I never realized how important it is for women to have an active role in Simchat Torah this year. I have been lucky that for the past five years, it is the norm in my community for women to lead hakafot, dance with a torah, and get aliyot.
It was sad and strange to me that at the beginning of the night, the men were upfront and the women were just told to dance in the back. We could barely make out the songs that the men were singing, but we were expected to sing along with them, and to dance to their beat. It took almost 30 minutes of dancing before a Torah was brought over to us. When we asked if we could take it to dance with, we were given a strange look, and a very strong “no, just to kiss” came out of the man’s mouth.
The dancing on the women’s side slowly died the women sitting on the side chatting, while the men were dancing in the front.
We moved venues, and throughout the walk in the street the Torah was being passed around to the men. Many of the women wanted to hold it, but again and again they were told no. But at the same time it was the women that were starting and keeping the songs going; singing about their love of the Torah, yet still not being allowed to touch it.
As we got to our final location, once again we split into two circles. The women’s circle singing stronger, but the men never trying to listen to the song we were singing. It was our job to stop singing in order to figure out what they were mumbling.
The women eventually got a Torah. It was amazing to see the change in the singing and dancing that was happening on the women’s side. All of a sudden there were many more women present. There was an even louder song being sung. As each woman was given a change to hold the Torah, some for the very first time, once could see the awe and excitement of actually being able to touch the thing we sing so much about on this holiday. While talking to one of the women at the end of the night, she said that having to Torah gave a focal point to the singing and dancing, it gave a purpose to the night.
The following day, we went to another shul. Here the women were given the Torah to dance with. The women were even given the ability to bid for the Hakafot.
This shul also ran a women’s Torah reading for the first time. I was excited to be there for this, and I felt like I finally found the celebration that I was used to. Unfortunately, the Torah reading felt like it was made for us to feel like we are having Torah reading, but really we are just playing pretend. There was not a gabbai correcting the reader. Each Aliyah was a group of women. And the most disappointing was the misaberach that was made at the end of each Aliyah:
משברך האמהות שיברך את הבנות
We are grown women! Why are we being called girls?! There is no reason to change the mishaberach, to bless the person getting called up, her and her family. Once again I felt like I was in a place that we were “playing shul” instead of actually being part of shul. We were little girls pretending to participate in the ritual of the holiday, instead of actually being part of the holiday.
With all this anger and frustration that I have, there were many people who were more than happy with what they were allowed to experience. There were women who held the Torah for the first time. There were women who got an aliyah for the first time and saw the inside of the Torah for the first time. There were women who think that what was done was crossing the line of women’s participation.
But still for me, it is important to feel like I am part of the community. That my presence is meaningful. That I am actually part of the holiday, and not just there on the side to watch or to pretend.