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Dancing on the Shoulders of Memory

This was a post I originally published on September 23, 2013. It's become more poignant and relevant with time, especially given my father's (z"l) passing in 2017.

Dear Families,

I wrote last week about childhood memories about the holidays. I wanted to save one particular memory to share with you this week, in honour of the holiday of Simchat Torah which we will celebrate this Friday, because I think it is one many of us can relate to and offers much food for thought.

Simchat Torah, which means “Rejoicing with/of the Torah,” is a celebration marking the conclusion of the annual cycle of public Torah readings, the Five Books of Moses, and the beginning of a new cycle. Simchat Torah is a component of the Biblical holiday of Shemini Atzeret (“Eighth Day of Assembly”), which follows immediately after the festival of Sukkot in the month of Tishrei.

The custom on the day is to sing and dance with the Torah scrolls in the synagogue (and sometimes the dancing even spills onto the street), dancing which is called hakafot (lit. “circles”) – think Jews doing the hora for hours on end, and you get the picture. In the words of one Chassidic master, “On Simchat Torah the Torah scrolls wish to dance, so we become their feet.”

When I was really small, I used to go with my father and brother and sisters to dance with the Torah on Simchat Torah, in a number of little shtiebels and batei Knesset (synagogues) in Outremont. I don’t remember much about it, but what remains vivid in my mind is the memory of being on my father’s shoulders and dancing around, often holding the hands of other boys and girls who were on their dancing fathers’ shoulders, whirling around and jumping up and down. It was alternately thrilling and a bit scary, because as a little kid, you are perched somewhat precariously on what at the time felt like giant, dancing shoulders. But what a happy, amazing, special feeling.

Fast forward about fifteen years. I graduated Jewish high school, went to learn for a year in Yeshiva in Israel, and then came back home to Montreal to start college and university. And for the first time in my life, there was no one to tell me when to pray, or when to learn Torah, how religious or practicing I should be, or what type of Jew I should or could be. You see, for all those years in Jewish day school and yeshiva, that side of my life was completely regimented by my teachers, rabbis, school schedule and social circle. And so when I started university, for the first time in my life, I had to ask myself: “What type of Jew do I want to be?” It was an intensely personal question that I still ask myself, even to this very day. We live in a society where we are free to make our own lifestyle choices; it is so easy to just go with the flow sometimes, and drop or modify some customs or traditions that don’t fit with our lives or schedules. The university years are also a time when you try on different personas to see what fits best as you shift into young adulthood. And the Jewish question played into that in a major way. I knew at the time that I didn’t want to be religious just because my parents were – for me, it had to be deeper than that. I began to understand that Judaism in this day and age is something you have to work for. It’s not something that is served on a silver platter. You have to want it, and you have to work on it. Because no one is going to do it for you, and no one is going to tell you how to think or feel about all of it.

While I went through this process in my early twenties, I was certain of one thing. And that was this powerful memory of being that small child on my father’s shoulders on Simchat Torah – and how much I absolutely knew I wanted the same experience for my own kids when I would one day get married and have children. I knew I had to pass on the same feelings and emotions I felt all those years earlier.

Today, I can’t begin to describe to you the feelings I feel when I dance with my kids on my shoulders on Simchat Torah, or when I see my son and daughter hold a Torah by themselves, and dance with their friends in a circle, or when I’m going to hold my three-month-old son in my arms as I dance with my community on Friday. I call my father before every Simchat Torah, and I remind him of this story, and I thank him.

As parents who are sending your children to Jewish Day School, who are sacrificing so much to do so, please know that you are giving your children so many positive memories and associations with their Judaism. The value of these memories and associations are incalculable and immeasurable. They are real. And they will make all the difference when your children grow up and ask themselves that very same question: “What type of Jew do I want to be?”

Moadim l’simchah, and chag sameach,

Mar Abba

UPDATE: I sent the original article to my father (z"l) back in 2013; here is a screenshot of his response...

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