Centuries of Celebration
OpinionGuest Column

Centuries of Celebration

Despite years of oppression Jews continue to preserve religious roots through age old customs and traditions.

Rabbi David Geffen

Rabbi David Geffen is a native Atlantan and Conservative rabbi who lives in Jerusalem.

Rabbi Ephraim Silverman and Mitchell Kopelman are among those dancing in the street to celebrate the new Torah.
Rabbi Ephraim Silverman and Mitchell Kopelman are among those dancing in the street to celebrate the new Torah.

On Simchat Torah in the eternal city of Jerusalem, we dance with great joy and sing with fervor. So that every Israeli can participate in completing and restarting the Torah, hakafot sheniot are held across the country on the night after the actual Simchat Torah.

We have always sought ways to infuse this final fall holiday with a meaning all its own.

Being an American by birth, it has been important to me to search resources to find out how my U.S. forebears observed the holiday in the traditional manner and developed spiritual, innovative ways to add meaning to the holiday.

As a student rabbi in the 1960s, I organized and led the Simchat Torah celebration in Easton, Md., and in Statesville and Wilson, N.C.

In the San Francisco Call newspaper Oct. 5, 1879, this story appeared: “On Simchat Torah all the sephorim, scrolls of the law, were taken out of the Ark, carried in procession around the synagogue.” The ritual was the same as we follow. “The last chapter of Deuteronomy and the first chapter of Bereshit were read in succession in order that there may be no break in the Law.”

California’s Jews also created ways to observe the holiday in a social fashion: “A Simchat Torah ball was held on October 18, 1913, at the Majestic Theater downtown; money raised for the local Hebrew school.”

This use of the festive observance in a social manner helped fill the depleted coffers required for Jewish education.

The crisis in Atlanta after the lynching of Leo Frank in August 1915 could have deterred the Jews there from holding Simchat Torah services with lively singing and dancing.

It is not clear what was done in The Temple, where Frank had been a member. However, the Atlanta Constitution reported that in the “Gilmer Street synagogue” (Ahavath Achim) and the “Hunter Street synagogue” (Shearith Israel) “the boys and girls of the Hebrew faith and the adults too listened closely to the reading of the scroll and filled the synagogues with their joyful singing, and some even danced.”

As the Paris correspondent of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency sat with other European Jews in the city on the eve of the holiday in October 1934, he wrote that “in spite of the Nazis and other anti-Semites, we still rejoice and pray for a prolonged Simchat Torah.”

With World War II raging, the observance of Simchat Torah was toned down because American Jews did not want the 550,000 Jewish men and women serving in all branches of the military to feel that at home they were dancing while the GIs were fighting.

“Now that the war is over,” Rabbi Hyman Friedman of Shearith Israel said in 1946, “the most enthusiastic celebration of Simchat Torah and other holidays will again be possible. When the time comes for Simchat Torah, we should get our dancing shoes ready.”

I can attest to the most exciting Simchat Torah in 1946. My father in April 1946 had returned from Tokyo, where he completed his six years of Army service as a judge advocate. In our 1941 Plymouth, he drove my mother and me back to our home in Atlanta. I enrolled in the Hebrew school headed by Rabbi Friedman.

The Simchat Torah celebration of 1946 was led by Rabbi Friedman and his wife, Yehudis, in a most exuberant manner, which I have seen matched only here in Israel. Young and old put on their dancing shoes.

Annually, we can observe the growing participation of women in Simchat Torah’s singing and dancing. Two noted female rabbis, Jill Jacobs and Jill Hammer, explained the meaning of this celebration for women.

“The image of ‘dancing in the face of darkness’ as Jewish women became liberated on Simchat Torah meant much to us because in our synagogues we burst into the chilling fall night air dancing with the Sifrei Torah. As we danced, we were fortified with strength and energy for the challenges ahead,” Rabbi Jacobs wrote.

In her “Guide to Simchat Torah,” Rabbi Hammer wrote, “I have never in my adult life missed Simchat Torah. I have danced with the Torah in student chapels, in formal synagogues, in the seminaries and in the streets of Boston and New York.”

Then she stressed how important the holiday has been to her.

“To join a dance circle, I have run down forty or more steps. I have crept through crowds to make sure I could dance. Simchat Torah is the holiday I look to all year, not only because of its celebration of joy and music, but because it’s a celebration of G-d as changemaker. For me Simchat Torah celebrates the possibility of rereading the Torah in a new light.”