A Convert’s First Simchat Torah
When the holiday turned my synagogue into a chaotic nightclub, I finally felt like part of the Jewish community
Eight years ago, when I was studying to convert but hadn’t yet been to the mikveh, I experienced Simchat Torah for the first time. I had successfully made it through the High Holidays. Yom Kippur was intense—at the end of it I felt wrung like a rag and very, very thirsty—but I had expected something like that.
Nobody prepared me for Simchat Torah.
I showed up early to shul early that evening, as I usually did. I knew there would be dancing, but that was about the extent of what I expected. My synagogue, B’nai Jeshurun on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, turned out to be a popular place on Simchat Torah. When the crowds arrived, the room swelled quickly with hundreds of people, most of them strangers to me.
At the appointed time, the room buzzing with noise, my rabbis and chazzan, looking solemn, approached the bimah through the ocean of human sound and signaled for quiet. Well, quiet they never got, but the roar subsided a bit, and presently we davened. The “silent” Amidah was more restless and ragged around the edges than any I had experienced before, as people late to services continued to arrive and commenced chatting in the hallway, foyer, and on the steps to the synagogue. The energy was already elevated, electric, filled with expectation.
After the Aleinu and the Mourners’ Kaddish, the schmooze-noise level rose again, and it was only with difficulty that the rabbis gained people’s attention. They made an impassioned plea. “We are all here to dance and to celebrate the Torah together,” said Roly Matalon, “but let’s remember that first and foremost it’s an occasion for holiness. Let’s make the dancing holy dancing.” Five, maybe six people appeared to be listening. Everyone else was in party mode and ready to rock.
And then it began. Pageantry, as Torah scrolls paraded the room. The procession of the Hakafot. Music. Movement. Holy freakin’ chaos.
At the first strains of dancing music, the crowd morphed almost imperceptibly into a mob. If there’s such a thing as a benign mob, then that’s what this was. A group with a single shared incohate impulse, and held barely in control. Unlike a political mob, these constituent parts didn’t have any will to destruction. Maybe the holiness was there after all.
This mass of people on Simchat Torah brought home for me the cohesion of the Jewish people. One of the metaphors I had used to explain becoming a Jew was a kind of vision I’d had of me walking through a dark landscape and coming upon a house with bright light pouring out of glowing windows and lively movement inside; when I knock on the door, my rabbi answers it and welcomes me into the light and the life inside there. Suddenly I realized that that Jungian image could have been davka this night. In that glowing vision house they might have been celebrating Simchat Torah, a holiday I had no conception of until now. This group of people, this happy mob, strange as it was, belonged to me, and I belonged to it.
When I was in my early 20s, I visited my older sister in Los Angeles. She was friends with a woman in a samba band, and one night the two of us went to hear them play at a Brazilian club. We got there at what seemed to me a late hour, but the music still hadn’t started, so we wandered around the place—chockablock with elegant Brazilian men and women, trim, well-dressed, erect, composed, relaxed. Moments before the show began, my sister and I wound up somehow right at the front, close by the line of some dozen or so drummers. A small ukulele-type guitar began a fast strumming, and a man’s voice sang a wavering, plaintive melody. A whistle blew. Suddenly, the drummers all struck their instruments together: BOOM! My body levitated a foot off the floor and then dropped down again. And the booming continued. In my young life I had never heard or felt anything even remotely like it. The drums seemed to be inside my body, drowning out my heartbeat and rendering it irrelevant, shaking my bones.
All those years later on Simchat Torah, although the rhythms on this Jewish yom tov were distinct from Brazilian samba, the penetrating effect felt every bit as powerful. The melodies, infectious as any earworm, played on and on and on. The heat quickly became intense. The music generated from a small band: some drums, a recorder-player, a guitar, my chazzan at the keyboard, and my rabbis, eyes squeezed shut, heartily leading the singing.
I let people grab my hands, some folks I knew and some strangers, and I danced too. At a certain point, as anyone who’s ever done it knows, it stops being dancing per se and becomes a kind of manic hopping and then, swiftly, a very sweaty and hypnotic hopping. My hands lost the grip of those on my left and my right. I was dancing, hopping, bopping, sweating, swinging, laughing, panting, twirling …
The crowd’s movement seemed controlled solely by the physics of centrifugal force as the circles whirled, and some of it was most emphatically not controlled. Images of the infamous 1979 Who concert in Cincinnati floated through my head. As is the case with other instances of ecstasy, this kind of crazy unbridled dancing can conjure awesome or awful aspects—and I saw some frighteningly flushed faces swoop by mine, lips frozen in a frenzied rictus, or with shrieking giggles erupting out of distorted but now vanished mouths. Too fast they were gone, replaced by others. It was hot.
At this, my virgin Simchat Torah, midway through the evening, feeling exhausted, I managed to extricate myself damply from the center of the room and its blending and uncoupling circles of dancers, each with its focus point of a single figure bobbling, holding a Sefer Torah. The slight pauses of the Hakafot seemed far between. Though I was beside myself with something like pleasure, feeling as though I were almost literally outside my body, it did cross my mind to wonder once or twice, as I squeezed in between bodies and headed for the edge of the room, “Will it never stop?”
Being ignorant of how to behave and filled with a kind of euphoria, I made my way upstairs to the shul’s balcony and pulled out my cell phone—man, if I saw someone do that now my heart would freeze in Dana Carvey Church Lady horror—and dialed my brother in Ohio. “Guess where I am!” I screamed at him and held out the phone to the engulfing throb of the music (“Asher bara sasson ve simcha, sasson ve simcha, chatan ve kallah!”). When I brought the phone back to my ear I heard my un-ecstatic, commonsense, dry, wry, and decidedly un-Jewish brother Paul’s voice saying, “I don’t know. A Jewish nightclub?”
“Wrong!” I hollered happily. “It’s Simchat Torah!” I sent love and hung up.
I went outside and was shocked by the coldness of the air on my sweat-drenched body after the fevered heat inside the shul. I left after 10 p.m., with a crowd still going strong. (I have never been able to stay long at nightclubs.)
The next morning, I showed up for services still tired, ears still ringing. What was supposed to happen on the day of Simchat Torah? I wondered. I had no clue. Reading of select passages suited to the immensity of the occasion? I sat through the service, still stumbling along in those early days of learning Judaism, landing on the wrong page often as not. Services seemed to be coming to a stately conclusion. I looked around hesitantly and then started for the door. But just then the chazzan played some familiar chords, and I whirled around. Was this the soundtrack of my addled Jewish-wedding dreams of the previous night? Was I reliving the insistent, maddening strains of music I’d heard in my sleep, as black-clad men in fur hats spun in dizzying circles around invisible me? But it was no dream, not even a hallucinogenic one, not even the hypnogogic images before the unconscious plunge. No, this was real. This was happening.
By God, they were doing it all over again.
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