Simhat Torah and my Torah

A young man’s first Simhat Torah experience in the American South leaves a lasting impression.

By DAVID GEFFEN
September 28, 2010 05:49
Simhat Torah celebrations

311_Simhat Torah. (photo credit: Illustrative photo: Ariel Jerozolimski)

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 [1947]. The celebration of our ‘rejoicing over the law’ took place at night, of course – everybody had to be at work that following morning.”

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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 on Simchas Torah. Now they import a hora from the university crowd. But how they can drink and sing.”

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.

What 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 aloft.

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 itself.

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 Torah.

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 transportation.

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 needed.

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.

Now 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 us all into line, began to sing. His voice was lyrical. Then all of a sudden in the small area near the steps going up to the bima, the men began to dance – holding the Torahs closely – to ensure nothing happened. All of us with our little Torahs wove in between them being as joyfully as possible at this most wonderful 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 hanging 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 “Torah, Torah.”

Then he returned it and kissed and hugged me, an embrace I really felt because a year previously he was stationed in Japan.

Arthur Miller once wrote about Simhat Torah. “Suddenly, he saw grown and elderly men dancing with a large Sefer Torah, laughing and acting like men decades earlier. He felt shocked by this sight and at the same time fascinated, because he never saw his 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 that the wonderful spirit of the holiday has returned to Jews in the US and everywhere. So may it ever be.


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