The spirit of a typical American Simchat Torah after World War II was captured in a description from Sioux City Iowa 1947. Grace Goldin focused on that local observance in this item from Commentary magazine.
“We had quite a Simchas Torah in Iowa City last year (1947). The celebration of our ‘rejoicing over the law’ took place at night, of course – everybody had to be at work that following morning.” She referred to the type of people living there. “We are a congregation of grocery owners; how better to celebrate Sukkot than among stacks of Iowa apples and squashes – but running a grocery all day doesn’t dampen Jewish fervor at night after the stores closes. Quite the contrary – though the spirit is not what it used to be.
“Once upon a time – when the men of this Yiddish speaking generation were younger – they did the kazatsky [Russian dance] on Simchas Torah. Now they import a hora from the university crowd. But how they can drink and sing.”
She emphasized that the lateness of the hour became a problem for the youth. “At 9:30 the dancing and singing became a test of endurance for the children. At 10:30 little Shirley, 3 years old, rendered ‘Ani Maamin’ in an off-key soprano standing on the bema.”
A year earlier, 1946, I participated in my very first Simchat Torah. I have tried to recall that evening in Atlanta at Shearith Israel synagogue as closely as I can.
What a sight. Mr. Abe Auerbach was dancing with fervor; Mr. B.Z. Taylor whirled around near the central bimah; Mr. Ben Stein raised his hands to the heavens as he moved up and down the aisles; Mr. Avram Mayer Goldstein embraced a Torah as did Rev. Paul Borstein. Mr. Abe Edelstein led the hakafot [circle dancing] in his inimitable vocal style. Rabbi Hyman Friedman directed all of us kids into the procession. About 60 of us, we waved our flags and those of us, who were fortunate, held our little paper Torah aloft.
My opportunity to experience the rituals of Judaism, even in my younger years, came quickly. Shabbat, the seder, hearing the shofar, but Simchat Torah took longer. During the World War II years, as my mother and I followed my U.S. Army judge advocate father to his military installations in the American South, we were never near a shul for Simchat Torah. When my father was overseas, in Japan in 1945 and 1946 after the surrender, we were living in Norfolk, Va., with my grandmother, my mother’s mother. There, because of illness, I missed Sukkot and Simchat Torah in 1945. So it came to pass that only when I was 7, almost 8, I celebrated Simchat Torah in Atlanta. What a wonderful prelude led to the holiday itself. First, what was Atlanta like then?
The statistics indicate that there were only 10,500 Jews in Atlanta in 1946. It did not feel that way since we lived on Washington Street in the center of the Jewish community. The big shul [Congregation Ahavath Achim] and little shul, Shearith Israel, were on this street and both were still Orthodox. A kosher butcher shop and two kosher delicatessans were down below the little shul. Nearby was the Sephardic shul, the Jewish Educational Alliance, the Arbeitring shule, and a shtiebel. Only the Reform Temple was way out on Peachtree Street. Behind the little shul, my domain, we played football and softball. The kosher bakery was close by on Georgia Avenue, and chickens could be killed “kosher” by several shoctim in their backyards in our neighborhood, all under the supervision of my grandfather, Rabbi Tobias Geffen.
The fervor of Yiddishkeit bubbled over all the time, and we at the little shul had, along with my grandfather, a delightful young Rabbi Hyman Friedman, who brought to our Junior Congregation the niggunim of Young Israel from Manhattan, Brooklyn and the Bronx.
During Rosh Hashanah in 5707, Rabbi Friedman presented all the boys and girls with a miniature paper Sefer Torah. What a fabulous gift, I thought, one to be treasured. Now I too have my own personal linkage with Judaism. As you can imagine, my parents were quite pleased with my interest in my new religious possession. My Zaddie and Bubbie, Rabbi and Mrs. Tobias Geffen, got real nachas from their einekel when I showed it to them.
Yom Kippur passed, and the excitement of Sukkot made itself felt. In my grandfather’s Atlanta life from 1910 on, when he first arrived, he became the provider of lulavim and etrogim for individuals and synagogues in the Southeastern USA. Two world wars forced him to get the etrogim from Los Angeles, more than likely ones that were grown on the isle of Corfu. The naval blockades in both world wars stopped the flow of etrogim from Eretz Yisrael, something which today we just take for granted.
As soon as Yom Kippur was over, my grandfather was at the Atlanta bus station and train station sending the carefully packaged arba minim [four species for Sukkot] so they would arrive on time. The most frequent problem was that the pitum [small flower and stem] on the etrog would break in transportation. Then my grandfather called his supplier in New York to send out another etrog by special delivery direct to the person anxiously waiting in Mississippi, in Florida, in Georgia or wherever for a “kosher” etrog.
Also the days before Sukkot, my grandfather prepared his sukkah, a room off the porch which had a roof that could be raised with a pulley. The shach branches were dropped on the top of the room after raising the roof. The sukkah was open unless it rained, and several nights of the chag my grandfather slept in the sukkah until he arose and started his day by studying Gemara, Poskim and preparing for his daily shiurim [Torah lesson]. So now it was Simchat Torah. Earlier I designated certain men because to me they were the essence of our shul in those days. Mr. Auerbach was the president of the synagogue. He had a furniture store, was a big baal tzedakah [philanthropist] and his wife Minnie was always involved with insuring that the Hebrew school had what it needed.
Mr. Taylor was my Zaddie’s next-door neighbor, a businessman selling small items for homes and offices. He had learned how to daven as a boy in Europe. He knew trop [melody] and nusach [text]; he could make the women cry during Yizkor. His Hebrew was impeccable. Mr. Stein was a kosher butcher; his store on Washington Street was right next to our shul. Whenever a man was needed for the minyan, Stein was called, and he came quickly. Mr. Goldstein had a junk yard, and he was a very devoted member of the shul. He could daven, but what was really important, he had family connections in the big shul. Often he dealt with controversies which arose. Two of his sons became the leaders of Atlanta Jewry in the 1970s.
Rev. Borstein was a shohet [kosher butcher] for chickens and he came from a real frum family in Baltimore. He and his wife Bessie had a kosher deli filled with all kinds of kosher products. Last, but not least, Mr. Edelstein. I always watched him with awe. He was a perfect baal koreh [Torah reader], and he had melodies for every Shabbat and holiday. I always sing his niggun (melody) for Birkat Cohanim [cohaine blessing] internally even though here in Israel that prayer is not stretched out as it is when recited on the chagim in chutz la’aretz [outside Israel]. Abe’s wife Shayne was a cousin whom my grandparents had brought over from Harbin, China, after World War I. The Edelsteins were our only family since my father’s seven brothers and sisters had moved away.
Now for that Simchat Torah. First, the bidding for “Ata Hareata,” the prayer before the hakafot. Cannot say that I understood what was transpiring, but everybody was laughing, going into the beis midrash [house of learning] to drink a L’Chayim. Later years I did get to recite a verse, but I was too young on that first occasion.
Auerbach and Goldstein mounted the bimah and opened the aron where now five Sifrei Torah could be seen. They called the kohanim and the Leviim first.
Those in the first hakafa came down from the bimah. Edelstein erupted in the words Ana when that was done Rabbi Friedman, having brought us all into line, began to sing. His voice was lyrical; initially lines from the “Kedushah,” which we all knew, then older Hebrew melodies – practically nothing that you hear today. Then all of a sudden in the small area near the steps going up to the bimah, the men began to dance holding the Torah scrolls closely to insure nothing happened, all of us with our little Torah wove in between them, being as joyful as possible at this most wonderful of times. The little girls with their flags paraded near us in the main sanctuary. The women on the two sides of the sanctuary separated by hanging curtains could only watch us and our exuberance.
At one point my father took my little Torah, went up on the bimah and led everyone in singing “Torah, Torah.”
Then he returned it and kissed and hugged me, an embrace I really felt because a year previously he was stationed in Japan.
Arthur Miller once wrote about Simchat Torah. “Suddenly, he saw grown and elderly men dancing with a large sefer Torah, laughing and acting like men decades earlier. He felt shocked by this sight and at the same time fascinated, because he never saw his father dance or rejoice in such a way before or since.”
I still have my Torah and have celebrated the holiday many times with it. What is important in these six decades since I first enjoyed Simchat Torah is that the wonderful ruach-spirit of the holiday has returned to Jews in the USA and everywhere. So may it ever be.
David Geffen is a former Atlantan and Conservative rabbi who lives in Jerusalem.