Celebrating Simchat Torah

Celebrating Simchat Torah

Dance a little longer

Dance a little longer

Simchat Torah at New York’s Congregation B’nai Jeshurun

Joanne Palmer

Stay all night, stay a little longer

Dance all night, dance a little longer

Pull off your coat, throw it in the corner

Don’t see why you can’t stay a little longer.

-Willie Nelson

According to many rabbis, including mine, that is at least one reason for Simchat Torah. The Israelites made a pilgrimage to the Temple during Sukkot, stayed until it ended, on Sh’mini Atzeret, and would have had to go home then – but God wasn’t quite ready for the party to end.

“Stay a little longer,” God said. “Dance a little longer.”

At Congregation B’nai Jeshurun, on Manhattan’s Upper West Side – home shul to a surprisingly large number of Bergen County Jews, as well as to many of us New Yorkers – we do that. At Simchat Torah, which comes at the very end of the period that was ushered in with S’lichot in late summer, we combine the threads that make up the rich tapestry of Jewish autumn. Deep reverence and pure physicality combine as we dance around the Torah scroll. We turn and turn and turn around it until finally we turn it around and start it again, from the beginning.

The physicality starts with the building. B’nai Jeshurun’s interior was created by a theatrical designer in the 1920s, and it shows. Its walls are all arabesqued swirls, dark blues and yellows and reds, veined with thick curls of subdued gilt that glitter discreetly in the dim light. They are broken by Tiffany-style stained glass windows, and a huge rose window shines at the back whenever there is daylight for it to catch.

Many years ago, wooden pews were replaced by movable chairs. For Simchat Torah, most of the chairs are removed; the few that remain line the walls. As people come in before the evening service begins, most of us sit on the red-carpeted floor, leaving the chairs for anyone who needs them.

After Maariv, we stand, the ark is opened, and the rabbis – there are three of them, and they’re all there – beckon us forward. “Come very close,” they say. “Come even closer.” We do. They read the lines that lead into the hakafot, and we repeat them. It is intense and reverent. The pace quickens. Finally, the scrolls are removed from the ark, one after the other.

One of the themes that characterize the entire holy days season is time; how it passes, how it circles back, how it moves forward. At Simchat Torah, we mark time’s passing by honoring people according to their ages, with the oldest first. The first hakafah is for people 70 and older. Every year, there are many of them, some in wheelchairs or motorized carts. The rest of us form two huge circles around the room, stand across from partners, and reach our arms up to form an arch. Our elders move between our circles, we part our hands to let them through and to touch the Torah scrolls they hold and then kiss them, and the music plays, first solemn, then fast and faster and even faster. Once all the scrolls are through, circles of dancers form, each with a scroll at its heart.

When hakafot are arranged by age, it’s emotionally complicated. It’s a wrench to move from one group to another; the oldest group seems pleased to have reached that distinction, but many of the rest of us have not yet reached that proud equilibrium. It’s a huge dislocation to cross from one group into the next; you have a decade to get used to the one that seemed at first absurdly old, and then, whoops, like it or not you’re kicked up again. You know you’ll keep going until the day when you finally disappear. And you get to see your children advance, too, from small children to glowing young adults.

Each hakafah lasts from 20 to 25 minutes. The music to each one is just one song, usually a Carlebach melody, generally music that you’d hear at a wedding, and always it increases in speed and intensity. There is a band; often we find ourselves singing along. “Yerushalayim,” we shout, or “Ki va mo-eid,” or a niggun’s ya-di-dai-dais. The circles sometimes break into conga lines.

In a way, as my husband points out, B’nai Jeshurun is like Rick’s in “Casablanca.” Everybody goes to BJ. Its many members are joined by friends, including many from New Jersey, and by people from across a strikingly wide swath of the Jewish world. BJ is non-affiliated Conservative; it attracts secular Jews trying to figure this stuff out; Reform, Reconstructionist, and Conservative Jews from across the city, and, most surprisingly, many mostly modern Orthodox Jews. I don’t know why mixed dancing to musical instruments doesn’t bother them, but the evidence of my eyes shows that it does not.

As the evening goes on, the crowd changes. It gets younger. There aren’t many children at Simchat Torah services in the evening; there is a separate kids’ service downstairs, and the adult service can be too intimidating for them. But the people in their mid-30s and up who seem to make up most of the crowd at the beginning eventually are joined and then in part replaced by people in their 20s. Some clearly are college students, mainly from Columbia and Barnard, and graduate students, from schools including the Jewish Theological Seminary and Hebrew Union College. About midway through the evening, young Orthodox groups start filtering in as well.

At the evening’s peak, it is so crowded that we don’t dance as much as shuffle; it can feel a bit like the Times Square subway station at rush hour. BJ is in the middle of the block between West End Avenue and Broadway; I’ve been told that often the line to get in goes all the way up to Broadway and sometimes turns the corner, because fire laws limit the number of people allowed in the building. But then, somehow, the music takes over. The crowds thin a bit – people head downstairs for water, or outside for breath. Dancing resumes. We bang into each other not infrequently and just keep going.

As the music gets wilder, young men dance those Russian folk dances that involve getting very low to the ground and kicking as they hold Torah scrolls. (I don’t believe that Russians did that with Torah scrolls; with actual Jews, maybe…) Others hold a scroll high over their heads as they dance. No one ever drops a scroll, or lets it touch the ground.

We no longer dance outside at BJ. Before 9/11, the police would close off a block of West End Avenue for us, but the terrorist attacks stopped that. Now, though, at times, when the crush inside becomes too great, someone takes a conga line out through a front door, into the street, and back through another one. The shock of the cool night air after the overheated sweatbox of the usually frigidly over-air conditioned sanctuary is welcome.

Eventually, the dancing ends, the scrolls are returned to the ark, and Maariv concludes. Although at times it is difficult, the rabbis restore quiet, and the service ends with the same hush that marked its beginning.

The next day, we start again. After Shacharit, we take the scrolls out again, and again we form arches. It’s a little different in the morning, still crowded but not as impossibly, and the light through the stained glass picks out different colors than the artificial light did at night. This time, the room is full of children. Again, the music, again mostly Carlebach, again unmistakably Jewish, calls and swells and insists that we move to it.

This time, after the hakafot end and the scrolls are returned to the ark, we sit on the floor to end that part of the service, then rise as they are taken out again, this time to be read. We honor two people -the chatan or kallah Torah and then a chatan or kallah B’reishit, because we honor both men and women at BJ and do not call women “bridegrooms.” They are, instead, brides of the Torah or of its first section. They are called to the Torah under a chuppah made of a tallit tacked to poles, because after all this is a wedding of the Torah to Israel. After each honor, yet again we dance.

In between these two honors, when the scroll is lifted, we go from the end to the beginning. We have come full circle here. The person who is honored with hagbah picks up the Torah with crossed arms, then twirls it so it whirls from its end to its beginning. Moshe is no longer looking longingly across the mountains to the land for which he yearned but that year after year he will not be allowed to enter. Instead, the world is being created anew.

It is with the haftarah, as the celebration is close to its end, that the theme of time as being at once circular and forward-moving, which we have seen throughout the holidays, appears again. The Torah cycle takes us back to its beginning, but the haftarah comes from the first verses of the book of Joshua, the first book of the prophets. In other words, if you were to read the Tanach straight through, you’d find it immediately after the last reading in D’varim, V’zot Hab’rachah. The trop the reader uses sounds very like the Torah trop we’ve just heard. So, as we sit there, poised to start another year, still remembering vividly the year just ended, we sit too at the junction of two different kinds of time. The Torah will take us back to where we started. The haftarah will move us into the future, in a line that eventually will come to us, and then move past us. Both kinds of time are true, and both are Jewish. We take both of them.

The mood is reverent, perhaps even elegiac, as we think about endings. We are tired and sweaty. It’s mid-afternoon and we’re ready to eat. Like the Israelites in and around the Temple in Jerusalem, we know that finally we have to leave. The month of observances truly is ended. The dancing is done. The light has changed.

But we know that next year, once again, we will be asked to stay all night – stay a little longer.

read more: