As the familiar klezmer sounds rung out from a busker’s accordion on the streets of Kensington last week, I was reminded of the exuberant joy of past celebrations of Simchat Torah. The holiday and its mysteries, without doubt, made it my favourite festival in a different era.
Time caught up with it for me some time ago as shuls emptied out over the decades and the self-protection zealots damped down on the unruly ebullience. In the past couple of years, it became yet another masked and sanitised event.
Before health and safety came to rule our lives, the tradition of children parading around the bimah with flags, apples and lit candles always seemed very exciting. I always found it intriguing how the elders of the Eastern European Hove community, where I spent much of my early life, would disappear upstairs to the boardroom as the festival began.
There, the Johnnie Walker would be passed around and, slowly but surely, the low gravelly voices would be lifted and raucous singing would start up. It was the great boozy warm-up for the Hakafot, the parading of the Sifrei Torah that would follow.
The young people – yes, there used to be some of those in traditional shuls – would hang around the sides of the synagogue, tallit in hand, hoping the warden doing the calling up would utter their name. The chances were slim; the big machers went first. Women were bystanders to all the effervescence.
Occasionally, one of the Hakafot lottery winners would struggle with the weight and pass on the Sefer to a younger person as the wild dancing and discordant singing reached its peak. The highlight of the evening would be the ritual distribution of sweets to the children.
In Washington some years later, where I worked for a decade, the practice at Kesher Israel – the Shul of the Senators – in Georgetown was rather different. The US is known as the home of capitalism red in tooth and claw and so it was on Simchat Torah. There were bids from the local real estate moguls for the privilege of leading the first Hakafot or securing an early round. Tens of thousands of dollars would notionally change hands. How quickly would they forget the traditional reading from King Solomon’s Ecclesiastes, read on the intermediate Shabbat of just past Succot, when the great monarch describes his palaces, riches and harems as no more than ‘vanities of vanities’.
Certainly, in pre-9/11 days there was another tradition. ‘N’ Street in Georgetown would be sealed from through traffic by police barriers. And the buyers of the Hakofat would stream onto the streets of Georgetown, Sifrei Torah on arm. The street was given over to boisterous dancing, nothing to worry Strictly contestants, as non-Jewish neighbours poured onto their porches or stoops or hung out of their windows to enjoy the action.
Doubtless on the streets of Stamford Hill such glorious public rituals are still as vibrant as ever. But we live in a different age. The big, fulfilled, hope in Hove was that the Chabad rabbis turn up accompanied by children and grandchildren so there are people present below pensioner age.
Of more concern in smaller synagogues is whether there is going to be a minyan on Simchat Torah morning. How humiliating for the Chatan Torah and Chatan Bereshit if there is no community there to honour them.
The rituals of calling everyone up to the law and gathering the children under the biggest tallit simply lack the customers and the exaltation of the past.
In Israel and the Reform communities, Simchat Torah, as a separate festival no longer exists. It is simply grafted onto the eighth day of Succot or Shemini Atzeret. The extra days is a diaspora vanity all the less observed when it occurs midweek after a run of midweek holidays that can rip out the heart of the normal working week.
Somehow between secular rules, health and safety and self-administered restrictions and orthodoxies a rumbustious festival has been becalmed. It has been left much less widely celebrated.