A Convert’s First Simchat Torah
When the holiday turned my synagogue into a chaotic nightclub, I finally felt like part of the Jewish community
Being ignorant of how to behave and filled with a kind of euphoria, I made my way upstairs to the shul’s balcony and pulled out my cell phone—man, if I saw someone do that now my heart would freeze in Dana Carvey Church Lady horror—and dialed my brother in Ohio. “Guess where I am!” I screamed at him and held out the phone to the engulfing throb of the music (“Asher bara sasson ve simcha, sasson ve simcha, chatan ve kallah!”). When I brought the phone back to my ear I heard my un-ecstatic, commonsense, dry, wry, and decidedly un-Jewish brother Paul’s voice saying, “I don’t know. A Jewish nightclub?”
“Wrong!” I hollered happily. “It’s Simchat Torah!” I sent love and hung up.
I went outside and was shocked by the coldness of the air on my sweat-drenched body after the fevered heat inside the shul. I left after 10 p.m., with a crowd still going strong. (I have never been able to stay long at nightclubs.)
The next morning, I showed up for services still tired, ears still ringing. What was supposed to happen on the day of Simchat Torah? I wondered. I had no clue. Reading of select passages suited to the immensity of the occasion? I sat through the service, still stumbling along in those early days of learning Judaism, landing on the wrong page often as not. Services seemed to be coming to a stately conclusion. I looked around hesitantly and then started for the door. But just then the chazzan played some familiar chords, and I whirled around. Was this the soundtrack of my addled Jewish-wedding dreams of the previous night? Was I reliving the insistent, maddening strains of music I’d heard in my sleep, as black-clad men in fur hats spun in dizzying circles around invisible me? But it was no dream, not even a hallucinogenic one, not even the hypnogogic images before the unconscious plunge. No, this was real. This was happening.
By God, they were doing it all over again.
Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.
After my brother died, I was frozen with grief—until author Harold Kushner helped me rediscover community