Beyond the High Holidays: A Way Back to Judaism
By Ann Green
“If you’re only going to get to shul once or twice a year,” suggests humor writer Judy Gruen, “why not go on Purim or Simchat Torah, when you can sing, dance, eat, get tipsy and wear funny hats?” I would add Shavuot, a somewhat more sedate holiday, and not just because of the unofficial tradition of eating cheesecake.
The vast majority of Jews attend synagogue no more than three times a year. A 2003 Harris Poll found that only 16% attend synagogue at least once a month, 42% at least once a year, and 42% less than that, which would mean never. When they do go, it’s invariably on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The long services include lots of talk about life and death and heavy doses of guilt. (I’m a weekly temple goer and I find High Holiday services to be unbearably long.) Never mind the fasting. “When your only experience with synagogue is the High Holidays,” says writer/comedian Joel Chasnoff, “you see Judaism as a burden and an obligation…as a duty, not a pleasure.”
There are many forces at play here. One is a variation of the old maxim “The shul I don’t go to has to be Orthodox,” wherein the strictest forms of observance are assumed to be the only authentic ones, even though most Jews reject them. If only the strictest forms are the true religion, then maybe the High Holidays are all there is to Judaism. A variation of this variation are Jews who have nothing to do with religion but have artwork on their walls depicting dancing Chasidim.
Also, a lot of of us Baby Boomers grew up with a minimalist Judaism, with little in the way of observance. The usual exceptions were going to shul on the aforementioned three days and sitting through seders where Dad or Zeide droned the Haggadah in Hebrew while everyone else peeked ahead to see when “The meal is served.” Of course there was Chanukah, but that was pretty much treated as a giftapalooza so the kids wouldn’t feel slighted at Christmastime. I believe that many in our parents’ generation, as well as Jews today, are innocently unaware of the joyous aspects of our religion. Many of our great grandparents left the shtetl with the desire to shed their Judaism because they felt it would ease their transition into American society or because their parents’ Judaism held no appeal. The drift from the Jewish community has continued. “About 40 percent of Jews belong to synagogues, according to various studies,” wrote Paul Vitello in the New York Times, “down from about 60 percent at midcentury.”
Am I encouraging people to substitute these Purim, Simchat Torah and Shavuot for the High Holidays? Of course not. But if you feel alienated from Judaism, these three holidays can help you make your way back. The services for these yom tovs are joyous and family-friendly and interactive.
Simchat Torah, Rejoicing of the Torah, which begins this year at sundown on October 8, celebrates the end of the annual cycle of Torah readings and the beginning of the next cycle. Everyone participates. Adults and children dance the seven hakafot (circles) around the bima, around the sanctuary and sometimes around the block, depending on your congregation. According to a Chassidic adage, “On Simchat Torah, the Torah scrolls wish to dance, so we become their feet.” As many people as possible are given the honor of an aliyah, children — many carrying flags — included. All Jews, no matter their station in life or level of education, are encouraged to join in. During the morning service at my shul the entire congregation forms a circle around the sanctuary and hands a Torah from person to person to accentuate our personal connection to the Torah and to symbolize the tradition of L’dor v’ dor, from generation to generation.
Purim, which hasn’t been called the Jewish Mardi Gras for nothing, incorporates costumes, carnivals and drinking — and not just Manischewitz. True, the holiday celebrates another disturbingly frequent attempt to massacre the Jews, but somehow that tends to get lost in the festivities. We read Megillat Esther, the Scroll of Esther, happily drowning out the name of the bad guy, Haman, with noisemakers, foot stomping and shouting. Many temples hold carnivals and purimshpiels — plays — usually in the form of spoofs. I got to play Joan Rivers one year. (Can we tawk?) And then there are hamantachen and baskets to decorate, fill with goodies and deliver to friends and family. Drinking has also been known to occur. Check it out on February 23, 2013.
Shavuot is a far more important day in the Jewish calendar than many realize. It’s one of the three major festivals on the Jewish calendar, the other two being Passover and Sukkot. This multifaceted holiday is known simultaneously as the Festival of Weeks (shavuot means weeks), coming 50 days after Passover; the Time of the Giving of Our Torah, Z’man Matan Torahteinu; Chag Hakatzir, the holiday for the wheat harvest; and the Holiday of the First Fruits, Yom Habikkurim, commemorating the sacrifices made in the Temple in Jerusalem. Observant Jews do not work on Shavuot. Everyone can fulfill the mitzvah of staying up on the first night of this two-day holiday to study Torah. I fondly remember the first – and so far last! — time I made it to 5 a.m. Many synagogues feature speakers or discussions or hold shorter study sessions. Eating dairy is also a custom – hence the cheesecake — with the usual variations in explanations. Some say it’s a reminder of the promise of Israel as the land “flowing with milk and honey.” Another view holds that our ancestors had just received the Torah and weren’t yet equipped to separate meat and milk. Who cares – who doesn’t love cheesecake? We read The Book of Ruth, an accessible story with meaning for all ages and stages. Start buying your cheesecake next year before May 14.
Chasnoff, who is also a day school graduate and IDF alumnus, had another suggestion which I second, “Try Shabbat: a leisurely weekend ride with your family where there is no other goal than relaxation, contemplation and spending time with your loved ones.” Something to think about. All in good time.