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Dancing in the street with everybody

As I learned from Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, when it comes to Torah, it doesn't have to matter what you wear, as long as you are there
Illustration: Avi Katz
Illustration: Avi Katz

I was born in New York City in 1964, the same year Marvin Gaye’s “Dancing in the Street” topped the Billboard charts. Yet long before I grew up and connected with that jubilant Motown hit, I felt its power in the sheer joy with which we celebrated Simchat Torah, pouring out the doors of the Riverdale Jewish Center.

In the late 1960s, it was “Yitz” Greenberg who brought the holiday to life. We all waited for that seventh hakafah when our exuberant and towering rabbi led hundreds of us down the slate steps, singing and swaying onto Independence Avenue. It was an Orthodox shul but the members represented a broad range of religious commitment and were lit up by our young spiritual and intellectual leader.

The revelry would reach its crescendo when Rabbi Greenberg braced himself inside the concentric circles of elated congregants and led a raucous rendition of Am Yisrael Hai (The People of Israel Lives).

Mi kulanu (who are we)?” he roared. “Yisrael!” we shouted back.

“Yerushalayim?” – “Yisrael!”

“Tel-Aviv?” – “Yisrael!”;

“Riverdale?” – “Yisrael!”;

“Moscow?” – “Yisrael!”;

Mi kulanu?” – “Yisrael!”;

Rabbi Greenberg always screamed so hard he lost his voice for days.

With that outburst of Jewish pride and spiritual uplift, we returned from dancing in the street to standing in the sanctuary and completing the yearly Torah reading cycle.

Only decades later did I recognize the novelty of these moments, when Americanized Orthodox Jews expressed the fresh zeitgeist of the times through open public displays of ethnic and religious identity. For that matter, I had little sense then that the separate circle in which women too danced outside holding Torah scrolls was controversial and would remain subversive in the eyes of some fellow religious Jews. (I did wonder how the non-Jewish junior high school students watching us from their classrooms across the street, and the drivers who had to slowly make their way around the euphoric dancing crowd, perceived our boisterous celebration.)

Some 50 Simchat Torah celebrations later, whenever I see our kind of “Dancing in the Street” I’m reminded of those visceral and innocent childhood moments. But sometimes the tension outweighs the festivity – revelers who bother neighbors by interfering with the evening relaxation and bedtimes of children and adults alike; frustrated drivers and passengers who can’t leave their parking spaces or reach their destinations on schedule.

Often good spirits prevail, yet having lived in Israel for over three decades, I am deeply aware that some of my fellow citizens who don’t observe Jewish holidays in Orthodox fashion don’t find the public celebrations so delightful. For them, it feels coercive and stokes fears of a religious takeover of the public square.

Regardless of whether these fears are founded in current social and political circumstances, they are real for those who harbor them. For me, at the very least they often compromise my ability to reengage with an activity that once represented collective and uncomplicated Jewish joy.

Thus my utter delight this past Monday morning, when my wife and I went “shul-hopping” through the lovely and mysterious alleyways of Nachlaot, the veteran neighborhood adjacent to Jerusalem’s Machane Yehudah market. Still home to scores of small prayer houses where descendants sustain the customs of the immigrant founders from across the Middle East, North Africa and Eastern Europe, it has also become a choice address for university students, neo-Hasidic English speakers, and a spectrum of twenty-something nonconformists.

After getting a taste of the hakafot in a few synagogues, we made our way up a block and encountered a group of about 25 merry-makers of every conceivable religious and secular fashion style. They were rejoicing in the middle of the street with two large Torah scrolls housed in Mizrahi-Sephardic style encasements. My instincts told me this was just the kind of genuine and eclectic crowd I would like to join for a few rounds. But even at that stage I could not have imagined what would happen minutes later.

A car approached from above and had to stop because its way was blocked by my fellow revelers. Before I could blink an eye, a man of about sixty with a long beard and a large kippah walked right over to the car door. Here we go again, I thought, concerned the ingrained hostility — that resentment on both sides that undermines so much good feeling — would erupt any moment.

But instead of animosity, the next thing I saw was the driver getting out of his vehicle, putting on the kippah offered by his new friend, and accepting the Torah into his arms as he joined the others in the circle. A quick glance back to the car revealed a smiling woman in the passenger seat filming the festivities on her cellphone.

Five minutes later, the Simchat Torah driver kissed the scroll and passed it on. He returned the kippah to its owner, got back behind the steering wheel, wished everyone a “chag sameach,” and passed through the wide opening his new friends made so his car could move easily toward its destination.

Marvin Gaye got it right. So did Yitz and the dancing Jews of Nachlaot.

It doesn’t matter what you wear
Just as long as you are there…
It’s an invitation across the nation, a chance for folks to meet
They’ll be dancing, dancing in the street.

About the Author
Professor Adam S. Ferziger holds the R.S.R. Hirsch Chair in the Israel and Golda Koschitzky Department of Jewish History and Contemporary Jewry at Bar-Ilan University and is co-convener of the Oxford Summer Institute on Modern and Contemporary Judaism. His most recent monograph, Beyond Sectarianism: The Realignment of American Orthodox Judaism (Wayne State University Press, 2015), won the National Jewish Book Award in the category of American Jewish Studies. He is co-editor of the new volume Yitz Greenberg and Modern Orthodoxy: The Road Not Taken (Academic Studies Press 2019).
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