Simchat Torah is, to me, a holiday of the heart.
I first got this feeling many years ago, when I was still deep in the throes of early puberty and a regular synagogue goer. I was also, to be generous, somewhat hideous. Between my pimples, my horrid haircut that often had people mistaking me for a boy, my terribly un-chic clothing, and my mouth full of metal braces, romantic love was unlikely to come my way anytime soon.
But on Simchat Torah, when the cute USY guys took the Torahs on to the “dance floor,” I began my first crushes on several 17-year-old boys. I surreptitiously watched them, with their knit kippot and confident smiles, as they abandoned themselves to the hora. I am sure they had no idea who I was, much less that they would be the people I wrote down as my potential future spouses when I played that classic 1980s game Mansion, Apartment, Shack, House.
Lest I sound like too much of a weirdo, I think the appeal of these guys lay in two particular things: their safety, and their enthusiasm. Their kippot and presence in synagogue in the first place conveyed the tacit sense that these guys were safe—they were Jews who shared my values and my family’s values. While other teenagers might have seen this rule-abiding, “good boy” schtick as a deterrent, for this non-rebellious oldest daughter, it was a plus. But more important, Simchat Torah was an opportunity to see these people without affect and without pretense.
Then, as now, “cool,” in adolescent-speak, often translated to “inhibited”—and sadly, things aren’t that different when you become an adult. To be cool, you are supposed to feign a been-there-done-that, blasé air. But on Simchat Torah, that could all fall by the wayside: You could dance until you were out of breath, sing at the top of your lungs, and be part of many, many people doing the same thing.
It was that unmitigated enthusiasm with which I fell in love, and that was what gave Simchat Torah a special place on my personal calendar. Years later, I first met a significant boyfriend on Simchat Torah over between-hakafot rugelach in the lobby of a large synagogue. And years after that, married to my first husband, we danced together with the Torah on West End Avenue with hundreds of other like-minded Jews.
Seven years ago, I got divorced. And yet again, I found myself synagogue-hopping on Simchat Torah on the Upper West Side with my other single friends. I had invited the man I was seeing to come and join me, even though he couldn’t remember the last time he’d been in a synagogue. I’d extolled the virtues of free-flowing scotch, informal atmosphere, and, of course, the exuberant dancing. He declined. As I kissed him when I stopped by his place on my way home that evening, I knew, appropriately enough for the season, that it was the beginning of the end. And it was.
And when my husband and I got married four years ago, we danced with family and friends on the well-worn carpet at B’nai Jeshurun on Manhattan’s Upper West Side to some of the same songs we’d danced to just a few nights before at Simchat Torah. Our marriage has produced, so far, three kids, in addition to the two I had before. Life’s circles have been spinning pretty fast; I’m a little dizzy.
For me now, as the mother of five, Simchat Torah has become a totally different experience yet again. Three of my kids are 3 and under; instead of being fraught with romantic tension, this holiday has become one of just plain old tension. I’m not a helicopter mom, but like other moms of toddlers, I generally spend the hakafot worried that one of my kids is somewhere in the crowd being trampled by happy hora dancers. Alternatively, I carry one of the little kids for the entire duration of the service: This is basically the equivalent of carrying a Torah and a half for a few hours. It’s arguably great for the biceps, but not as great for the spiritual exuberance. Also, Torahs don’t whine or poop in their pants. And those flags with the wooden sticks—just waiting to poke someone’s eye out—are the bane of my Simchat Torah parenting.
“It’s too crazy,” my mom says, preferring to go to the more sedate morning service instead of the evening service, with its singing and dancing. “It’s just too loud.”
It is crazy. It is loud. And, in contrast to the somber dignity of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, this joyful chaos looks much more like real life. And, as such, it’s perfect.
What is more cyclical, after all, than our lives, infused with and defined by love? We go from being children to adults—and in doing so, from being cared for to caring for others until we are old, at which point we will be cared for by others once more. We fight, we make up, we kiss, we apologize, we fight. Our love for one another is conveyed through words and actions every day, going back and forth, around and around, from the intense to the prosaic to intensity and back.
At this point in my life, it’s not my turn to spiral endlessly with a Torah in my arms. My eyes instead will be roving over the congregation to find my husband and my other children. I’m now at a point where I hold my toddler close and show her the joyful exuberance of this holiday. I know there will come a point when I’ll be able to put her down, and she will dance off without me. But for now, I will take the chance to show these kids a holiday that plays into their particular talents for movement, unbridled enthusiasm, and song.
The Torah doesn’t change, but we do. The cycle of Torah reading weaves into itself, as ineluctably as hour weaves into hour. It’s a lot like life itself, actually—often, we go from ending to beginning, sometimes without even so much as a breath separating the two.
The final letter of the Torah is lamed, and the first is bet: Together, they form the Hebrew word lev—heart. Each year around this time, as we complete the Torah and return to its beginning, I read deep meaning into that space. Maybe it’s there to remind us all that the heart of things lies, pulsing and beating and living, in the spaces in between.
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