What Tishrei Is Like In Squirrel Hill This Year

What Tishrei Is Like In Squirrel Hill This Year

I expected Rosh Hashana to be hard, not Simhat Torah.

I knew I’d be thinking about how last year on Rosh Hashana there were five people in the choir, and all of them came to shul on October 27, but only three of them left.

But, I didn’t realize that on Simhat Torah, as the congregation we joined with to celebrate whirled and danced with the Torahs, that the song leader would open the hakafot with the song whose words were penned by Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav, This World Is A Narrow Bridge.  And the crucial thing?  “Not to be afraid at all.”

I would not be able to stop the tears that began once I heard the song.

Why were 12 Jews who were not afraid gunned down in a synagogue in the United States only because they wanted to follow the ways of the Torah, the scroll we are dancing with?

I’m not dancing. 

I came to synagogue late, in time to receive the honor of reciting a verse of the Ata Haraita (you have been shown), among the twenty recited as all the Torah scrolls are removed from the Ark to dance with.  My verse, handed to me randomly, as I came in by the gabbai, was the end of Isaiah 2: 3 “from Tzion shall go forth Torah, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.”

As I recite it in my seat, I try, with all the determination I can muster, not to cry.  My voice quavers, but I don’t think the emotion in it is too obvious.

Why does this make me want to cry? 

It seems another of the many ways I have felt comforted by messages from our traditions and texts over the course of the year.  This year, I have been writing on the Torah portion every week at 929 .  I had hoped to have some kind of public acknowledgement of this milestone, a year of writing every week, without fail, no matter what, on this day of rejoicing with the Torah. Here is my moment, reading of the Torah coming forth from Zion.  This year, I have been attempting to take the teaching and inspiration I gained from my time in Jerusalem in 1987-88 and 1990-91 and distill it through short pieces every week.

The two Bible teachers I have been most influenced by, Avivah Zornberg and Yair Zakovitch, are based in Israel and my oldest two daughters have each spent a year learning in Jerusalem. We were privileged to visit one last Passover and see what she was learning and would bring back from her own studies.

I am writing for the 929 site because I had written an article about the Hebrew site, started in January 2015, and someone working for the English site contacted me when they were beginning their English cycle.  My teaching on this site comes directly from my interest in bringing out of Israel a specific kind of teaching, and my search for a female teacher and role model, which my daughters and I all found.

So much of my Jewish life and love for it is derived from my time in Israel. Reciting this verse made me cry both with joy and with sadness.  Joy that I have succeeded in writing every single week this year on the Torah portion, with only three left to complete the cycle where I started at Hayei Sara the week after the massacre at Tree of Life. And sadness, that to bring the Torah out of Israel there has been so much suffering.

After the Torahs are taken out, I forgo dancing to pray the early morning, morning, and Hallel prayers that I was not in the synagogue for.  I think to myself that when I finish, I will join the group.  However, hearing “the world is a narrow bridge” makes me stop and think about how appropriate it is to begin with that song, expressing both the joy in not being fearful, at the same time that it enunciates the presence and reality of that fear and our intimacy with it.  We need to both have the awareness of the fact that we are on a narrow bridge and could stumble or trip or fall or be pushed off at any moment, and also to have the determination that we will continue to walk and to dance with the Torahs as though we are without fear.

When the Torahs were being taken out, I hear the back door to the ballroom of Beth Shalom, the Shady Avenue entrance, opening and I startle.  Every time we make an announcement about something occurring in the ballroom, I want to think of Clue: Colonel Mustard in the ballroom with a lead pipe,  Now I think, another white supremacist with an Uzi might come and try to finish what was started last fall.  I also realize, writing now about the ballroom, that I have not been here since two weeks ago on Yom Kippur when we said both Yizkor and Eileh Ezk’ra.

On Yom Kippur, my husband had decided to properly memorialize the 11 with a prayer in Hebrew and English that would allude to Genesis 22, as well as episodes about martyrs and sanctification that are discussed elsewhere in the Bible. We thought of those martyrs here; now we are using the same space to dance. The juxtaposition feels odd.

The noise of someone coming in the back door upsets me. I glance around the room quickly till I see where I can flee to, my getaway plan.  Whoever has come in does not bear malice, but the distraction of hearing the door that people do not normally enter contributes to my distress.

When I finish praying, I see a friend who is a member of Dor Hadash and had been outside Tree of Life with her husband when the police presence came on the scene to try to stop the carnage that October day.  She tells me that she, like me, has been thinking of those who are not here and recited their names as she was dancing, repeating their names, to hold them with her and the Torah.

I ask her, as she asks me, why did they have to die for this?

I do not articulate what I am thinking, would I too be willing to die if called on?  I don’t want to be asked and I don’t want to ask myself.  But I know the whole community is trying to uphold the families whose loved ones were taken from them without being asked either.

The holidays of Tishrei contain the range of human emotion – Ecclesiastes that we read on Sukkot contains frustration and futility, Sukkot itself is the time of our happiness, Yom Kippur is when we resolve to do better, and Rosh Hashana is an optimistic hopefulness, honeyed by that condiment bees produce.  The holidays are a container, and they are also a valve, letting some emotions in, and some out. The important thing, besides not being afraid, is to continue.

When the shooting happened last year, I spoke with my teacher Avivah Zornberg by phone.  One of the many things she told me was that the world was not coming to an end.  It did feel that way (how can Jews stay in a place where we have been shot at in our prayer spaces?). But she was right, the world did not end, though much sorrow has been brought into it by evildoers.  Still, the community carries on, perhaps with even more resolve. We received cards from college students at the local Hillel which said things like they planned to be more dedicated to their Judaism in honor of those killed.

I wanted to write a piece about how, if you want to remain dedicated, there is no better guide than the simple injunction from the Ethics of the Fathers 1:6, “Make for yourself a rabbi/ teacher and acquire for yourself a partner to sharpen you/ friend.”

A teacher, at any stage of life, is a necessary guide. Writing on the Torah portions of the week, knowing I can refer to books by my teachers, including my US grad school teacher Jeffrey Tigay, feels so comforting, as though they are looking over my shoulder, guiding me and making sure I don’t make mistakes.

I am happy with the Torah today when my haftarah student comes for her weekly lesson and makes great progress on reading a haftarah from Isaiah for the first portion of Exodus (which coincidentally is the bar mitzvah portion of one of those in our congregation who was killed).  I am starting with another student next week since my first had successfully read beautifully on Rosh Hashanah and will read again in a few weeks. The next student has a Hebrew birthday that corresponds to Yitro, Jethro, the portion of another of the three.  Very odd coincidence to occur not once, but twice.

My celebration this holiday is not with the dancing.  It is that, in the evening, my husband unwraps the scroll of the Torah and, even though most of those in the room are eligible to collect a pension, the group was able to uphold the scroll and gaze at the entirety of the text.  I feel celebratory that my congregants are eager to intensify their learning, and work on learning Hebrew or chanting haftarah.  And I have been writing each week on the Torah portion, focusing my own ideas, while teaching others.

I am deriving joy from our Torah and tradition even when it is tinged with sadness.

 


Beth Kissileff

Beth Kissileff is the author of the novel Questioning Return and the editor of anthology Reading Genesis. Her writing has appeared in the Michigan Quarterly Review, New York Times, Jewish Week, Slate.com, Tablet, the Forward, Haaretz and elsewhere. Visit her online at www.bethkissileff.com.

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