Why I don’t Go to Services on Simhath Torah

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

Here’s why I don’t go to services on Simhath Torah: The services have been hijacked by Ashenazi-posing-as-Israeli songs and customs, to the point that there is nary a trace of memory of what the old school Middle Eastern/North African customs were once like. Today Simhath Torah is a booze fest, a frat party, a night club dancing scene, passed off as the pinnacle of excitement and fun one can possibly have.

Fuck dat. I find the higher pursuits – upholding tradition, from generation to generation; connecting to Gd and imagining the place and time of Har Sinai – to be more fun and exhilarating than descending into a mosh pit, indulging the lowest common denominator of getting wasted and partying as one could party on any given Saturday night.

I see a similarity between the contemporary approach to Simhath Torah and the contemporary approach to sexuality in our society: The assumption is that the baser (think porn) or wilder (think kink) that sex is, the more “exciting” it is. I find, however, that the more sacred and emotionally/spiritually intimate it is, no matter where it is on the spectrum – from hand-holding to whatever-whatever — the more thrilling it is. It’s about the inner dive, not the external trappings. I’ll take connected kissing over all the kink on the planet, thank you very much. That shit has no appeal to me. Similarly, I find that the quieter, more dignified and old-school approach to Simhath Torah is far more ecstatic than the inebriated dance fest it has become today. And mind you, dance is central to my universe.

In the Iraqi tradition, Simhath Torah involves the men (ok I could do with breaking that tradition) walking around the teba (raised platform in middle of synagogue, where hacham and hazan lead the prayers) in seven sequences, broken up by people being called to the Torah and reading passages. The readings are auctioned off, which is totally fucking rad – the predecessor of e-Bay, done in community and with oodles of humor. When someone is called to the Torah, all the women ululate and throw candies, which all the kids in turn dive-bomb to catch. Then the kids compare who is the biggest badass, as determined by who caught the most candies.

During the haqafoth, everyone sings the call-and-response, rowdy songs for the holiday — Simhoona, Simhoona; Yom Simha; Mipi El; Soree Goaleyah, and so on. The Toroth are carried around the teba while WALKING, not dancing, because we are to revere the Torah and not jump around with it, out of respect to its sacredness and caution not to drop it.

I hate the way Simhath Torah is now celebrated. Even at Iraqi synagogues, our glorious songs have been replaced by David Melech Yisrael, with all the trimmings of poor self-esteem. The Ashkenazi songs are better, more fun, more “modern,” more fill-in-the-blank, the narrative goes. The Ashkenazi ways of celebrating are also purportedly better, more fun, etc.

Mizrahim and Sephardim have a major fucking self-image problem. When I was growing up at Maghen Daweed congretation in San Francisco, the leadership would literally – literally! – change the service around from Sephardic to Ashkenazi, if one Ashkenazi person happened to walk into our synagogue. It was incomprehensible to these men that, I don’ know, MAYBE this Ashkenazi person walked into our synagogue because s/he actually wanted – imagine this! – to hear Sephardic prayers? Maybe? Possibly?

In addition to the culture-crushing, hegemonic, Ashkenazi steam-rolling nature of Simhath Torah, there is also the irritating trend within the Ashkenazi community itself: Synagogues, Hillels, and the like are trying to attract people to the synagogue by appealing to where they are and what they “want” instead of teaching them to rethink where they are and what they want – so that our glorious, wise, and rich heritage of 4,000 years is being led by the nose of the crassness and baseness of this society. The tail is wagging the dog, to the extent that tonight – Friday night, after Simhath Torah is over this year, numerous Reform synagogues are celebrating Simhath Torah, presumably because it is easier to get attendees coming on a weekend night than on a week night.

Total bullshit.

So I stayed home and sang Iraqi Simhath Torah songs with my Mama this year.

2 Responses to “Why I don’t Go to Services on Simhath Torah”

  1. Cynthia Davidson
    Oct 18, 2013

    Rings true with what I’ve seen & known & felt too.
    Shearith Israel synagogue in NYC set the bar high for my appreciation of Separdic & Ladino songs, celebrations, fabulous foods & dignified customs.

  2. e`zra
    Nov 10, 2013

    i totally agree and people from my community can’t understand why i don’t go to simhath torah “celebrations”. the (i hope unintentional) ashkenazic steam rolling of mizrahi customs is unbearable. to me, simhath torah is childish and pathetic, mostly loud and demonstrates very little musical capability… I think that may be the biggest aspect of it, that ashkenazic musical tradition basically sucks and is stuck at the most elementary level of composition. thus, mizrahi complicated/responsive songs are just ignored out of inability to cope with real music.

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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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