In the 19th century the initial reference points for Simhat Torah in the US were in New York, Boston, Chicago and Philadelphia, but as the Jewish population grew in the western sector of North America, the joyous holiday was celebrated there as well.
In the San Francisco Call newspaper of October 5, 1879, this story appeared. “On Simhat Torah all the sefarim, scrolls of the law, were taken out of the Ark, curled in procession around the synagogue.” The ritual there was the same as we follow. “The last chapter of Deuteronomy and first chapter of Bereshit read in succession, in order that there may be no break in the Law.”
The Jews of San Francisco made sure a “Simhat Torah ball was held on October 18, 1913 at the Majestic Theater downtown, where money raised was for the local Hebrew school.”
As the Paris correspondent of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency sat with other European Jews in that city on the eve of the holiday, October 1934, he wrote, “In spite of Nazis and other anti-Semites, we still rejoice and pray for a prolonged Simhat Torah.”
In Atlanta, Georgia, my uncle Rabbi Samuel Geffen z’l, had the She’arit Israel religious school kids primed to sing ‘Sisu ve Simchu beSimchas Torah’ on the eve of the holiday 1936, for the first time over WSB radio.
While the country had weathered the Depression, Geffen’s Simhat Torah celebrations were so innovative, they influenced 60 new families to affiliate with She’arit Israel by 1936.
Then the bitter conflict with the catastrophic Holocaust pushed the holiday into the background.
“Now that the war is over,” Rabbi Hyman Friedman noted in January 1946, “the most enthusiastic celebration of Simhat Torah and other holidays will again be possible. When the time comes, we should all get our dancing shoes ready.”
Until the 1950s, the holiday was part of a Jewish man’s preserve. The energy of women, who have become a dynamic part of the Simhat Torah celebrations is found in Rabbi Jill Jacobs and Rabbi Jill Hammer. Jacobs once wrote, “The image of ‘dancing in the face of darkness’ as Jewish women became liberated on Simhat Torah meant much to me because in my synagogue we burst out into the chilling fall night air dancing with the Sifrei Torah. As we danced, we were fortified with strength and energy for the challenges ahead.”
In her Guide and Commentary to Simhat Torah, Rabbi Jill Hammer wrote. “I have never in my adult life missed Simhat Torah. I have danced with the Torah in student chapels, in formal synagogues, in the seminaries and in the streets of New York and Boston.”
Then she stressed how important the holiday has been to her.
“To join a dance circle I have run down forty or more stairs. I have crept through crowds to make sure I was dancing. Simhat Torah is the holiday I look forward to all year... not only because of its celebration of joy, motion and music but because it’s a celebration of God as change maker. For me Simhat Torah celebrates the possibility of rereading the Torah in a new light.”
As the participatory rights of women grew, Simhat Torah offered the opportunity for innovative additions at services in Reform and Conservative synagogues. Rabbi Stuart Geller, an American Reform rabbi before retiring and making aliya 14 years ago, offers a description of what was a standard ritual in many synagogues like his.
“The major observance of the chag [festival] in our Reform Temple in Long Island was on erev Simhat Torah. At the service we completed the reading of the Torah and then began with Bereshit [Genesis]. However, people did come to the morning service because we chanted the Yizkor prayer for loved ones.”
“The evening before was very festive... The scrolls were paraded around the synagogue for one hakafa, and then we marched into the street. The police were accommodating by blocking off the area around us from moving traffic. About 500 people were present.”
What was fascinating in the 60s, 70s and 80s, was how the spirit of Simhat Torah was employed to assist in bringing more American Jews into the battle to force the former Soviet Union to liberate Jews held behind the Iron Curtain and to permit them to leave.
Certain individuals in the United States, in particular the Lubavitcher Rebbe and Rabbi Pinchas Teitz, had been secretly sending in talitot (prayer shawls), tefillin and siddurim to refuseniks who so wanted to practice their Judaism openly. In the 1960s, a growing number of American Jews, after visiting refuseniks in the former Soviet Union, sensed it was time to increase awareness in American Jewry of this spiritual extinction.
In the late 60s, Golda Meir committed to get her fellow Jews out. In New York for Simhat Torah in October 1969, she spoke movingly before the United Jewish Appeal and other national agencies, giving an “overwhelming tribute” to these forgotten Jews. She labeled Simhat Torah as an “International Day of Solidarity” and called on Jews in the US and throughout the world to stand up and be counted. Immediately after the holiday, she flew to Los Angeles and transmitted the same plea there.
The following year and with a great deal of planning, Rabbi Haskel Lookstein and his wife appeared in Moscow for Simhat Torah. With help from refuseniks and the American Embassy, Lookstein assembled thousands of Soviet Jews outside the main synagogue of Moscow and led them in singing and dancing.
On October 12, 1971, Simhat Torah itself, 10,000 Jews marched in New York. The Hakafot created tremendous energy in “publicizing their concern for the plight of Russian Jews.”
Simhat Torah 1974 witnessed rallies in 50 American cities; New York, Chicago, Dallas, St. Louis, Philadelphia and many more, to intensify the campaign to free Soviet Jews. From then on, year after year the holiday rallies grew until 1988, when the doors were finally opened. My wife Rita and I were in the former Soviet Union in August of that year, visiting refuseniks in little towns like Bendery (in modern day Moldova).
At the hotel where we stayed in Kiev, we witnessed the first visit by Israelis who had parents and siblings living in Ukraine - our little footnote in history, helping to bring our brethren in from the cold.