Saturday, October 2, 2010

Simchat Torah Twice...

I decided to try to celebrate one of my favourite holidays twice this year - which is like celebrating a birthday two days in a row or going to see one of your favourite bands twice in a row.

Some technical details make this a rare possibility. Simchat Torah, "rejoicing of the Torah" celebrates the end of the Torah reading cycle. It involves finishing the annual Torah reading, giving each person in the synagogue the chance to be called up to the Torah for an "aliyah" - and, of course, having any number of scotch shots during the service - usually starting around 10 a.m....

In Israel, Simchat Torah is celebrated on the 8th day of Sukkot - and is also called "Shmini Atzret." It is a holiday on its own - and quite a festive one at that. Outside of Israel - Shmini Atzeret and Simchat Torah are two separate holidays - occurring on consecutive days. Observant Israeli Jews only celebrate according to the Israeli calendar - so the day after Shmini Atzeret is not a holiday in Israel.

On Thursday, September 30th, we celebrated Simchat Torah at Hod v'Hadar - a Conservative synagogue in K'far Saba, Israel. The service began at 9 a.m. By 9:45, we were dancing "hakafot" - taking the Torah scrolls out and dancing around the synagogue -while singing festive songs and having the odd shot of scotch...All this to mark the completion of the annual cycle of reading the entire Torah - and then rewinding it and starting the cycle again from the beginning.

After finishing the rounds of hakaftot - we divided up into groups to read through the 5 Torah readings that are read over and over on Simchat Torah until each person has had a chance to come up and say the blessings. It was wonderful to share a table with my daughter for the first time - and read the 5 sections of the Torah portion over and over while the various synagogue members came up for their aliyot - which is done at this synagogue by family. Our family was the last to be called up as a group - and then we wrapped up this part of the service and rejoined the rest of the congregation for the remainder of the service - which ended at about 1:00 p.m. followed by a pot luck lunch - with a wide variety of food - all dairy and vegetarian - brought by the various members. The celebrations were fun and family oriented with a real sense of community.

Simchat Torah ended in Israel at 6:10 p.m. -bringing to a close the week long festival of Sukkot - and the season of "chaggim" in Israel - where the kids were off school and many people work only half days.

I left Israel that evening on late night flight to Philadelphia and from there to Toronto - arriving in the morning - in time to join some Toronto festivities. Although it was now not really a holiday for me - I had to be back in Toronto for a variety of reasons. So why not enjoy celebrations twice in a row?

I arrived in time to join the "Hakafot" - 8 of them here in Toronto - and then helped share the Torah reading - reading the same sections over and over in Toronto that I had read the previous day in Ra'anana with my daugter. The scotch wasn't as good at Beth Tivkah - since the members hadn't brought their own fine single malts as they had in Ra'anana - but the ruach was exciting and there were many participants in the Torah readings and other aspects of the service. Disappointingly, it seemed to me that the number of congregants had gone down quite a bit over previous years' turnouts - particularly in the young family demographic - but the service was still vibrant and energetic.

Like Hod v'Hadar in Ra'anana, Beth Tikvah finished with a well attended kiddush lunch - since the service ends around 1:00 p.m. - rivalling Rosh Hashanah and Shmini Atzeret as one of the longest mornings in synagogue on the annual calendar - other than Yom Kippur.

In both places, Toronto and Ra'anana - I was able to participate in joyful Simchat Torah celebrations - carry the Torah, sing, dance and even have a few scotches. A great couple of consecutive holidays - to mark the end of the Jewish New Year - and this year's Jewish holiday season.

And now - to finish off the New Year - Styx in Niagara Falls, Ontario...

Shana Tova!