Thursday, October 23, 2014

Conducting Judaism's Business

Simchat Torah evening used to be fun.  As a kid, families would come out but it was really a kids' evening with marching, flag waving, fencing duels with the sticks, some acapella singing, swinging Torah scrolls back and forth.  The elders of the shul knew how to chant their verse of Atah Haretah, or as we called it Ataw Hawresaw.  Torah would get chanted at the end with all of us squeezing under the blanket of a tallis held above us by the four tallest men.  It remained an evening not to miss in college.  Some hijinx, some underage wine, now thoroughly taboo by University policy, rigidly enforced.  And moreover, an evening's solidarity with our Soviet Jewish counterparts who for some reason unknown to me selected Simchat Torah evening as their forum to publicly display their Judaism and the measure of joy it can bring, even in troubling circumstances, while the hostile authorities looked the other way for one day.

As a suburbanite devoting myself to parnassah while allotting time to raise my family, circumstances began to change, though not unravel.  My congregation, the local USCJ affiliate at the time, had kingmakers and other forms of leadership which effectively partitioned celebratory events to adult time and kids forums.  It said right on the High Holy Day tickets, still in my possession, that no children under the age of 6 would be permitted in any service.  It cost them some very valuable young members who took exception that anybody in authority would think that way, and they no longer do.  My current congregation runs by those members that they could have had.  Kids time was assigned to Purim Eve and Simchat Torah Eve.  Kids cannot sit through readings, so they reasoned, so a truncated selection of Megillah was chanted while an often unsuccessful attempt at a full reading took place before the official festivities in a side room.  I offered to read on Simchat Torah eve, as I was the reader on Simchat Torah morning, but was turned down cold by the Rabbi, a young parent himself, who just wanted to process the kids through their allotted time in a merry way.  There did not seem to be a lot of opposition to this tradition by anyone outside my household.  Eventually they became lenient on kids attending but the traditional children's events remained that way with nary an adult who was not a parent of one of the kids in attendance on Purim or Simchat Torah.

My current place expects the festivals to be participatory for everyone.  On the Holy Days, our seniormost member was 96, our juniormost barely old enough to be carried in safely by her parents.  We do not have a lot of kids ourselves, but for the Holy Days families gather including the grandchildren of our members.  That reality became starkly apparent at Simchat Torah and most shabbatot when the entire contingent of pre-Bar Mitzvah tykes can be counted on one hand, the Rabbi's four girls.  The majority of the adults could still sight read their verse of Atah Haretah, though some opted for the English translation when their turn arrived.  Torahs were carried, the Hazzan led the usual songs in between each Hakafah, but it did not seem festive.  The business of Simchat Torah got conducted in its ritualized way without any of the spontaneity that would in another era bring great pride to the Soviet Jews, if even for one day.

Unfortunately, much of the synagogue experience has taken a similar course.  There is an agenda to get through:  the portions of the service, the Aliyah Sound Bites, a sermon, the obligatory handshakes from those in the Torah procession.  There has been no give and take, no genuine curiosity of how somebody's week went, what anybody thought of anything, not even at kiddush.  The middle part of our logo says ENGAGING.  Not sure at this point if it is even a work in progress.

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