The observance of the Simchat Torah holiday, the time when Jews celebrate the end and beginning of the Torah reading cycle, was particularly celebratory — and historically significant – this year. It marked what is believed to be the first ever women’s Torah reading on the Lower East Side of Manhattan – and it was the first time I have ever layned [chanted] from the Torah. That may not seem momentous for those of you of a Reform or Conservative bent, or even from more progressive Modern Orthodox circles, but for the Lower East side’s uber-traditional Jewish community, which doesn’t even have a Conservative synagogue, it was a big deal. Big enough of a deal that the rabbi of a neighboring shul made a (clearly defensive) joke about us needing another woman for a minyan (the fact that that seems a ridiculous, funny notion to him just shows the extent of his traditionalism, and, for the record, we didn’t.) It was a big enough deal that when my mother reported back to the women at her synagogue, one more typical for the neighborhood than mine, about having gone to the reading at the Stanton Street Shul — the thing that excited them most, the thing they wanted to talk about more than the actual reading was what it was like to actually hold the Torah.
In my mother’s synagogue, as is the case in most Orthodox synagogues I’ve been to, when the Torah is taken out of the ark, a man walks it around the men’s section while the women all clamor over to the mechitza trying to stick their prayerbooks over the partition to touch and kiss the Torah. At the Stanton Street Shul, thanks to Rabbi Yossi Pollak, the Torah is actually passed to a woman and carried through the women’s section, so I and the other women in the congregation get to hold the Torah on a regular basis.
But I was reminded in particular what a big deal the carrying of the Torah can be the night before our historic reading. On the night of Simchat Torah, during the hakafot, the seven revolutions made dancing and singing with the Torah, many synagogues, including Stanton Street, take the last Hakafa outside. It’s a very public statement, which inevitably draws gawkers from the neighborhood, wondering what this strange spectacle of Jews dancing and singing with strange scrolls is all about. I even noticed a guy snapping a photo on his camera phone. His lens was trained on the circle of men — some of whom were hasidim who had walked over the Williamsburg bridge to help make merry — but we women had our own dancing circle and we drew interest, too.
One of the bystanders, a woman I would estimate to be in her mid-40s, looking a little rough around the edges – which is not untypical for the non-Jewish, non-gentrified segment of the neighborhood’s population — approached our little group and said, in a thick New York accent, “I’ve never seen a woman holding a Torah before.” Her name, she said, was Sarah (pronounced the Yiddish way), and she proceeded to tell us that she had grown up Orthodox, had gone to right-wing Orthodox girls’ yeshivot, and had been disowned by her father for marrying a non-Jew. Many years had obviously passed since then, and she didn’t look like they had been easy on her. I couldn’t help thinking, perhaps self-righteously, that if, as a girl, she had seen women holding the Torah, things might have been different.
–Rebecca Honig Friedman