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A Look Back at a Soviet Simchat Torah

An unlikely celebration from Moscow–40 years ago

Adam Chandler
October 05, 2012
A March for Soviet Jewry in 1969(NYSun)
A March for Soviet Jewry in 1969(NYSun)

Rafael Medoff has a Simchat Torah story that looks back at Soviet Jewry in the early 1970s as the plight of the community there was entering the consciousness of American Jews.

The story centers on Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, who as leader of Manhattan’s Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun, who took a trip to Moscow for Simchat Torah back in 1972 and met with the Jewish community there.

After meeting with refuseniks in Leningrad and Kiev, the Looksteins, trailed at least part of the time by a KGB agent, proceeded to Moscow for Simchat Torah.

An estimated 1,500 people—twice the normal capacity—filled Moscow’s main synagogue on the first evening of the holiday and spilled out into the surrounding streets. As the final prayers were uttered, Rabbi Lookstein, who led the service, exhorted the crowd to rejoice with the Torah scrolls.

A Washington Post correspondent described the scene: “Inside the temple, the singing and dancing was encouraged by an American rabbi, Rev. Haskel Lookstein of New York City. He repeatedly tried to arouse the congregation to sing more loudly, remarking that Jews in New York were trying to sing loud enough to be heard in Russia and asking the Moscow Jews to reciprocate in kind.”

They did.

For long hours that evening and again the next morning, enormous crowds of Soviet Jews exuberantly embraced their roots through song and dance. “They were waiting for a [Jewish] experience,” Rabbi Lookstein recalled. Fifty years of forced assimilation by the Soviet authorities had not eradicated their yearning for Judaism.

Definitely read the whole story.

And for more on the topic, check out Adam Kirsch on Gal Beckerman’s book on Soviet Jewry.

Related: Last Exit [Tablet Magazine]
A Moscow Simchat Torah Heard ‘Round the World [Algeminer]

Adam Chandler was previously a staff writer at Tablet. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, Slate, Esquire, New York, and elsewhere. He tweets @allmychandler.