According to tradition, the Torah has 70 faces. We reread it each year in, hoping a new face will be revealed. Its words don’t change, but we do. Who will we be this year, and which face will the Torah show us? Simchat Torah is our first opportunity in the year to begin finding out, as we read the final portion of the Torah, immediately followed by the first, and the annual cycle starts all over again.
But what happens when you’ve been round more than 70 times? How many things has the Torah been to our elders?
In search of an answer to that lofty question, I attended Simchat Torah morning services this year at The Reutlinger Community, a bright and friendly Jewish senior living facility in Danville. I came up with no answer, as I was immediately sidetracked by the personalities and proceedings.
I was joined by my friend and frequent Jew in the Pew companion, professor Rachel Gross of S.F. State Jewish studies department.
We took seats next to a woman named Doris Langer. Effusive at our mere presence, she endeared herself to us immediately. She was overflowing with fun facts about her fellow residents and amusing asides about the goings-on (some of which we heard more than once, but who’s counting). Doris is at least as inveterate a shul talker as I, both delighted and bemused by the proceedings.
At one point, during a rabbinic platitude about the Torah, Doris turned to us with a devious smirk and exaggeratedly mimed the universal gesture for “Feh!”
The service was led by Reutlinger’s Rabbi Debora Kohn, along with singer and guitarist Achi Ben Shalom, who often provides music for services at Reutlinger. Rather than meet in the Reutlinger synagogue, we met in a common space on the first floor of assisted living. (No room for dancing in the shul, Kohn told me.) There were about two dozen residents in attendance, enjoying varying states of mobility. Everyone sat in a big oval with plenty of space for dancing in the middle.
After a brief shacharit (morning service), Kohn said a few words about the fires raging to the north. “Our community has brought here into skilled nursing people who were evacuated from their nursing homes,” she said. “This is what we do as Jews; we walk the walk, instead of talking the talk.”
Kohn constantly bounced around the room, dancing with residents and orchestrating on the fly who should be given the honor of which hakafah. The hakafot are the centerpiece of Simchat Torah: seven circuits of the room holding and dancing with the Torah. Each honoree moseyed around at whatever pace they could muster, assisted by Reutlinger staffer Nonnie Fluss, whom Kohn appropriately declared “the Holy Shlepper.”
As each hakafah proceeded, Ben Shalom led synagogue classics that some might call stuffy — though I prefer to think of them as tunes that no longer get the respect they deserve. Think Mi Piel and Torah, Torah, Torah.
Most hakafot consisted of two residents and an aide gingerly and deliberately dancing their way around the oval. The aide carried the Torah on behalf of the honoree, offering each person in the circle the opportunity to kiss the Torah. Rachel and one woman’s younger relatives danced energetically in a circle a couple times.
For a section of Hebrew to be read before the start of the hakafot, Kohn came across the room to Henry Drejer, a man sitting on the other side of Doris from us.
“What?” he asked. “I want you to read this,” she said, placing before him a large-print copy of Siddur Sim Shalom. As soon as he saw the text, he lit right up. With no warning and with a voice only slightly diminished by age, he began belting it out in classic hazzanut (the melodies and performative style of old-school cantors AKA hazzans).
Henry turned out to be the star of the show. A Holocaust survivor born in prewar Germany, Henry eventually came to San Francisco, where he was for 38 years the cantor at B’nai Emunah, a congregation founded by German survivors.
Henry’s hazzanut is of a type you simply do not hear in American synagogues anymore. Over time, this type of liturgical music (and dare I say performance) has been supplanted by the sing-along work of modern composers like Shlomo Carlebach and Debbie Friedman. Our sense of nusach (the cycle of melodies and modes that are the bedrock of hazzanut), has been flattened, robbed of the regional variation it once had in Europe.
But not Henry. His delivery was from an age when one could expect subtle and not-so-subtle variations in traditional tunes from shul to shul, cantor to cantor, region to region.
Thankfully, Kohn would return the microphone to him a few more times that morning. Each time, he beamed.
“He’s great fun,” Doris told us, an ever-present twinkle in her eye. As if we couldn’t tell!
Later, during the Torah reading, Henry exclaimed “Oy vey!” when the chanting wasn’t up to snuff. (He did so somewhat louder than I imagine he intended to — or maybe not.)
Rightly so, Kohn was constantly in fear for everyone’s safety. She cares deeply for them. Mortality and aging are squeamish topics for us — to serve as a rabbi in a setting like this is brave and truly holy work.
Each time she called someone up, she would exhort everyone to have fun, but to be safe — “Don’t get up and dance unless you can do it safely!” When she called Henry up to do a hakafah, she shouted across the room at him: “Lo ratzim!” — “No running!”
But Kohn also heaped praise on him. He’d only been at Reutlinger a few months, but people had clearly grown quite fond of him. “I can let him take over services and it will be even better,” she said. (And why not? I hope she is making appropriate use of Henry’s skills on a weekly basis.)
Of course, the next time she turned around, Henry was terrifying absolutely everyone by bending his knees and shimmying toward to the floor while still grasping his walker. Kohn practically had a heart attack. “I’m dancing!” Henry proclaimed with a note of exasperation.
The service concluded with Shehecheyanu, a blessing that thanks God for helping us to reach a milestone or a time of joy. “We made it!” Kohn proclaimed.
Then she announced that there would be regular Shabbat services the following morning. Doris turned to Rachel and I one more time: “Tomorrow? Ehh, no one will come.”