The Person Behind The Posts

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Chag Samech and Chag Atzuv

My husband is a master of Derech Eretz, so I know he would encourage me to start this post with what I most appreciated about the last few days.  I'm taking his unspoken advice and starting there.

Monday afternoon, we met my former brother-in-law for lunch in Jerusalem.  He was visiting Israel with his second wife and their friends as part of a cruise that included stops in Haifa and Ashdod.  We first met when I was the age my 16 year-old daughter is now.  Though our paths in life diverged considerably, his sons are my cherished nephews and it was an extraordinary gift to share a meal and to be able to walk with him, even for just a few minutes, through the streets of Jerusalem.  It's been said that, when you live in Israel, eventually, everyone you know comes to visit. In the few months we've been here, we've had a handful of visits from people we know from The Old Country and I already see how that saying is not far from the truth.

Monday night, we ate in the sukkah of old and dear friends.  They had a few other families over and one guest described the experience of living in Israel so well, it bears repeating.  The joy of being a Jew living in Israel is not a non-stop feeling of ecstasy, for who can sustain that?  The joy of living in Israel is having a sense of shleimut, of wholeness, of contentedness, knowing that you are where you belong.  That sounded exactly right to me.

After dinner, a few of us went to the Beit Shemesh Festival, a free concert with lawn seating and a huge proportion of Jewish teens who all seem to know one another from camp, school and youth group activities.  Even though the music was not familiar to me, the mood was joyful, my host was full of simcha and I felt happy to be celebrating among a thousand or more other Jews during our national, week-long holiday.

Tuesday morning, we were privileged to return to Ben Gurion Airport to welcome more family Home. Their aliyah is a miracle to me. Although we are related through a marriage that did not last, we remained close over the years.  We lived a block apart in Baltimore and, for the past decade, we spent countless Shabbat meals discussing the merits of life in Israel over life in the US.

I'll be honest.  I didn't believe they would really come.  And yet, it was both surreal and thrilling to greet them at the airport and to follow them back to their new home.  I've watched dozens of families plan for aliyah and I have never seen a family do it like this.  They pulled the whole thing off - from making the aliyah decision to landing in Israel - in two months.  They were gifted with so much help from Above that one cannot but conclude that they most definitely got a personal invitation from Hashem to live here.  And now, we have the indescribable pleasure of having six more people who we love living here.

Tuesday afternoon, we ate our last meal  in our sukkah and I was surprised by the tears that sprang up in my eyes upon reciting the brief prayer for taking one's leave from the sukkah: "May it be Your will, Hashem, our G-d and the G-d of our ancestors, that just as I have fulfilled the mitzvah and dwelled in this Sukkah, so may I merit in the coming year to dwell in the Sukkah of the skin of the Leviathan.  Next year in Jerusalem."  I have never before felt so indescribably emotional at the end of Sukkot.

WARNING: This rest of this post contains sadness.

And then came Simchas Torah.  In Israel, Simchas Torah and Shemini Atzeret are the same day.  For as many years as I have been observant, I have had a painful relationship with Simchas Torah.  It all started 21 years ago when, during my first year living as a Torah-observant Jew, I experienced the shock of my first Simchas Torah.

As I did before every new Jewish experience that first year, I read all about the observance of Simchas Torah in advance.  The books I read proclaimed joyously that, "On Simchas Torah, everyone gets an aliyah! Everyone gets to dance with the Sefer Torah on Simchas Torah!"  So, in my innocence, I assumed that meant everyone gets to dance with the Sefer Torah on Simchas Torah.

I went to the synagogue in happy anticipation.  When the evening service was done and the mechitza was rolled away to make a large space for dancing, my excitement increased.

And then I noticed that all the women pulled out folding chairs, poured themselves cups of Diet Coke and began to chat among themselves while the men danced with the simcha of the Torah.

My disappointment was enormous.  My sadness was deep.  My resentment was huge.

Over the next few years, I tried to cope in creative ways.  One year, I organized a women's circle in my home during the hakafot.  A few dozen women came to share Torah thoughts with one another.  The next week, the rabbi of that community spoke about how men dancing with the Sifrei Torah are bringing down kedusha from the Heavens and that the women must be there to receive it or else their dancing is in vain. After that, the women were unwilling to leave the shul during hakafot.

One year, I tried to organize women's hakafot in a completely separate, private location.  I called a dozen or more Orthodox rabbis in Baltimore to borrow a Sefer Torah, but not a single rabbi would lend us one. And not a single rabbi could give me a reason that was any more compelling than, "It's not done."  And, to add to my pain, many of the people I spoke to in those years, rabbis included, made me feel that there was something wrong with me for being unsatisfied with the status quo, for desiring something different.

So I started coping with Simchas Torah by pretending it wasn't happening.  I successfully avoided attending shul on Simchas Torah for the next several decades by entering a kind of self-imposed Simchas Torah coma.

In the week leading up to Simchas Torah in Israel, I started re-experiencing all the old, traumatic  feelings of resentment.  "Why do Orthodox men act like they own the Sefer Torah?" I decried to anyone who would listen.  Even in places where women might have a chance to dance with a Sefer Torah, one often hears that, "In such and such a place, the rabbi gives women a Sefer Torah."  Again, proprietary, for men can only give women a Sefer Torah if they regard it as theirs to give.

Thus, with a heart full of ambivalence, I went to shul last night. This was my first Simchas Torah in shul in many, many years.  I'd like to say that the whole experience, my first Simchas Torah in the Holy Land, was completely healing.

But that would not be true.

"If our women are good enough to carry our children for nine months, they're good enough to carry a Sefer Torah for a few minutes." - Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach

Despite the fact that Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, the spiritual inspiration for the Happy Minyan at which we daven here in Israel, permitted women to dance with a Sefer Torah on Simchas Torah, this is not what happened last night.

As expected, the men joyously sang and danced around the bima with children on their shoulders and Sifrei Torah in their arms while the women did one of three things: chatted, danced briefly and without much gusto or peered into the men's section to watch.  Over the hour or so I was able to stay in shul without crying, I did all three, but I felt precious little simcha.

At one point, at the request of an elderly woman from the congregation, the mechitza was opened so the women could actually see the Sifrei Torah.  Apparently, the mechitza opening coincided with a brief spurt of dancing on the women's side and I overheard one young man tell his mother that he was offended to have glanced over and seen women dancing.  So apparently, it is not enough that women are denied the opportunity to hold and dance with the Sefer Torah.  We must also be denied the opportunity to squeeze out some minuscule portion of our own simcha as we watch men cradling the Sifrei Torah we all love but do not have equal access to.  If given the opportunity, I would like to ask this young man just how much simcha he would feel if he was in my shoes.

One friend told me she likes hakafot less and less each year.  She doesn't want to feel resentful, so she asks Hashem to remove her feelings of resentfulness.  It's far from ideal, but it's an emotional/spiritual place I can aspire to be and I'm glad she shared those words with me.

I skipped shul this morning and prayed at home.  In the afternoon, I attended a Simchas Torah luncheon with 150 members of our congregation, during which I listened to some heartfelt words of Torah about a holiday I absolutely could not relate to.  The holiday he described does not exist anywhere in the realm of  my experience.  I spent most of the rest of the day at home learning midrashim related to the first parsha of the Torah, in which Gd creates all life.

I'm convinced that there is something fundamentally flawed in the way we observe this chag.  How can a chag that is supposed to be the epitome of simcha (joy) be so atzuv (sad) for so many?

My older daughter who is a thousand times more committed to formal tefillah than I am, explained simply that, "Simchas Torah is a man's holiday." She spent the day avoiding it almost as completely as I did, but she did so seemingly without pain.

In the future, I should probably lower my expectations for the day to, I don't know, let's say, zero.  I must tell myself that all the flowery talk about the day and its spiritual potential simply don't apply to me.

There are so very many things I love about being a Jew in Israel.

Regrettably, Simchas Torah cannot be counted among them.


Risa Tzohar said...

No holiday elicits such strong pro and con feelings in Jewish women as Simchat Tora. I have gone from being deeply hurt to neutral to really enjoying it.
At my shul in Rehovot we clear a space in the women’s section and dance too. At just about every hakafa the gabbai passes us a sefer torah and we pass it around and dance with it. But the part I like best is when they are reading and rereading so that everyone (no, make that every man) gets an aliya, we go off and give divrei Torah to the women. For many of us it is the first time we have gotten up and given a Dvar Torah and it helps us own our celebration of the Joy of Torah.

Chaya said...

I personally am ok with the 'status quo' and don't have the same desire to dance with the Torah. Watching it is good enough for me. Maybe it's just a fear of getting so close to something 'bigger than life'. I don't know....
This year we spent Simchat Torah in Ramat Beit Shemesh, but in past years in Elazar, women have had their own space to dance with the Torah, on the women's side of the mechitza. I know they enjoy it and it means a lot to them.

Edda said...

I'm glad you wrote about these experiences with Simchat Torah. I've really felt it these past two holidays in Israel. The holiday seems to being out the worst in women - their cliquiness as they settle themselves into their little coffee clotches and their total lack of caring. I have memories of women dancing in the women's section of my shul when I was a little girl, but albeit that has changed as well, but at least there they get to be happy observers. What was nice this year were the "second hakafot" that our Yishuv holds after the holiday, where there was a band and a mechitza in the middle, with women dancing even more joyously than the men! It made up for the religious part of the holiday.

Batya said...

Risa, we once wandered meah shaarim looking for some women's celebration...

Our community, here in Shiloh, has women's dancing, sometimes with Sefer Torah. In the Mishkan shul there was a shiur for women. Our neighborhood generally goes around dancing in homes of the ill and elderly.

We also danced in the new handicapped accessible Ezrat Nashim where it's easy to move the tables. And in the morning (afternoon) dancing was in the new social hall with a mechitza of sorts.

You could say there was something for everyone.

A Soldier's Mother said...

I'd love to talk with you about this one on one, but I just want to tell you that there are many women who attend a yearly Simchat Torah gathering just of women - it is my understanding that it is a full women's minyan - they read the Torah, dance with it, do the other words - do all the men do. It meets yearly at Gan Erez - near the Down Shul, I think.

My take - a man can desire to have a child as much as he wants...he can be involved in so many things, but he will never know the feeling of carrying a child inside of him of nursing that child.

Cop out? I don't know. I don't have the same desire to dance with the Torah, though I believe I love it no less than a man.

I don't strive to express my Judaism in a "man's" way understanding that it would mean trading for what I do have. There are many, many joys in being an Observant Jewish woman and building a Jewish home (and this from a business woman who runs a not-so-tiny business, writes, etc.).

I love watching the hakafot and feel cheated when the men "only" walk around the bima versus dance with the joy I see at the Happy Minyan. For me, it is the holiday I miss most if I don't attend at the HM in Maale Adumim and hate that politics and pettiness have made me uncomfortable there.

This year, I went to the shul near our house - mostly because my neck was killing me and it was hard to walk that far. The hakafot started; the women opened the mechitza, sat down and started talking to each other - even through the hakafot.

At Carlebach minyan in MA, the woman (Shulamit and others) have a women's learning session - they go upstairs and learn something that someone has prepared - it's been going on for years.

My point - there's just about everything you want in MA, just ask and I'll try to direct you. Personally, I don't go to the Gan Erez minyan, just as I don't go to the women's Megillah reading (where women read it). It doesn't call to me, it doesn't fill a need in me that I don't have.

Hashem and I have this relationship - we talk...okay, I talk and have to hope He is listening. There is so much to do in life, I am grateful for the role I have. I'd rather light candles on Friday night and brighten my home...than have to go to shul and daven. Can I do both? Yes...especially in Maale Adumim.

I'm sorry it was so sad for you...let's talk.

Shabbat shalom!!!!!!

elana said...

Did you know that there is an all-women Hakafot at the bottom of Mitzpeh Nevo?
Ask Karen about it--she's very involved.

Your sentiments are very well shared by most of the women I spoke with during the chag (as we stood around watching the men). Passing around a sefer torah has been discussed a few times in the shul we share, and ultimately, the issues involve "higher authorities in the community". Unfortunately, many issues do not simply disappear simply because it's ISRAEL.
However, I think in our case, there is a possibility of change if enough people raise their voices in shul...there are certainly a bunch of us who are "in favor".

Tamar said...

Rivkah, I think that the women's tefillah group here in MA probably attracts many women who would like to celebrate the chag in a more meaningful way. I've not yet been, but I'm waiting for permission from my young newlywed friend in Bet Shemesh to link you to her comments voicing very similar sentiments. She noticed that both wives of the Chatanim (Torah and Bereshit) of her shul were absent, themselves to be found in her community's women's tefillah group where they were dancing up a storm with sifrei Torah. She sees an unfortunate future where dedicated women will be absent from their families' normal shul during this day, off to worship elsewhere.
In the interim, what say we work on women's Torah learning in Maale Adumim this year? I don't know about any shiurim available. I'm very happy to participate -- do you have further information?

Tamar said...

BatZion gave me permission to post a link to her note. Take a minute to read some similar reflections -- this is a cross-generational issue:

Unknown said...

WE have had this same debate in our shule. Rabbi Riskin said when setting up a new minyan it is permissible to take on the minhag that Women hold and dance with the Torah on Simchat Torah but when making the decision about an established minyan - it IS permissible for women to dance with the Torah but if one person (male or female) is uncomfortable with the change in minchag, it is not ok. We did not hold the Torah this year but it was brought to our side of the mechitzah for us to kiss. On Simchat Torah I celebrate the gift of the Torah that we/I have been given. I dance about that, I sing about that, I da'aven about that but I dont have to hold it to feel and appreciate that gift... thats how I feel and it works for me. I hope that one day soon Simchat Torah is filled with joy for you rather than sorrow.

your ex said...

i feel your pain

Yehudis Schamroth said...

so- we've been feeling this way for a long time- maybe we need to realize that nothing happens without intention- ie, everything we experience every minute of every day is tailor made to us- for the purpose of our own tikkun or "soul correction" as stated by Rav Lazer Brody
Why don't we see what Reb Chana Bracha Siegelbaum of Berot Bat Ayin has
to say on this matter?

Anonymous said...

I would like to add my experiences to the many beautiful comments written here. When I was a young single, I went to a women's grou that danced together on Simchat Torah. I don't remember if there was a Sefer Torah there or not. The women danced up a storm,and it was a lot of fun, but I didn't feel any simcha for the Torah. It didn't do anything for me, so I never went back to a women's celebration of Simchat Torah.
I love the shul in our community, and Simchat Torah is a highlight for me. I get to hakafot early enough so I can get a good space right up at the mechitza. Just listening to the recitation of the psukim at the beginning, with the special sing-song, is exciting for me. Ki Mitziyon teze Torah - and here I am in Tziyon! I totally ignore all the women behind me who are talking and chatting. I am in my own world as I watch the men of my neighborhood - the Rabbi of the shul singing with his eyes closed. My friend's husband who is fighting cancer - I get tears in my eyes as I see him hugging the Sefer Torah. My husband dancing in his own quiet way. They are all dancing and loving our Torah. It is not just the men's Torah, it belongs to all of us, and I feel that greatly. Yes, it is a vicarious experience for me, and I love it. I sing quietly together with them as they dance. The words are so meaningful. I see them stop dancing one at a time because they get tired, but I don't. I continue singing with them. The words of the songs permeate my soul and turn into a prayer. I feel elated.
We live close enough to the shul that I can go home in the middle during the aliyot. Then I come back for the big aliya when all the smaller children are called up together, and again I get tears in my eyes to see the continuation of Torah in the next generation. And the excitement of finishing the Torah - Chazak Chazak ve-Nitchazek - I shout with the whole congregation. Then right away we start Bereshit, saying some psukim aloud, as if we are partners in creation. I feel totally part of the minyan, and totally part of what's going on in shul. The whole experience is very uplifting for me.

I wish that you may find a significant way to find your own simcha on Simchat Torah.
With love,

L'Shmoah said...

This is a late comment to your post about Simchat Torah. I missed it so I apologize for the untimeliness of it. I agree with you wholeheartedly and I share your feelings 100%. Although to tell the truth, when I was married and still had my family intact (meaning my late husbands side of the family)I was quite focused on familial stuff so it did not bother me quite as much. But, now, I am widowed and thus single and have no children at home. I went to shul in Baltimore for my first Simchat Torah in B'more, with high hopes for a meaningful chag. I could not have been more disappointed. I could/should have stayed home. There was NO POINT to my being there. I mentioned to Rabbi Silber that this is a problem and should be resolved. I am going to show him your post. I think the Rebbeim need to understand this.