This year, after Simchat Torah, I’m feeling really frustrated at women. Let me amplify. During chol hamoed, I tried hard to make sure that our shul’s regular Simchat Beit Hashoevah would also have space for women to dance. And due respect to our shul President: he made sure that there really was adequate space for women to dance. However, of the 30+ women who came to the Simchat Beit Hashoevah (SBH), only 5 women actually came into the shul and danced at any time. The rest sat around outside and chatted and watched the men. Quite a few wandered in and out, moving the mechitsa aside as they did so so that I had to pause in my (really, really hard work in getting people to) dance to put it back again. Because I didn’t want to be on show to all the men on the other side.
I was determined that, since I had made so much fuss about having space for the women to dance, I would dance. And so I did, regardless of who else was dancing with me. Which was mostly either no one, or my daughter. Eventually, after a lot of work, she/I had gathered a very sweet circle of very sweet little girls (aged about 8-12) who were really loving jumping up and down in a circle. I was really heartened to see that the next generation was eager to dance (in their own way, it doesn’t need to be fancy!) and I didn’t regret putting in the effort to dance with them and keep them going. Although I was totally exhausted the next day (let’s face it, I’m just not 9 years old any more!).
But after that, as well as my experiences last year at our shul on Simchat Torah, I was definitely, adamantly, not going to go there again for Simchat Torah this year. Friends of mine had told me that a different shul in my area (let’s call it shul X) had agreed that there would be dancing for women this year. There were teenage girls who were really pushing for it, and my friends were excited to dance, so I was hopeful that there would be a good vibe there over the chag.But then at the last minute, a different friend who goes to our shul called me. She’d heard that I was dancing with the girls at the SBH, and she herself wanted to dance on Simchat Torah. Please, would I come to our shul? I said No. I’m not interested in dancing with other people’s daughters so that they don’t have to.She said she’d make sure that there was space for women to dance; she’d dance with me; and a few other women would come this time who’d also dance, and we’d make our own wonderful Simchat Torah experience.
I said, No. I’ve done enough banging-my-head-against-a-brick-wall in my life. I don’t want to try to convince women to dance, or to convince men to graciously permit women to dance, or to prove something to others.She urged and encouraged me to do my bit for our community by coming to our shul. Against my better judgement, and feeling like a really grumbley negative person, I agreed.
Well, the only enjoyment I got out of Simchat Torah in our shul this year was the dubious pleasure of being proved right. It didn’t work. The space that was created for women to dance in was that of our usual ladies’ section, which is fairly long and very narrow. As I pointed out at the time, we could just about do the CanCan, up and down, all in a line. It did not lend itself to dancing in a circle. A grand total of five of us did try to dance for the first hakafah. It should be mentioned that our shul is quite small and crowded, and the women’s section divided from the men’s by a thick, opaque, ceiling-to-floor curtain – and the men really wanted to have our three-by-ten feet of extra space. As they have had, every year. So it was necessary, every few steps, to jab an elbow into a body on the other side of the curtain that was jostling into our space. By the end of the first hakafah, 2 women sitting on chairs had materialised into the dancing space, and the curtain had been defiantly and definitely pushed open by both men wanting the space, and women wanting to sit around and watch the men.
My daughter said, ‘This is useless. Let’s just go to shul X. It’s not working. Let’s go‘.
There was space for women to dance, and there were women and girls of all ages dancing with enthusiasm that was heart-warming. We slipped into the circle and felt soothed; we were with others who also wanted to serve Hashem actively and with joy. There was was dancing and celebration and excitement. At the end of the evening, my daughter and I (and my husband) agreed that the female half of our family would switch shuls. We are now a two-shul family, because sadly, what creates a positive male shul-going experience is not what creates a positive female shul-going experience, and it’s important to us that our daughter feel that she belongs in shul, and that shul belongs to her.
As we marched to shul X, feeling aggrieved and frustrated, I was actually glad to hear my daughter complain about how awful that was. I was glad that she wanted more than just to watch her father and brothers, and to play with her friends. I was glad that she was bemoaning the women who kept opening the curtain, even after she asked them to stand at the other end where the curtain was open, instead of opening the curtain where we were trying to dance. And I was glad that she wished to dance with a sefer Torah.There was no sefer Torah for the women to dance with in shul X. I knew that there would not be, and I understand, too, that the pressures in a shul can make it hard for a rabbi to permit it, even if he wishes to permit it. But this year, perhaps because of the failed dance experiment in our shul, I realised that my more feminist friends are right: without a sefer Torah, the dancing will always and only be but a pale shadow of the dancing on the men’s side of the curtain. Without a sefer Torah, there is no focus to the dancing. We are nothing more than guests at a wedding with an absent bride. For whom do we dance, and why do we celebrate? Simchat Torah is not just a Jewish nightclub evening. It’s a Torah celebration. It’s hard to have a Torah celebration without a Torah.
And it’s hard to arrange a women’s Torah celebration if the women do not want it. But I wonder why they don’t want it. Could it be that it’s really a lot easier to leave it to your husband, or son, or brother to connect with G-d on your behalf? It’s so much less effort to sit around and shmooze with your friends, and watch the men dance and sing. To get up and dance, to sing, to celebrate your connection with the Torah and your connection with G-d is hard work. It’s tiring. I felt glad that my daughter wants something more, and glad that I had shown her that she can want something more. And I felt sad for the daughters at our shul, who spent Simchat Torah absorbing the message that celebrating in shul is for their fathers and brothers; that their role is to talk and to play. The girls who overheard their mothers lamenting that the dancing goes on for so long, that davening takes forever, that the chag is so tiring and such hard work. It’s not the men who are marginalising women and excluding them from the celebration. It’s the women, brought up to expect nothing more, brought up to want nothing more, who are excluding themselves.
PS: There are women who really enjoy spending Simchat Torah learning Torah. They will arrange a shiur or sit somewhere quietly and learn. I respect this, and also enjoy doing so, and do not wish to sound like I think it’s inadequate. But personally, I want Simchat Torah to be an experience of simchah, just as the men spend the time on this day celebrating their connection with the Torah, rather than sitting and learning. Which I do during the year (perhaps not as often as I could. Or should. But at least I wish I was doing it more).
I also see women who follow the hakafot, who watch the men dancing and get real, vicarious joy out of watching and listening. I don’t at all understand how this one works – it never does anything for me – but to these women I say great. I’m glad they feel fulfilled by watching someone else dance and sing with the sefer Torah. But I don’t understand it. Perhaps they only feel fulfilled because they have been told to be.