15 percent chance of living.

"The doctors had written her off," Surdut said. "Through her own prayer, which was very strong, she made it through and the doctors were amazed."

"I wish I had been able to make her a head scarf," she added.

Surdut, a former journalist, once interviewed a woman her own age who had breast cancer.

"She was a vivacious, attractive, loving person," Surdut said. "Ten minutes into the interview, she lifted up her shirt and said, 'Look what they did to me.' This was a stranger that had been poked and prodded and cut so many times, she didn't think twice about showing where her breasts had been."

They made a promise to one another that they were going to one day walk on the beach together.

"That never happened," Surdut said sadly.

Surdut said she began to design tallit, and later, head scarves to do something "having to do with prayer and healing." As she paints and weaves, she remembers her Russian-born grandfather, who was 18 when his two brothers, studying to be Torah scribes, were killed by Cossacks.

"My decision to become a designer and painter of prayer shawls, wedding canopies and healing headscarves is, in part, a way to say Kaddish for these family members and others each time I hand letter a prayer in Hebrew," Surdut writes in a kavanah essay. "Tallitot add more colors to my spiritual palette than I ever imagined."

Every morning, she kisses her tallit on each side as though lovingly greeting a relative, puts it on, and prays for her family members — especially her father, who will soon undergo heart surgery.

Surdut wants people who use her head scarves to have the same spiritual experience she has when she's wearing her tallit, and even when she's designing and creating them for others.

"When you're doing something that has to do with somebody's spiritual desires and needs ... it's extremely special," Surdut said. "It's an extremely personal and moving experience."

Surdut doesn't get this type of connection with the people who receive the head scarves.

"The head scarves are usually a surprise, so the connection is with the person giving it," Surdut explained. "I just did a head scarf and a prayer shawl that was a gift for somebody dealing with lymphoma that manifests as skin sores. When I delivered the pieces to the person who is giving them, we both got teary-eyed. There's the sadness that we feel for the person who is fighting for their lives; but then there's the joy for me being able to make something beautiful for that person."

Contact Ana Maria Trujillo at 986-3084 or atrujillo@sfnewmexican.com.

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