Thursday, October 14, 2004
DANCES WITH TORAHS
From The Jewish Week, October 6, 2004 DANCES WITH TORAHS by Esther D. Kustanowitz After the seriousness of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and Sukkot’s put-all-the-food-on-a-tray-and-take-it-outside-to-a-hut balancing act, Simchat Torah, with its spirited dancing and unabashed celebration, is a welcome cap to autumn’s Jewish holiday season. On the Upper West Side, where Jewish singles look for each other at every available opportunity, Simchat Torah also is a holiday of hope. Aside from the seemingly endless number of synagogue services, there is an equal, if not greater, number of food-and drink-related opportunities for determined minglers. Indigenous Upper West Siders know that someone’s always having an open house luncheon where there’s so much food that two (or six) more guests don’t make a significant difference, and there’s always a shul kiddush that can slake your thirst for both whiskey- and wit-soaked conversation. Then there are the apartment parties, in high-rises and brownstones and everywhere in between, where three roommates buy equal parts vodka and babka, invite everyone they know, add ice and shake vigorously: the result is a nice, frosty glass of Jewish Geography, straight up with a twist of Torah. Back in the day, West End Avenue was the undisputed apex of the Simchat Torah scene. Hundreds of people from West Side synagogues of all denominations gathered on an officially closed-off stretch of street, organizing joyful jigs with fellow Jews. From the sea of horas, emerged the hordes of the Jewish and single, who formed phalanxes and marched up and down the street, ducking people from their past and looking for people who could become part of their future. Between my yeshiva days and my summers at Camp Ramah, I seemed to know, or be one degree away from knowing, every street-striding member of the tribe. I declared my apartment an official stop for friends and friends-of-friends, inviting them for a sip of schnapps or morsel of cake either before or after their West End Experience. Over the years, hundreds of people have flowed in and out of my apartment. For that one night, the bar was open, and there was food on the table: crudités for the weight-conscious, chocolate chip meringues for the sweet-toothed, and chips for the Corona-drinkers. But post-9/11, things got a little complicated for West End Avenue. In a year when revelry already seemed inappropriate, the prospect of Jews frolicking in the streets also became a substantial security issue. There were murmurings that tenants in buildings along the parade route had also complained about the noise. The dancing and mingling continued, but commemorations were localized and more subdued. Now three years later, the monstrous street-centered celebration has not resumed, and single Jews looking to maximize their exposure to other MOTs will have to wait for May’s Salute to Israel Parade. West End scene or no West End scene, the essence of the holiday retains its resonance. To begin the Torah again for the umpteenth time does not necessarily mean it’s the same old story; a fresh look at the familiar texts provides new opportunities to see ourselves in biblical characters, conversations, situations and relationships. It has been said that the definition of Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. By making small changes, to our behavior, to the way we speak, to the way we look for friends and lovers, we can help to ward off the insanity that singles sometimes feel is inevitable. An annual commitment to the ongoing process of self-assessment and self-improvement teaches us that we can modify our behavior, and that altered behavior can lead to changed outcomes. As we finish a year’s reading of the Torah, together we proclaim, “chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek.” Strictly speaking, the phrase means “strong, strong, and we will be strengthened.” But I find a looser translation to be more meaningful: “we are strong, let us be strong, and let us strengthen ourselves and each other.” The message is an affirmation, a prayer and an invitation, and reminds us of our recent recommitment to our neighbors and to ourselves. We are strong. We pray that we will remain strong. With the help of our community, our strength will continue. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are about introspection, rooting out our weaknesses and areas for improvement, and committing to meaningful change. But on Simchat Torah, we put our Jewish New Year’s resolutions into effect. Hundreds of people have wandered through my door on Simchat Torah; thus far (unless a CIA-level conspiracy is keeping his identity a secret so that these columns can continue), none of them has been my bashert. But keeping the doors open, both literally and figuratively, signifies a willingness to believe that plumbing the depths of the familiar may yield the strength and deeper meaning we seek. For some of us, open doors might even lead to dancing. With Torahs, of course. Esther D. Kustanowitz, a freelance writer, is a twelve-year veteran of the Upper West Side Simchat Torah experience. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.