Embracing Simhat Torah—Again
My mother died on Simchat Torah at the age of 69; that was when I began my boycott of the holiday. How could I reconcile the exhilaration and frenzy of the celebration with my mother’s 88-pound body, wizened with liver cancer and connected to an arsenal of medical machinery? On Simchat Torah, Jews complete the annual cycle of reading the Five Books of Moses and immediately commence with the reading of the first book, Bereishit (Genesis). But for my mother, Evelyn, dying alone in the hospital, there was no Bereishit, no new beginning.
The three episodes of cardiac arrest, the middle-of-the-night phone calls from the hospital and a funeral on a crisp autumn day became synonymous with the holiday and the season. These dark moments erased previous joyous memories: As a child in Flatbush, Brooklyn, I paraded with a paper Israeli flag topped with a ruby-red jelly apple. As a 30-something, I danced on a cordoned-off street in front of the Kane Street Synagogue in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, as congregants sang about their love of Torah and Judaism.
My boycott continued until my husband, Andy, and I were vacationing a few years ago in Columbia County, N.Y., when I chanced upon a local synagogue’s website announcing Simchat Torah services that evening. Andy and I read each other’s minds: It was time. Celebrating in a new location with a different community could help me embrace the holiday again.
We drove to Congregation Anshe Emeth in Greenport, a town just outside of Hudson, and parked next to the one other car in the lot. The man stepping out of that car turned out to be the rabbi.
“Are you expecting a minyan?” my husband naively asked, as we looked around the deserted parking lot and building.
“You’re it,” Rabbi Daniel Fried said after introducing himself. “Truthfully, I didn’t expect anyone. We have been canceling the holiday for years because we no longer have any young families. I should have taken the listing off the website.”
“Then why are you here, if there is no service?” Andy asked, bewildered.
“In case anyone shows up, I am here to tell them to go home.”
He invited us inside the spacious and well-maintained building. At its peak, it must have hosted about 300 families. Today, its 100 families are mostly elderly. Services are held on Friday nights and Shabbat mornings, but a minyan is hard to come by, especially at night. Founded as an Orthodox synagogue in 1888, the congregation affiliated with the Conservative movement in 1961. Some time after Fried was hired in 1980, the synagogue became egalitarian.
As we were about to leave, a young man named Jason suddenly entered the building.
“I just moved to the neighborhood nine days ago from Brooklyn. I’m here for Simchat Torah,” he said.
The rabbi repeated the sorry state of his congregation and the cancellation of the holiday observance. Again, he apologized for the misleading information on the website. As we were preparing to go our separate ways, Jason’s girlfriend arrived. MarVi was not Jewish but she was studying to convert and had come to learn about the holiday firsthand.
The rabbi gazed at the four of us: the potential convert, the bearded 20-something and my husband, who knew what a difficult holiday it was for me. And then there was me. I wanted to recite the Mourner’s Kaddish for my mother and remove the “bitter” in what had become a bittersweet holiday.
Although it may not have been kosher, the rabbi suddenly declared, with great animation, “We’re celebrating Simchat Torah!” Before we could change our minds, he ushered us into the formal, huge and empty sanctuary. He removed a small Torah from the Ark, recited the blessing for putting on a tallit and gave each of us a siddur. The first of seven hakafot began. Except for MarVi, we each held the Torah and took turns wearing the tallit. The five of us continued to chant the hakafot. Holding hands in a circle, we sang and danced with all our hearts: “Aneinu b’yom kor’einu!”—(God save us and) answer us when we call. We sang and danced for all the empty chairs, for the young people who had moved away from this town, for the six million and for my mother, who had died on this most festive of holidays. We sang for each other, for the present and the future.
The rabbi then distributed pink song sheets, relics from when there was a bustling religious school (today, only a few children attend). As we sang Israeli folk songs, we didn’t know whether to laugh or cry; we did a little of both. Without a minyan I could not recite the Kaddish, nor could we read from the Torah. But our kavanah—our intent to observe the traditions—allowed us to imagine the words of Torah and the familiar rhythms of the Kaddish. Finally, I was able to remove the holiday from my boycott list.
On Passover, we welcome the stranger. In an upstate New York synagogue past its prime, the rabbi welcomed four strangers to celebrate Simchat Torah. As we were leaving and expressing our gratitude, he remarked with a gleam in his eye, “On second thought, maybe I won’t cancel the holiday. Let’s leave it on the website for next year.”
Merrill Silver teaches English as a second language at Jewish Vocational Service in East Orange, N.J., and is a member of Congregation Shomrei Emunah in Montclair, N.J.