October 31, 2016

After the Chagim

‘After the chagim’ is the Jewish form of ‘mañana.’ When we are busied with the holidays – Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, Sukkot and Simchat Torah – not much else gets done. Business meetings? After the chagim. Looking for a handyman? After the chagim? Need something at the health food store? Wait till it opens after the chagim. Time to write a blog post? After the chagim.

In religious communities, the focus for one month is on prayer, festivities and social gatherings. The kids are off school and the stores become frenzily packed just like Christmas shopping days abroad.

Our Sukkah at Villa Tiferet in Tzefat.
We spent our Sukkot in Tsfat at Villa Tiferet and our courtyard Sukkah was a revolving tent of guests, visitors and music. 

The Sukkah was for sleeping, sipping morning coffee, lavish meals and playing board games with family. We studied Torah there, chatted with friends till the late hours of the night and sang songs.

Musical womens' gathering in the Sukkah.
We became very attached to our Sukkah, quickly adapting to it as if it were our new home. Yet before we knew it, it was time to say ‘goodbye’ to the Sukkah and go back inside the house for the next holiday installation – Simchat Torah. 

I find it hard to transition; first from the introspective Yom Kippur to festive Sukkot; and from the intimate, cozy Sukkah to gregarious Simchat Torah.

As a woman, Simchat Torah was my least favourite holiday. I used to go to synagogue but soon became depressed standing on the other side of the mechitza, watching the men dance with the Torah.  I then went through a phase of going on strike – sitting at home during the holiday. But when one shul offered the women a Torah to dance with, my holiday was transformed.

In Tsfat, there is a special place where women are given two Torah scrolls and a large room for dancing. It is a highlight for me to watch the glow on the women's and girls’ faces as they hold the Torah close and dance.

There was a small Torah for the young girls and a larger one for the women. Everyone had a chance to hold the Torah and sway, sing and dance. The women clutched the Torah tenderly as if it were a baby, caressing it over their right shoulder and moving gently from side to side. It was hypnotic to watch.

The girls around them formed a circle and sang song after song, stepping, clapping, jumping. I watched the little girls with their Torah and admired the fact that will be growing up with this tradition, a love of Simchat Torah and an equal opportunity to show their connection to Torah.

On Simchat Torah morning, the hakafot (circles of dancing with the Torah) continue. I usually spend Simchat Torah walking to the other shuls in Tsfat, watching the men sing and dance with the Torah. But this year, I did not want to feel depressed seeing the women and girls gather on the periphery, unable to join in. I decided that I only wanted to be part of a synagogue where women could share in the essence of the holiday, so I stayed put.

After the hakafot, it was time to read the last part of the Torah. And here, in the privacy of their own room, the girls and women were able to read from the Torah, including my daughter! We were also all given aliyot.

Many men find this disdainful, yet according to Jewish law, it is an acceptable practice. I just read a moving article in The Jerusalem Post entitled Women Should Dance with Torah Scrolls. It is written by Rabbi Dov Lipman who lives in Beit Shemesh, whose daughters actively participated in Simchat Torah for the first time. He was transformed by seeing them transformed and he now asks that all synagogues adopt this practice.  

In this article, he gives the halachic reasons why this should be an acceptable practice. I actually cringe in shame when I read why men continue to argue that women should not dance with the Torah. The practice of denying women the Torah is embarrassingly antiquated on an almost squeamish level.

I hope change will occur soon. Standing on the other side of the mechitza, unable to dance with a Torah that was once given to all at Mount Sinai, mothers and daughters can easily feel disconnected from Torah’s spirituality and teachings. Denying women a part of Simchat Torah simply slams the door on their searching faces.  I am grateful that my daughters and I had this experience in Tsfat.

And as Simchat Torah ends, yet another transition must occur. We return from an elated frenziness to routine. ‘Ha shigra’ as they say in Hebrew.

We have now put away our sukkah and finished up with a dozen loads of laundry. The kids are back to school and yes, I am transitioning, actually sitting at my desk. It feels good; working can be more relaxing than the cooking, cleaning, entertaining, singing and dancing we were doing for the last four weeks.

As we return to our routine lives, we must remember to bring a part of these holidays along with us, including our intentions to make a change for the new year.

This is the hard work, yet without the conscious work of changing and improving, life seems empty and unfulfilling. So let’s fill our days with goodness and with positive change– no more mañana as it’s officially ‘after the chagim.’