Thursday, September 30, 2010

18 hour vacation and Simchat Torah

So I bet you're all wondering how the vacation was to the beach.  I give it "Exceeds Expectations!" 
 
First of all, in his attempt to show how easy it could be, Ross indeed did most of the packing and unpacking.  And more importantly, the kids LOVED it.  Abaye was excited from the get go, so no surprises there.  Rivital and Shai complained that they hate the beach, but that turned out to be not entirely true.  We didn't start out until after a leisurely lunch with friends who were visiting, and after a 2 hour car ride, we got there at 4:00 PM.  We changed in our room, and then headed for the beach-- walking towards the ocean until we found it.  The kids were amazed by the big ocean waves, and they loved going out and jumping in them.  Shai actually said that he was wrong and ROss was right-- that he LOVED it!  It was a short swim, but that was totally perfect.  First of all, the beach was a little annoying because it was really rocky, so it hurt to get knocked over by a wave.  Second, short meant there was no time for anyone to complain they want to go home.  There were some complaints when it was time to go, but it was turning pitch black, so after we literally watched the sun set, they pretty much understood that was over.  and they were all excited for the dinner Ross had ordered us.  So we had just enough time to go back and shower, and get to dinner.  Dinner was very exciting-- big buffet with plenty of food the kids loved.  And we had the big enourmous sukkah all to ourselves.  All the other guests ate inside, even though it was absolutely beautiful outside.  After dinner we started a big Risk game, but we got tired and went to bed pretty early. 
 
The next morning we had to be out of our rooms by 10:00, and home in time to prepare for the holiday, but Ross remembered a much nicer beach than the one we were at (in fact, that was the reason he wanted to come-- big beautiful sandy beach).  At first we thought we'd go back to the beach after checking out of the room, but then I realized that we wouldn't have towels or showers and we would have to ride home wet and covered in sand and rocks and seashells and small eel (the kids swore they saw an electric eel!).  So I suggested that whoever wanted to go to the other beach should wake up at the crack of dawn and go at sunrise.  I'll admit I was not minding staying back with whoever didn't want to go.  Nut in fact, everyone chose to go!  We drove a few minutes down the road, and sure enough there was a resort oasis of a beach.  It was beautiful, and the sand was perfect, and we swam in the waves and Abaye collected seashells (which was his favorite part).  It was a little sad to have to go, but we were there about an hour, and everyone was excited to check out our free breakfast, so it wasn't too hard getting them away. 
 
Breakfast was fun, then we packed up and headed home.  18 hours start to finish (22 inlcluding travel time).  Not bad!  I don't know about relaxing, but I thought it was a great vacation.  Kudos to Ross!
 
 
Now onto the next topic: Simchat Torah.  I give it a hearty "Exceeds Expectations!"
 
First of all, I must explain that Simchat Torah is often fairly frustrating for me.  In theory it is one of my favorite holidays.  I love the dancing and singing!  I also love the women's Torah readings that have been part of many of my Simchat Torah experiences.  However, there are usually challenges that sour the experience a bit for me. 
 
I am a little spoiled by my JTS experience-- back before  I was orthodox, I first experienced the holiday in an egalitarian setting where men and women danced together (which avoided some of the issues I will explain later), and the party was full of energy and spirit that can only be produced by hundreds of college guys.  The people who came were there to dance.  The people who came were also there to drink (though this wasn't endorsed by the school).  As I became more religious and looked back, I used to mock that these people would get drunk while dancing with the Torah (and reading from the Torah after the dancing!)  And while I still think that this isn't the holiest idea, just this year (that is to say, this morning) I started to get the logic of it.  I'll explain that in a moment too.
 
When we lived in Teaneck, we celebrated Simchat Torah in synagogues that would not allow the women to hold a sefer Torah.  So the men would be dancing on one side of a mechitza, and on the other side, the women were mostly standing around shmoozing, or watching the men from the side of the mechitza.  The idea was for them to dance too, and sometimes a few women would try, but when the whole idea is about celebrating the Torah, it feels a little ironic to not be dancing with one. 
 
When we moved to Vancouver, I thought it would be so amazing, because Ross would make sure the women also had a sefer Torah to dance with!  The only thing is, in the early years the place was pretty small, and getting anyone to dance was a challenge.   I think this is where the alcohol makes sense (though I am not endorsing it, as it has its drawbacks as well).  I am thinking that the alcohol might help lower inhibitions.  People are not used to dancing around with Torahs.  It feels wierd.  It's hard to get into.  So here we were with a Torah to dance with, and the women were still just standing around shmoozing, or watching the men.  Not that the men were such great shakes back then, but they were more into the dancing than the women. 
 
After a few years, Ross had the idea to import ringers for Simchat Torah.  He brought in a few rabbinical students (and also non-rabbinical female students) to help lived things up.  It was a big success.  between that and the growth of the shul, Simchat Torah began to be a holiday for me to really look forward to!  (along with, of course, the women's Torah reading which my friend Naomi had been organizing since before we got there)
 
But we still had another problem, which is inherent is any Orthodox Simchat Torah celebration-- the singing has to be coordinated by someone-- someone needs to be leading the songs and deciding when each of the dances begins and ends.  This job, without any intervention, will naturally fall to the men.  They are the ones on the bima, and holding most of the Torahs, and in almost all cases leading the davening part which leads into the dances.  So the women are neccessarily out of that loop, and having to listen carefully to keep up.  Sometimes in more modern orthodox settings, the women will try to overpower the men's singing here and there by starting their own songs really really loudly.  So then you maybe get your song in and you feel like you've just won some big feminist battle, but is that really the spirit you want when celebrating the giving of that most precious gift of the Torah from G-d?
 
So if i remember correctly, I think there were times that Ross intentionally planned for women to lead some songs, which was very nice (a huge improvement, in fact!), but not too spontaneous.  You could still feel the tension of the imbalance of it all.  Though as Ross is pointing out (while reading over my shoulder.  Hi Ross!), he also planned times for the women to dance on the bimah while the men danced in the back.  As our friend Cigal just wrote to Ross today, I always miss Shaarey tefillah particularly at this time of year (Purim too-- how bout it Camille?)
 
The most amazing Simchat Torah experience of ours, though, doesn't have much to do with this whole egalitarian thing.  It is the penultimate Simchat Torah experience as recalled by many of the gang at Shaarey Tefillah in Vancouver (and probably what Cigal was referring to today).  One year on Simchat Torah night we were getting hot , and we went outside for a hakafa (a dance).  We then spotaneously (oh- hi again Ross!  Ross is pointing out that it was my idea, so I guess that's not so spontaneous) danced around the corner to Beit HaMidrash-- the sephardi synagogue that was by then under the leadership of our good (though fairly conservative with a small c) friend Rabbi Acoca.  As we were heading over there, Ross pointed out that it would most likely be offensive to enter there with a woman carrying one of our sifrei Torah.  In deference to them, we handed our Torah to a man, and danced in.  The honor and love with which we were received was beyond words.  Their congrgation swallowed us into their dancing, and Rabbi Acoca welcomed Ross onto the bimah like a king (I think he even put on him one of those tall red sephardic royal hats).  He spoke about how terrific Ross was, and Ross spoke back about extraordinary he was, and after a long time of dancing, we danced back home. 
 
As we were getting ready to wrap up our last dance, we heard singing approaching the doors to our shul.  Ross danced to the back (to the entrance), and saw a sea of sephardim (and ashkenazim-- the shul was actually pretty mixed, but permit a little poetic licence here, will you?) dancing toward us.  Ross ran out before they could enter and discreetly pulled aside Rabbi Acoca to explain that in our shul the women are dancing with a sefer Torah.  Our tremendous friend replied that this is our shul and they will respect our local customs.  We then had a sequel to the earlier dancing but in our shul this time, wrapping up a sevice that both synagogues are still talking about, almost a decade later!  (For those of you who know a bit about our shul in relation to the other Orthodox synagogues in town, the story is that much more astonishing.  This may have been the first cooperative effort our shul had with another orthodox synogogue, except for Chabad). 
 
The following year, we were going to do it all again, but there were a few people in our shul who were strongly opposed (I can't even remember on what grounds).  As Ross was just about giving up trying to convince these people why we should go over there again, our doors opened, and in flooded our dancing sefardim (and ashkenazim, but you know what I mean).   The scene was just as beautiful that second year, except with the added feeling of the development of a tradition. 
 
So you can see the competition they are up against when a shul is trying to impress me for Simchat Torah (not that anyone is, I know).  But given all that, I had a great time here on Maale Gilboa.  It has some of the same ole challenges-- for some reason, even with all these religious and spiritual and openminded women, most tended to sit around and talk most of the time.  Many of them got up and danced sometimes, but then returned to hang out with friends.  n fact, in the beginning, it seemed that no one was really poised to dance except the rabbi's wife and her daughter.  I went over to join a small circle that was starting up well into the first dance, and the rabbi's wife said they usually take a little time to warm up.  She said it's always been like that.  I asked if they had ever tried giving a sefer Torah to the women, and she responded that they always get one, but she waits until there are more people dancing so she isn't shlepping it around all night by herself.  And indeed, slowly but surely, things started to pick up, until a very significant group was dancing, and dancing like they meant it!  They brought in the Torah, and at that point it was more spirited than I have seen in most places.  There were eventually a pretty solid core of older women who kept things going and younger women who kept things interesting-- changing the dances and directions periodically.
 
There are still things I have yet to understand about ALL Simchat Torah AND simcha dancing, for that matter.  Like why is it that men can just keep going forever and ever, but never doing anything more interesting than locking their arms around each other and walking around in a circle screaming, while the women have all these creative and beautiful dances, but after every song they stop and let go of the hands of the other women and listen, as though the next song will probably not be something conducive to dancing around in a circle, though almost all of them are?!  And in Israel, it seems to be totally passe (1990's) to do the horah (aka grapevine step) that I grew up on, and instead, the fallback dance is this one that involves HALF a grapevine, followed by a little step kick with each foot, and then a return to the half grapevine, which makes for a SIX count, when all the songs are 4 or 8 counts (i don't really know exactly what I am talking about musically here, but I do believe i have a point...).  What's up with that?   Does anyone know what I am talking about here?  Does anyone find this jarring?  I spent all of Shani's wedding trying to master this simple dance, and I have had to get used to it all over again at every simcha since!  
 
But these issues are universal (or nonexistent except in my mind), and either way, not a fair critique of the experience here.

Oh, and i almost forgot-- AMAZING women's Torah reading-- THREE simultaneous readings to enable all the women who wanted to have an aliyah in time to return to the main sanctuary for the conclusion of the service.  VERY impressive.  And very warm-- with a special mi sheberach (blessing) for each woman who read or had an aliyah, and the gabbaits put in special blessings where appropriate (like "may she have an easy birth" for the pregnant ones, and for me "an easy absorption."  And of course here everyone understands the blessings, because everyone speaks Hebrew!  That's just so cool!!!!
 
Anyway, sorry this is so long.  I'll sign off here, and keep y'all posted when things get interesting again.
 
Shabbat Shalom!
 
Love,
 
Em

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