I usually find myself in shul on Simchat Torah eve. It’s my favorite holiday, but that’s not the main reason. It’s also the yahrzeit of my late wife, Marjorie Shostak, the mother of my three children and the woman I shared life with for thirty years.
It’s a bittersweet evening for me. I went to our local synagogue, Shearith Israel, where the rabbi, Hillel Norry, creates an atmosphere of open-minded spirituality and liberal tradition. He is an energetic young man with short-cropped hair, a big black beard, a compelling style, and a gift for attracting children of all ages.
I like to think that Margie would have taken to him, despite the fact that she did not have much faith. She loved children, so his truly profound bond with them would have moved her.
Shearith Israel is experiencing a population explosion. Small children, strollers, and babes in arms are everywhere. This is unusual in modern Conservative synagogues, which tend to be formal and staid, relegating the next generation to children’s services and day care.
Rabbi Norry wants the children literally under foot. I came in late from a meeting, and the hakafot—seven parades around the shul with the Torahs—were well under way. I joined in the spirit of the evening, at least as an observer, and before the last hakafa, the rabbi unscrolled the Torah.
I thought I had seen pretty much everything Jewish, but a few years ago when I first saw this it took my breath away. I doubt if it’s strictly kosher, especially with women involved, but I love it, and I’ve since learned that it’s a fairly common custom among Reform and Conservative congregations.
Norry, in his big, multi-colored kippah, gathered the smallest children together on the floor in the center of a large room and asked the grown-ups and older children to stand in a circle around them. Then he and a helper began slowly unscrolling the Torah and tracing the circle with it, asking each of us to hold carefully the top of a section of the parchment.
He began to rhapsodize about its length, breadth, and beauty, in tones obviously directed at the children, but with the adults—many the parents and older siblings of the little ones–as important witnesses.
Five of the kids had been dressed in bright yellow T-shirts with the names of the one of the five books of Moses emblazoned on their backs. These children were asked to come up and stand facing the passage in the scroll where their respective books began.
Norry bounced around the room saying lively, loving things about the text, asking questions obvious and tricky, displaying his infectious passion for this ancient scroll holding so much of the history and faith of the Jewish people. Some texts, like the Ten Commandments, could be found by eye, because of their distinctive layout. I happened to be holding the Song of Moses, which the Children of Israel sang in celebration of the drowning of the Egyptians after they themselves crossed the sea on dry land.
Even upside down I could read the first line and identify it. It was the part of the Saturday morning service that I began to omit saying, standing in silence in my Orthodox congregation at age sixteen, because in my naïve boy’s way I found I could no longer sing a song of joy about the deaths of so many.
Then Rabbi Norry asked those who were going to have Bar or Bat Mitzvahs in the coming year to point out the Torah portions they would read as the year went by and the Sabbaths cycled through the scroll. A couple of boys pointed theirs out, and then a shy girl with dark eyes and curly hair called out, “Ki Tavo,” and walked over to point correctly to that portion.
As she walked proudly back to her place in the circle of grown-ups I called out, “That was mine too—fifty years ago!” Everyone seemed touched by the idea that I would have the fiftieth anniversary of my Bar Mitzvah on the day and with the Torah portion that would mark this young girl’s becoming a woman.
But no one was more moved than I, especially when, as the last hakafah began, her mother brought her over to meet me and invited me to take some role in the service. I made it clear that I would not for the world do anything to detract from her daughter’s moment, but they both seemed to want to make a place for me.
I told her in her mother’s presence that it could not be more meaningful to me to have the anniversary of my Bar Mitzvah coincide with her Bat Mitzvah, and that the half-century that separated us made me feel connected to the future. The poised young lady shook hands with this old fellow and smiled broadly.
I was soon called to the Torah for an aliyah during the brief reading for the holiday eve. Although it is “not done” for the Torah to be read at night, Simchat Torah is an exception; since so many scrolls are taken out and danced or paraded with, it would be unsuitable not to read a bit from one of them.
As I blessed the Torah, I thought of Margie, who never had a Bat Mitzvah, and of the young girl who would have hers on the fiftieth anniversary of mine. And at the end of the service I said Kaddish with a warm heart full of sadness and contentment, fond memories and great hope for the future.
Simchat Torah celebrates the endless circle of the Torah; its end is its beginning. Next year when Ki Tavo comes around, I hope to be called to the Torah again, and as I bless the it I will be blessing too the young woman for whom that day opens a future even bigger than my past.