I am standing near the mechitza, the Orthodox separation between men and women in synagogue, a woman of 49, watching the men dance with the sifrei Torah, the Torah scrolls.
I sing along very, very quietly.
Hoshi’a et amecha [Save Your people] …
…And I am 7 years old, proudly waving a flag among a crowd of children at our Conservative shul. I watch my father holding a sefer Torah and dancing with joyous abandon.
Each child receives a red apple and a Hershey bar. We all stand outside on the steps facing 16th Street and shout symbolically towards the Soviet embassy, a few miles south of us:
One two three four! Open up the iron door!
Five six seven eight! Let our people emigrate!
The rabbi speaks movingly about Anatoly Sharansky. I do not know that within 10 years, the refusenik will be a free man named Natan, and that a few years after that, the iron door will really open up.
U-varech et nachalatecha [and bless Your inheritance]…
…I am 13, newly bat mitzvah. For the first time, I am old enough to hold a sefer Torah myself. It’s heavy; I can’t dance as wildly as my father, but I am learning.
Ur’em ve-nas’em ad ha-olam [and tend them and raise them up forever]…
…I am 18, at my college’s egalitarian minyan. We dance for hours. We join the Orthodox minyan on the quad, and form separate circles. Dancing, we carry the sifrei Torah through the nave of the gothic library and into the reading room, where there are Jews who do not remember that it is Simchat Torah. In the morning, all my muscles ache from dancing. My friend and mentor, Elka Klein, makes sure I am honored with kallat Bereishit because I am a promising freshman. I do not know that in only 18 years, Elka will pass away much too young from ovarian cancer. The memories are sweet and tinged with sorrow.
I also do not know that within two years, I will have chosen Orthodox Judaism. This will be almost my last egalitarian Simchat Torah.
Torat Hashem temima [God’s Torah is perfect]…
…I’m in my early 20s, Orthodox, studying at a midrasha. I spend Simchat Torah in south Jerusalem, where women dance, but without a sefer Torah. It feels a bit unsatisfying, like dancing at a wedding without the bride.
A few years later, I visit a friend whose husband is in kollel at a hesder yeshiva. Here, the women just watch the men – but the fervent intensity of hundreds of yeshiva boys is worth watching.
I will continue to search, unsuccessfully, for the perfect Orthodox women’s Simchat Torah.
Meshivat nafesh [restoring the soul]…
…I’m the young mother of a preschooler. My daughter enjoys dancing with her father, but when she’s overwhelmed, she comes to me. I gain a new appreciation for the women’s section as her quiet refuge.
Ana ana ana [I, I, I]…
… My daughters have outgrown the men’s dancing, and Simchat Torah becomes a holiday of “pekelach.” (The apple and chocolate bar have evolved into a deluge of toffees, lollipops, and cheap plastic toys that break.)
Then they outgrow the pekelach and begin their own unsatisfying search for the perfect Orthodox girl’s Simchat Torah.
Aveda de-Kudesha Berich Hu [am a servant of the Holy One, Blessed be He]…
… And I am back in the present, standing at the mechitza.
In the years since I stopped chasing the elusive perfect celebration, I find I am at peace with watching.
In a few hours, the holiday season that began with the introspection and repentance of Elul will be over. My meditative hakafot of reflection and remembering feel like a fitting conclusion.
I do not know how I, or my daughters, or my granddaughter, or Jewish women anywhere, will celebrate Simchat Torah in 10 or 20 years.
I look forward to finding out.