A Look Back at a Soviet Simchat Torah
An unlikely celebration from Moscow–40 years ago
Rafael Medoff has a Simchat Torah story that looks back at Soviet Jewry in the early 1970s as the plight of the community there was entering the consciousness of American Jews.
The story centers on Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, who as leader of Manhattan’s Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun, who took a trip to Moscow for Simchat Torah back in 1972 and met with the Jewish community there.
After meeting with refuseniks in Leningrad and Kiev, the Looksteins, trailed at least part of the time by a KGB agent, proceeded to Moscow for Simchat Torah.
An estimated 1,500 people—twice the normal capacity—filled Moscow’s main synagogue on the first evening of the holiday and spilled out into the surrounding streets. As the final prayers were uttered, Rabbi Lookstein, who led the service, exhorted the crowd to rejoice with the Torah scrolls.
A Washington Post correspondent described the scene: “Inside the temple, the singing and dancing was encouraged by an American rabbi, Rev. Haskel Lookstein of New York City. He repeatedly tried to arouse the congregation to sing more loudly, remarking that Jews in New York were trying to sing loud enough to be heard in Russia and asking the Moscow Jews to reciprocate in kind.”
For long hours that evening and again the next morning, enormous crowds of Soviet Jews exuberantly embraced their roots through song and dance. “They were waiting for a [Jewish] experience,” Rabbi Lookstein recalled. Fifty years of forced assimilation by the Soviet authorities had not eradicated their yearning for Judaism.
Definitely read the whole story.
And for more on the topic, check out Adam Kirsch on Gal Beckerman’s book on Soviet Jewry.
Daily rate: $2
Monthly rate: $18
Yearly rate: $180
WAIT, WHY DO I HAVE TO PAY TO COMMENT?
Tablet is committed to bringing you the best, smartest, most enlightening and entertaining reporting and writing on Jewish life, all free of charge. We take pride in our community of readers, and are thrilled that you choose to engage with us in a way that is both thoughtful and thought-provoking. But the Internet, for all of its wonders, poses challenges to civilized and constructive discussion, allowing vocal—and, often, anonymous—minorities to drag it down with invective (and worse). Starting today, then, we are asking people who'd like to post comments on the site to pay a nominal fee—less a paywall than a gesture of your own commitment to the cause of great conversation. All proceeds go to helping us bring you the ambitious journalism that brought you here in the first place.
I NEED TO BE HEARD! BUT I DONT WANT TO PAY.
Readers can still interact with us free of charge via Facebook, Twitter, and our other social media channels, or write to us at email@example.com. Each week, we’ll select the best letters and publish them in a new letters to the editor feature on the Scroll.
We hope this new largely symbolic measure will help us create a more pleasant and cultivated environment for all of our readers, and, as always, we thank you deeply for your support.