By Kate Goldfield
The blue and white letters of the small paper flag attracted me. “Rejoice and Be Happy on Simchat Torah,” it said on one side, with festive colors and decorations on the other. It felt deliciously rebellious somehow. Maybe it was yet another vestige of growing up in a town where I didn’t see a single other person like me. My family identified as Jewish but didn’t participate in any Jewish community, so meeting other Jewish people was something of a rarity for me for most of my life, and something it took me a long time to realize I was missing.
Seeing Hebrew printed on flags, seeing a flag that celebrated, in two different languages, a holiday I had never even heard of a week ago excited and delighted me. It seemed somehow long awaited proof that I existed. It was almost as if I hadn’t realized how much I was missing in my life until I stumbled upon it. What a perfect melding of the commercialism we are all so much a part of and the Judaism I had only been aware of on the Internet in this one simple flag.
Each generation rebels against their parents in their own special way, and for my parents, it was eschewing the strict religious rituals they had grown up with. For me, it meant taking tentative steps to discover all that I had never even been told existed, and taking steps to try to figure out if there is a way to make it meaningful and relevant for me. Just a small paper flag, as commercial and pedestrian as you can get. An item that probably cost a few pennies to manufacture, the kind you might see in Party City along with all the other party merchandise I had loved so much as a kid. But this small paper flag was not just any flag. It had Hebrew on it. It represented a universe I hadn’t even know was there. It represented the promise of discovering a new world, and the hope that there might be something in this world that would be useful to me. I stuck the flag on my kitchen counter so that I would be reminded of it every time I passed by.
When I looked at the calendar of events for the synagogue a few weeks ago and saw the words “Simchat Torah,” I thought it must have been a typo. What does that mean, I thought? What could that possibly mean? I had to Google it. When I learned what would happen, I asked if I could take pictures and write a blog on it.
Simchat Torah is a holiday where people dance with Torahs. I made endless comparisons to “Dancing with Wolves” as I told my friends what I was planning on doing. The humor was mostly lost on them. For anyone who has not been to a Simchat Torah celebration, the Torah is unrolled all the way out. People stand in a circle and hold it, and the rabbi talks about the most important parts. A klezmer band (we had the Casco Bay Tummlers) plays traditional Jewish music and people dance with Torahs. They hand off the Torah to each other and dance in a circle, holding hands. As squeamish as I am holding hands, I made myself try it for a few minutes. My conclusion is that I’m better at documenting group dancing than being a part of it. But it definitely seemed like a joyous event full of lots of laughter and love.
The night started with kids from the religious school being called up for what is known as Consecration. This is an event to celebrate the official beginning of their religious school, and usually done for the first graders. All the kids got miniature Torahs, which were very cute, as well as a certificate to help them go to Jewish summer camp and a letter addressed to them. The kids were adorable.
People were upbeat and happy, and since I was focused on taking pictures instead of trying to figure out how to be a part of things, I was happy too. The particular religious meaning of the ceremony was mostly lost on me, but the significance of being surrounded by a very specific kind of Jewish culture was not. When I talked to my dad on the phone about it, he understood that while we have never been a particularly religious family, Jewish culture is something that you can sometimes long for even when you’ve never had it before. Or perhaps Jewish culture is bred into you even in a family that doesn’t celebrate any but the most popularized of holidays without you even realizing it, and being surrounded by people who are part of this culture feels like coming home again even when you don’t know the most basic of religious principles. Either way, I will save my dime store Simchat Torah flag and wave it around on occasion, proud that I finally have a community to be part of.