Celebrating in a variety of ways

The crisis in Atlanta after the lynching of Leo Frank in August 1915 might have deterred the Jews there from holding Simhat Torah services with lively singing and dancing.

Rabbi Stuart Geller at a ‘lebedik’ Simhat Torah celebration with his Long Island congregation. (photo credit: PR)
Rabbi Stuart Geller at a ‘lebedik’ Simhat Torah celebration with his Long Island congregation.
(photo credit: PR)
On Simhat Torah in our eternal city, we dance with great joy. We sing with real fervor. Here in Jerusalem, we have been blessed to complete the reading of the Torah and then start it again. So that every Israeli can participate, there are the Hakafot Shniyot held across the country on the night after the actual Simhat Torah.
We have always sought ways to infuse this final fall holiday with a meaning all its own. Being an American by birth, it has been important to me to search resources to find out how my forebears there observed the holiday in the traditional manner and also developed spiritual innovative ways to add meaning to the holiday.
There is evidence that American Jews observed Simhat Torah in New York, Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia and smaller communities like Statesville, North Carolina; Athens, Georgia; Charleston, South Carolina; and Carbondale, Illinois, in the 19th century. On my own American Jewish tour a half century ago, I visited many of these smaller communities.
In the San Francisco Call newspaper on October 5, 1879, this story appeared:
“On Simhat Torah all the sephorim [sic], scrolls of the law, were taken out of the Ark, carried in procession around the synagogue.”
The ritual there was the same as we follow today. “The last chapter of Deuteronomy and the first chapter of Genesis were read in succession in order that there may be no break in the Law.”
In California the Jews created new ways to observe the holiday in a social fashion. “A Simhat Torah ball was held on October 18, 1913, at the Majestic Theater downtown; money was raised for the local Hebrew school.”
This new use of the festive observance in a social manner helped fill the depleted coffers required for Jewish education.
The crisis in Atlanta after the lynching of Leo Frank in August 1915 might have deterred the Jews there from holding Simhat Torah services with lively singing and dancing. It is not clear what was done in the temple, since Leo Frank had been a member there. However, the Atlanta Constitution reported that in the “Gilmer Street synagogue (Ahavat Achim) and the Hunter Street Synagogue (Shearit Israel) the boys and girls of the Hebrew faith and the adults, too, listened closely to the reading of the scroll and filled the synagogues with their joyful singing and some even danced.”
As the Paris correspondent of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency sat with other European Jews in the city on the eve of the holiday in October 1934, he wrote “in spite of the Nazis and other antisemites, we still rejoice and pray for a prolonged Simhat Torah.”
With World War II raging, the observance of Simhat Torah was toned down because American Jews, whose shores were never breached during the war, did not want the 550,000 men and women, serving in all branches of the American forces, to feel that at home they were dancing while GIs were fighting all over the world.
In some instances the American Hebrew Weekly was New York-based, but in its “Jews serving” column, it covered the numerous activities in combat and in ritual throughout the many fighting zones. Chaplains like David Eichhorn, in 1944, took a synagogue with a tremendous hole in its roof in France and turned it into a “holy place” once again. During Rosh Hashana, the synagogue was flooded by heavy rainfall. Nevertheless, on Simhat Torah, Eichhorn, in his monthly report to the Jewish Welfare Board, wrote that 300 men and women and local Jews observed Simhat Torah. In Tokyo in 1945 Chaplain Morris Adler, the only rabbi ever assassinated, made the holiday particularly joyful since the war had ended.
“Now that the war is over,” Rabbi Hyman Friedman of Atlanta noted in 1946, “the most enthusiastic celebration of Simhat Torah and other holidays will again be possible. When the time comes for Simhat Torah, we should get our dancing shoes ready.”
I can personally attest to the Simhat Torah that he led in 1946. My father had returned from Tokyo in April that year, where he completed his six years of army service as a judge advocate. With great joy, he drove my mother and me back to our home in Atlanta. I enrolled in the Hebrew school headed by Rabbi Friedman. The Simhat Torah celebration of 1946 was led by him and his wife Yehudis in a most exuberant manner, which I have seen matched only here in Israel. Young and old put on their “dancing shoes” for the 1946 holiday.
My good friend Rabbi Stuart Geller of Jerusalem was the spiritual leader of a congregation in Long Island, New York. When he took early retirement 16 years ago, he and his wife, Ellyn, fulfilled a lifelong dream of living in a garden apartment in Jerusalem. I once asked him to describe for me the Simhat Torah celebration in his synagogue before he made aliya.
“The major observance of the holiday in our Reform temple in Long Island was on erev Simhat Torah,” he told me.
“At the evening service, we completed the reading of the Torah and then began with Bereshit [Genesis]. However, people also came to the morning service because we chanted the Yizkor prayer for our loved ones,” he explained.
“The actual celebration on erev Simhat Torah was very festive – as they say in Yiddish, lebedik. The scrolls were paraded around the synagogue for one hakafa, and then we marched out the doors into the street. The police were accommodating by blocking off the streets around our building from moving traffic. Annually, about 500 people attended; the volunteer choir sang many songs, sometimes using world-famous melodies translated into Hebrew.”
Rabbi Geller described for me the final part of the observance with the Torah scrolls.
“Our many scrolls, 15 or more, were returned to the ark. One remained in the synagogue itself. We carefully unrolled that Torah around the synagogue giving everyone present a chance to hold the Torah itself and listen as the words of Deuteronomy and of Bereshit were intoned by the ba’al koreh, Torah reader.” Geller pointed out that after the reading, the Torah scroll was rolled up and put back in the ark.
“Then, in the sanctuary, Israeli-style dancing began in earnest. The children formed two lines and sang with enthusiasm as they danced to Yesh Lanu Tayish.”
Annually, we can observe the growing participation of women in the hakafot. A few years ago, the Haaretz newspaper wrote about the exciting singing and dancing on Simhat Torah at the Yedidya synagogue in Jerusalem. Rabbi Jill Jacobs and Rabbi Jill Hammer explained the meaning of this celebration of Simhat Torah for women.
“The image of ‘dancing in the face of darkness,’ as Jewish women became liberated on Simhat Torah meant much to us because in our synagogues we burst 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 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 Boston and New York.”
Then she stressed how important the holiday has been to her.
“To join a dance circle, I have run down 40 or more steps. I have crept through crowds to make sure I could dance. Simhat Torah is the holiday I look to all year, not only because of its celebration of joy and music, but because it’s a celebration of God as a change maker.
“For me Simhat Torah celebrates the possibility of rereading the Torah in a new light.”