Monday, October 12, 2009

Holiday, It Could Be So Nice

The Jewish holiday of Simchat Torah may be perfect for kids (and adults). Unlike its more popular sibling, Hanukkah, which prances around with a puffed up chest, where we gorge ourselves on latkes (fried potato pancakes), jelly doughnuts, and chocolate, and lavish gifts on our children for eight crazy nights, Simchat Torah takes place largely in the synagogue. It doesn’t on the surface excite the young with the prospect of toys and an extended sugar high.

In fact, when I told Miguel last Saturday afternoon that we were going to the Simchat Torah celebration that evening, he grumbled in preteen fashion, “Do I have to go? I don’t want to.”

Selling Simchat Torah to Maya was much easier. All I said was, “Maya, we’re going to a party tonight at the synagogue.”

“Will there be cake?” she asked, because party equals cake in her preschool mind.

“There might be cake,” I said. “But if not, there will be treats.”

That was all it took. For the rest of the day she kept asking, “When are we going to the party at the synagogue? I want to go to the party at the synagogue.”

Simchat Torah, which comes at the end of Sukkot (the Feast of Tabernacles, celebrating when the Israelites wandered in the desert after Egypt and lived in prefabricated huts or Sukkot), commemorates the conclusion of the first five books of the Bible, the Torah, which are read weekly in synagogues across the globe, and starting all over again. It is festive and joyous.

Children usually march throughout the synagogue with paper flags, and they get to eat candy and drink juice. The point is to honor and celebrate the Torah, which is the 3000-year-old sacred history of the Jewish people.

We used to go to synagogue in Bloomfield, CT, and party in a modified pre-Halloween ritual with Jewish religious overtones. While the adults prayed and chanted from the Torah, the kids waited patiently to parade around the synagogue with our flags, and then eat whatever delectable treats we were offered.

In high school or early college, I joined my friend Jed Brody and his more Orthodox family acquaintances, the Mandels, for a Simchat Torah celebration at Young Israel in West Hartford. Young Israel elevated Simchat Torah beyond mere joyous revelry. All males over the age of 13 were encouraged to receive a blessing at the Torah and then consume varying quantities of hard liquor, mainly whiskey in the form of shots.

That night, Jed, Kenny, and I sang and danced and basked in the wisdom glow of the Torah and got drunk. Very drunk. I remember allowing my inner rebel to shine and dominate as we took male pride in pissing in the bushes along Farmington Avenue. I don’t know if the rabbis intended public urination to be part of Simchat Torah.

The celebration last Saturday evening was quite tamer and no one peed outdoors. Miguel and Maya sat through the first hakafah, procession, through the synagogue with a half dozen Torah scrolls. I jumped into one of several circles and danced with friends and strangers.

“You two should do this next hakafah,” I said to Miguel and Maya. “There will be treats soon for the kids.”

Maya was not yet convinced, so she stood the side while Miguel and I circled around the room. Then he and I broke from the group and sauntered over to Maya. I crossed my arms and grabbed Miguel’s, which were also crossed. I said, “Now lean back.” Then we spun each other around and around until he tumbled to the ground. Miguel’s eyes grew wide and he started laughing hysterically.

“I want to do that again,” he said.

Maya came over and immediately wanted to join in. Miguel said, “OK, just one more time for Daddy and me.” Maya waited patiently and then joined hands with Miguel and me, and we pranced around in a circle, ending our mini-procession with Miguel on his back and Maya toppled on him.

We danced the last hakafot (plural for hakafah) away from the main group, for the two of them could not get enough of the circling and falling and squealing with delight. They finally slipped away and went outside to slide down the hill near the Sukkah in the synagogue’s courtyard.

Soon they took a break back in their seats and munched from the bags of candy each child was given. A friend of mine looked over at them on the other side of the room and said, “They are so well behaved.”

Yes, that is what a bag of hard candies and taffy will do to my kids, focus them quietly on the task at hand.

Before we left, we gathered in a big circle in the social hall and all the adults helped unfurl one Torah scroll. Then the rabbi proceeded to note the Jewish narrative highlights to the children, who were clustered inside the circle, as he walked around and pointed at the columns of ancient Hebrew.

On the way home I asked them if they’d had a good time.

“Yes,” they both answered.

“What was fun?” I asked.

“Dancing around and getting candy,” they both answered quickly.

Simchat Torah might never rival Hanukkah for Jewish celebratory splendor (hey, it’s hard to compete with an 8-day festival that shares seasonal glory with Christmas), but, then again, it doesn’t have to. For Miguel and Maya, Simchat Torah was dancing and candy. For me, it was reconnecting with fond memories, celebrating our heritage, and exposing my children to the joy of Jewish ritual.

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