The spirit of a typical American Simhat Torah after World War II was captured in
a description from Sioux City, Iowa, 1947. Grace Goldin focused on that local
observance in this item from Commentary magazine.
“We had quite a Simchas
Torah in Iowa City last year . The celebration of our ‘rejoicing over the
law’ took place at night, of course – everybody had to be at work that following
She referred to the type of people living there. “We are a
congregation of grocery owners; how better to celebrate Succot than among stacks
of Iowa apples and squashes – but running a grocery all day doesn’t dampen
Jewish fervor at night after the stores closes. Quite the contrary – though the
spirit is not what it used to be.
“Once upon a time – when the men of
this Yiddish speaking generation were younger – they did the kazatsky
Torah. Now they import a hora from the university crowd. But how they can drink
She emphasized that the lateness of the hour became a problem
for the youth. “At 9:30 the dancing and singing became a test of endurance for
the children. At 10:30 little Shirley, three years old, rendered ani
ma’amin in an off-key soprano standing on the bima.”
A year earlier,
1946, I participated in my very first Simhat Torah. I have tried to recall that
evening in Atlanta at Shearith Israel synagogue as closely as I can.
a sight. Mr. Auerbach was dancing with fervor; Mr. Taylor whirled around near
the central bima; Mr. Stein raised his hands to the heavens as he moved up and
down the aisles; Mr. Goldstein embraced a Torah as did Rev. Borstein. Mr.
Edelstein led the hakafot in his inimitable vocal style. Rabbi Hyman Friedman
directed all of us kids into the procession.
About 60 of us, we waved our
flags, and those of us who were fortunate held our little paper Torahs
My opportunity to experience the rituals of Judaism, even in my
younger years, came quickly. Shabbat, the Seder, hearing the shofar, but Simhat
Torah took longer. During the World War II years, as my mother and I followed my
US Army judge advocate father to his military installations in the American
South, we were never near a shul for Simhat Torah. When my father was in Japan
in 1945 and 1946 after the surrender, we were living in Norfolk, Virginia, with
my grandmother, my mother’s mother.
There, because of illness, I missed
Succot and Simhat Torah in 1945. So it came to pass that only when I was seven I
celebrated Simhat Torah in Atlanta. What a wonderful prelude led to the holiday
The statistics indicate that there were only 10,500 Jews in
Atlanta in 1946. It did not feel that way, since we lived on Washington Street
in the center of the Jewish community. The big and little shuls, Shearith
Israel, were on this street and both were still Orthodox. A kosher butcher shop
and two kosher delicatessens were below the little shul. Nearby was the Sephardi
shul, the Jewish Educational Alliance, the Arbeitring shul and a shtiebel. Only
the Reform temple was way out on Peachtree Street. Behind the little shul, my
domain, we played football and softball. The kosher bakery was close by on
Georgia Avenue, and chickens could be killed by several shohtim in their
backyards in our neighborhood, all under the supervision of my grandfather,
Rabbi Tobias Geffen.
THE FERVOR of Yiddishkeit bubbled over all the time,
and we at the little shul had along with my grandfather a delightful young
rabbi, Hyman Friedman, who brought to our junior congregation the tunes of Young
Israel from Manhattan, Brooklyn and the Bronx.
During Rosh Hashana in
5707, Rabbi Friedman presented all the boys and girls with a miniature paper
What a fabulous gift, I thought, one to be treasured. Now I too
have my own personal linkage with Judaism. As you can imagine, my parents were
quite pleased with my interest in my new religious possession. My grandparents
got real nachas when I showed it to them.
Yom Kippur passed and the
excitement of Succot made itself felt. In my grandfather’s Atlanta life from
1910 on, when he first arrived, he became the provider of lulavim and etrogim
for individuals and synagogues in the Southeast. Two world wars forced him to
get the etrogim from Los Angeles, more than likely ones that were grown on the
island of Corfu. The naval blockades in both world wars stopped the flow of
etrogim from Eretz Yisrael.
As soon as Yom Kippur was over, my
grandfather was at the Atlanta bus station and train station sending the
carefully packaged arba minim so they would arrive on time. The most frequent
problem was that the pitum on the etrog would break in
Then my grandfather called his supplier in New York to
send out another etrog by special delivery direct to the person anxiously
waiting in Mississippi, Florida, Georgia or wherever.
Also the days
before Succot my grandfather prepared his succa, a room off the porch which had
a roof that could be raised with a pulley. The s’chach branches were dropped on
the top of the room after raising the roof.
The succa was open unless it
rained, and several nights my grandfather slept in the succa.
So now it
was Simhat Torah. Earlier I designated certain men because to me they were the
essence of our shul in those days. Abe Auerbach was the president of the
synagogue. He had a furniture store, was a big donor to charity and his wife,
Minnie, was always involved with ensuring that the Hebrew school had what it
B.Z. Taylor was my grandmother’s next-door neighbor, a
businessman selling small items for homes and offices. He had learned how to
daven as a boy in Europe. He knew trop and nusach – he could make the women cry
during Yizkor. His Hebrew was impeccable. Ben Stein was a kosher butcher – his
store on Washington Street was right next to our shul.
Whenever a man was
needed for the minyan, Stein was called and he came quickly. Avram Mayer
Goldstein had a junkyard, and he was a very devoted member of the shul. He could
daven, but what was really important, he had family connections in the big shul.
Often he dealt with controversies which arose. Two of his sons became the
leaders of Atlanta Jewry in the 1970s.
Rev. Paul Borstein was a shohet
for chickens and he came from a real frum family in Baltimore. He and his wife,
Bessie, had a kosher deli. Last but not least Abe Edelstein. I always watched
him with awe. He was a perfect Torah reader, and he had melodies for every
Shabbat and holiday. Abe’s wife, Shayne, was a cousin whom my grandparents had
brought over from Harbin, China, after World War I. The Edelsteins were our only
family since my father’s seven brothers and sisters had moved away.
for that Simhat Torah. First, the bidding for the prayer before the hakafot. I
cannot say that I understood what was transpiring, but everybody was laughing –
going into the beit midrash to drink a l’haim.
Auerbach and Goldstein
mounted the bima and opened the ark where five Torah scrolls could be seen. They
called the kohanim and the levi’im first.
Those in the first hakafa came
down from the bima. When that was done, Rabbi Friedman, having brought
into line, began to sing. His voice was lyrical. Then all of a sudden in
small area near the steps going up to the bima, the men began to dance –
the Torahs closely – to ensure nothing happened. All of us with our
Torahs wove in between them being as joyfully as possible at this most
of times. The little girls with their flags paraded near us in the main
sanctuary. The women on the two sides of the sanctuary separated by
curtains could only watch us and our exuberance.
At one point my father
took my little Torah went up on the bima and led everyone in singing
Then he returned it and kissed and hugged me, an embrace I really
felt because a year previously he was stationed in Japan.
once wrote about Simhat Torah. “Suddenly, he saw grown and elderly men
with a large Sefer Torah, laughing and acting like men decades earlier.
shocked by this sight and at the same time fascinated, because he never
father dance or rejoice in such a way before or since.”
I still have my
Torah and have celebrated the holiday many times with it. What is
important in these six decades since I first enjoyed Simhat Torah is
wonderful spirit of the holiday has returned to Jews in the US and
So may it ever be.
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