Hello, my loyal readers: I’M BAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAACK!!!!!!! I told you I had lots to write about. The first person to comment below explaining the meaning of Hoshanna Raba, Chol Ha’moed, and Shemini Atzeret gets a falafel ball dedicated in their honor (three seconds before I eat it). You’d think you might be able to ask someone in this country and get an answer quicker than in the States…no such luck. Nor does anyone know when one begins and one ends. Something about Simchat Torah falling on Shabbat so there’s an exception or something. In the States, the holidays go from sundown to sundown. So why do I think Simchat Torah went from yesterday morning to last night here? I don’t know. Is there a rabbi in the house?
After not hardly seeing a single sukkah in Tel Aviv, I decided I definitely wanted to do something for Simchat Torah. My friend Assaf plays piano at a nearby Reform synagogue called Beit Tefillah so that seemed like a good choice. Let me interrupt myself by saying that as someone who was raised attending a Conservative shul, I was aghast the first time I entered a Reform shul and saw instruments, microphones, and laser light shows. When you’re young and haven’t yet been exposed to diversity (in any context), it takes some time to learn tolerance. When I lived in NY, I once attended a well-known synagogue called Bnai Jeshurun (or “BJ”) on a Friday night. It was quite an experience with the community sitting in a circle, singing along to a bona-fide orchestra, a handful of musicians playing keyboard, guitar, and I don’t remember what else (harp? lute? Something Biblical-sounding?) However I felt about it religiously, I couldn’t argue that the music was simply amazing. And by that stage of my life, I was already much more tolerant of musical instruments (at least in certain informal contexts like summer camp…not sure what I’d think if they were brought into my synagogue). And here’s why: there are far fewer ways to practice Judaism here than in the States with virtually all synagogues being some level of Orthodoxy. A huge percentage of Israel’s population is completely turned off by organized religion and prayer (not to be confused with tradition or cultural observance) and the perceived all-or-nothing approach here. I hear that “slowly, slowly” (to translate from Hebrew), the Reform and Conservative movements are growing which can only be a good thing (unless you don’t approve of them). It would be nice if so many people learned that there’s another way to be Jewish than the one they don’t like. It’s very easy for an American to move here and never step foot in a synagogue again and I don’t want to do that; however, I also might shove a fork in my eye if I have to be subjected to some of the prayer services I’ve sat through here in the past. Which brings me back to the Reform service I attended Friday night…
I had never seen a service like this before in Israel. It was upstairs in some kind of building of learning (called “Alma” maybe?), definitely not a sanctuary. There were probably 30-40 people in attendance, sitting in a circle with Assaf and a cellist accompanying the service leader. I was immediately reminded of BJ which is interesting because apparently they fund this place’s budget (or so said a woman I met who moved to Israel about 15 years ago from the States). Though I didn’t talk to so many people, it seemed like a regular and warm community and a place I’d be interested to visit again. What’s more important to me? Finding a place I like or not going to synagogue at all? Clearly, the latter. (Just kidding-did you miss my entire point?)
As I said, I’m not sure when Simchat Torah actually began here but this place did the hakafot Friday night (the marching around with the Torah. I asked my roommate Hila what “hakafa” means and she said there’s no other meaning, just the Torah processional. Oh, yes, except for that it also means “home run”. Don’t ask me how she knows that.) Before the first of seven hakafot, the leader called up everyone who was attending for the first time. I got up and danced around with the Torah for a few minutes. Good times.
The intellectual highlight of the night occurred when they read the final parsha of the year. I should mention that I haven’t attended too many Simchat Torah celebrations in my life (there’s simply no digging my way out of this one, I’ll stop trying now.) They raised the chupah over the Torah and after the guy finished, everyone broke into a rousing song of “siman tov u’mazal tov”, this after which I heard the word “chatan (Torah)” (groom). Also after I saw a couple up at the bimah (I’m still trying, you’ll see why in a minute). In the States, this song is reserved for weddings and Bar-Mitzvahs. Seeing the couple, the chupah, and hearing “chatan”, I thought, “Hey, maybe they’re getting married as well?” At this point, I turned around to the lady behind me and asked (brace yourselves), “Slicha, mah ha’simcha? (Excuse me, what is the happy occasion?)” Her answer: “Simcha??? SIMCHAT TORAH!!!” This loosely translates to “You are dumber than an acre of bat manure.” It also assures that I will return to this place only in disguise.