Simhath Torah Memories

by Loolwa Khazzoom • September 27, 2013 • Jewish Multicultural Corner

1976, Maghen Daweed Sephardic congregation in San Francisco:

The rabbi was Ashkenazi. (Um, why?) The kids (including my 6 year old ass) were ushered into one part of the synagogue, where we were guided in singing uber-Ashkenazi songs, while the adults were ushered into another part of the synagogue, where they did the classic Simhath Torah rituals, including haqafoth – wherein the congregation walked – WALKED, do you hear me, because according to our tradition, it was against the halacha to dance with the Torah, because it was to be supremely honored and not under any circumstances potentially dropped (keep in mind that Sephardi/Mizrahi toroth are made out of silver, wood, or gold, so they are much heavier than the Ashkenazi scrolls draped in cloth) – around the teba (raised platform in the middle of the synagogue, where the rabbi and cantors sat and led services). I have a vague feeling of not being into the Ashkeanzi fest, but the feeling is to hazy to be a concrete memory on which I can comment. It’s possible and even likely that my parents yanked me out of the kiddie fest and brought me in to celebrate with the adults. What I do recall clearly is my mom in particular freaking out, and some argument ensuing between my parents and the rabbi. “But the kids!” he kept repeating. “The kids!” As in, Sephardi/Mizrahi rituals are completely and utterly inappropriate/boring/outdated/fill-in-sentiment for children, as opposed to the modern/hip/fun/exciting/fill-in-adjective Ashkenazi traditions. I remember my mom ruminating on that conversation for the next few years. She was completely outraged. I also remember sitting in bed and counting my candies and playing with my paper Israeli flag. I think the candies were given in a bag with the flag, can’t recall exactly. At any rate, that Simhath Torah (as seems to be the turning point in synagogue blow-ups – see Kahal Yosef memory below) was the catalyst for my parents fighting the rabbi and pushing to replace him with a Moroccan Israeli rabbi in Los Angeles, who ended up commuting from LA for the next three-plus decades.

1974, Montreal, big fancy Ashkenazi synagogue

I wrote about this memory before, but I can’t remember – heh – where I wrote it, and an internet search is not bringing it up. So here it is again. I was about four years old. We went to the hodge-podge Sephardi/Mizrahi (but Mizrahi was not a term used back then) makeshift congregation in a downstairs room of the big fat, fancy-shmancy Ashkenazi synagogue in Montreal. My BFF was upstairs in the Ashkenazi section with her mother. I was downstairs in the Sephardi area, racing around grabbing candies as the ladies tossed them and ululated whenever someone was called to the Torah, as per our custom. I was a badass and of course gathered more candies than any of the other kids. Now the details of this next memory are hazy, but I do remember the general gist and the resulting feeling: I went upstairs to get my BFF and invite her to come down and have the awesome fun we kids were having, as opposed to the seemingly stuffy service upstairs. Either she came down with me, and her mom was super disapproving of the barbaric behavior of us bass-ackwards Sephardim, or she wouldn’t let my BFF go downstairs with me, for said reason. Oh wait! I think one time my friend was allowed to go (maybe the evening) and the next time she wasn’t (maybe the day). Either way, I remember this juxtaposition of my feelings of exuberant excitement and my open-hearted desire to share with my friend, and then this out-of-left-field slap in the face from Ashkenazi mama, with this implication that there was something bad, wrong, and dirty with my people, to the extent that either my BFF was not allowed to join me or that she was hauled away from the festivities, out of concern that she might get the cooties. I remember a feeling of bewilderment, accompanied by a vague shame that I didn’t understand. I just knew I’d been shamed. I remember standing there and looking at the mom.

1994, Berkeley Hillel

I was the program director. I wanted to teach  the Sephardi/Mizrahi Simhath Torah songs – which totally ROCK THE HOUSE — to the participants. I was met with resistance, of the “they don’t know the songs” kind, along with some statement either directly or explicitly implying that if they did learn them, they would not like them. I remember pushing back and pointing out that there was no way to know if they would like them or not without teaching them, and otherwise advocating for the totally rad and boisterous songs that we sing on the holiday. I won and was able to teach the songs, which, duh, of course everyone fucking loved. I think I chose – as was typical in my Jewish multicultural career – the songs which had super easy choruses, so that people could pick up on them right away.

1992, Zuma Beach, Los Angeles

OK so this wasn’t on Simhath Torah, but it’s the same kind of issue, so I’m remembering it now and therefore you’re going to hear about it now: I had launched a Los Angeles region-wide organization called SOJIAC (Student Organization for Jews from Iran and Arab Countries – or was it “of” instead of “for”? I remember choosing that preposition carefully and for the reason of being as inclusive as possible, as concisely as possible, but can’t remember which I chose or why. Anyhow.) The organization sponsored programs in conjunction with Hillels at UCLA, Cal State Northridge, USC, Santa Monica College, and other schools throughout the area. One program we (back then meaning “I”) arranged was a bonfire on the beach, where we would learn and sing Sephardi and Mizrahi songs. So let me emphasize: I organized the damn thing, and the entire purpose was to teach Sephardi and Mizrahi traditions. But the UCLA Hillel organizer (who down the road, I might add, asked to borrow my Judeo Arabic slang book but then lost it and acted incensed when I asked for her to please please make an extra effort to find it because it was precious and possibly irreplaceable) said that we should sing Ashkenazi songs because “that’s what everyone knows.”

That refrain was a constant throughout the years. I could not believe what numnuts these Jewish leaders were, especially considering that an essential principle of Jewish education is that human beings learn through repetition. Nobody seemed interested in breaking the catch-22 of nobody knowing anything not Ashkenazi, without my hitting them over the damn head with my imaginary boot. In the Zuma beach case, as always, I insisted that we teach the songs, pointing out that it was the entire point of why we were there. I had painstakingly transliterated all the songs, with the traditional pronunciation of the het, qouf, waw, and so on, and I most likely – as I always did when I taught songs, though I have no distinct memory of doing so in this case – explained why the pronunciations were different than what everyone was used to. Anyhow, lo and behold, everyone enjoyed the songs. Which was hands-down, always and forever the case. In fact, IMAGINE THIS! SHOCKERS!, the Mizrahi and Sephardi customs and songs always turned out to be a source of ATTRACTION for both affiliated and unaffiliated Jews. I will never forget the fifth grade kid who complained to her mom that she could not attend my Jewish multicultural class one day, because school was closed as a result of Thanksgiving. Kids typically complain about Hebrew school, but my kids loved it, given the excitement of learning about Jews all over the world. (Plus I had drew a punk rocker chick on the chalk board, as the narrator for the Jewish migratory journey across the globe, but I digress.)

1984, Kahal Yosef

This memory is already documented in the book, That Takes Ovaries! (an awesome book and great bathroom read, given that it’s a collection of short and inspiring stories), so you can read it here on my archived website.

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Loolwa KhazzoomLoolwa Khazzoom has worked with leading media outlets, including The New York Times, CNN, Rolling Stone, and ABC News. In addition, she has published two books and has lectured at prestigious venues including Barnard Center for Research on Women, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, and Harvard University. Loolwa is passionate about health, music, dance, multiculturalism, and Judaism.

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