It was supposed to be a time of joy. Yet Shemini Atzeret / Simchat Torah 5784/2023 will be remembered as a time of pain and anxiety. As news began to filter through of the terrible massacres that began on 7 October, congregations had to confront a terrible dilemma: How do we celebrate such a festival amidst the knowledge of what was happening in Israel?
Perhaps we should mourn the festivity that was taken away from us, just as we mourn the deaths and suffering that occurred during that festival. JewThink solicited contributions from British Jews reflecting on their experiences of the festival. Let us remember these small ruptures even as we try and come to terms with the bigger rupture.
I was really looking forward to Simchat Torah this year. Dad was to be Chatan Bereishit and I
therefore would get to be the proud son, beaming away as he was honoured by reading from the
start of Genesis.
We are members of The Ark Synagogue, a Liberal shul in Northwood, and hence we observe seven
days of Sukkot. So Friday night was the start of Simchat Torah, and the service was wonderful.
Joyous, uplifting, full of fun and lively celebration. The hakafot were energetic and there was an
unabashedly positive atmosphere. Dad read his portion and I was in the front row, urging him on
and giving him a massive hug when he finished. A visiting group from Boston, combined with a good
turnout from ‘the home crowd’, ensured that the sanctuary was full. After a chavurah supper with
our new friends from Boston, I went to home eagerly awaiting the next morning.
I awoke at 6.30am or so with my WhatsApps having gone absolutely mad. Why were there so many?
And so early on a Saturday morning? I opened them and worked forwards chronologically. The first
ones were from Israelis in various groups I am in saying there had been sirens and many hundreds of
rockets. A real shame, I thought, but to be frank Israel had been here before.
But then the messages changed. More urgent, more terrified. Referencing some kind of disaster in
the south. And finally, as I got almost up-to-date, the videos. They were like an episode of Fauda –
jeeps of terrorists with AK-47s firing indiscriminately in the centres of Israeli towns. What was this?
What on earth had gone on – and, I very quickly realised – was still going on.
I spent the next few hours glued to the TV and social media. An appalling drama was playing out in
real time. I felt simultaneously a bit sick and emotionally hollowed-out when I left my flat to go to
The service began. Rabbi Aaron Goldstein, always one to find the right words for the moment, began
by acknowledging the terrible events in Israel. He said that we might not feel the sameach of the
chag, and certainly not the shalom of the Shabbat. But in our sanctuary, we were to create a space
where we could still feel safe and honour those who would be reading, including of course Dad.
The service was, on the surface, perfectly pleasant. The choir sang, the cheder kids enjoyed the
chocolates, the scrolls were danced around the sanctuary, the Torah was read. I was still proud for
Dad. But, not far under the surface, it was totally clear to me, and everyone else, that something
profound had changed since the night before. There was the opportunity for fun and joy, but not
much fun and joy was experienced.
At the end of the service, we all reached for our phones again, and dived back into the unfolding
nightmare. Simchat Torah 5784 will be one I will, sadly, never forget.
Saturday, 9am latest. I was in a bathrobe, tired as I always am, sat on the blue kitchen stool. Toddler in the lounge, my older two at their other parent’s. Partner still asleep. I checked Facebook, and one of my Jewish friends had posted something about being worried for her friends in Israel. Great, we’re in the news again. I checked the news.
I’ve had a difficult time finding a decent shul lately. I’m a patrilineal Progressive Jew living in Hastings, and I came to the faith in adulthood. This wouldn’t have been an issue if I’d gotten on with my nearest Progressive rabbi. Instead, in late 2022, I came across an utterly daft social media post he made, saying that the chant ‘from the river to the sea’ wasn’t antisemitic because it was just a chant in support of Palestinian freedom.
‘In that case,’ I responded, ‘the chant “blood and soil” is merely an assertion of shared ethnicity and ties to the land.’ And I started shopping for a new shul.
I got on with the Reform rabbi who offered to help me convert formally, but after many months of two-hour train commutes as often as I could manage, he told me that in order to convert I would need to attend Shabbat services every weekend – if not in person, then over Zoom with my camera on (nobody else had theirs on!) – and, if I wanted my boys in cheder, they’d also have to come every Sunday. I told him I couldn’t do it, and resolved to make do without a shul.
There aren’t very many observant Jews in Hastings. We’ve recently formed a very small social group – currently less than a minyan. The need for this became apparent after the local Palestinian Solidarity Campaign invited David Miller and Asa Winstanley to come speak. I guess it’s easier to spout blatant antisemitism if you don’t think there will be any significant local pushback. Easier to talk about Jews behind our backs.
So I wasn’t planning on going to any services that Shabbat, although I would have liked to feel welcome at an in-person Simchat Torah service. But it’s not so bad, at least I can relax on Saturday mornings. In theory, anyways.
In practice, as the news rolled in and the shit takes from America started mid-afternoon, I felt very alone.
I shouldn’t have engaged, really. When news of this nature hits you don’t want to think that your friends will support door-to-door rape and murder of women and children, but being politically left I’ve come to accept some exposure to ‘Palestinian tankies’. But not when dealing with this sort of news.
I was fixated on social media for most of the day, scrolling past people’s photos of their children or cats or whatever and reading everything I could find on the unfolding situation. It wasn’t healthy, and I’m still doing it so will need to find a way to detach soon.
The Reform synagogue I tried to join is having a meeting tomorrow to talk about it, and I would have loved to go. I wish I felt welcome at a shul.
My Jewish friend’s birthday party was Sunday, and my partner, toddler and I went. I tried my best not to bring it up, although it came up anyway. I personally don’t know a lot of people in Israel right now, but I know a lot of expat Israelis and a lot of Jews with relations in Israel, so I’ve listened in as my friend’s friends fretted about family holed up in various locales. ‘Mine are in the north, but what if Hezbollah get involved?’ a nice woman I just met asks me.
I was due to have my Jewish friends round this weekend to make them gumbo. I’m toying with the idea of doing a fundraiser for the Magen David ambulance service and maybe ICRC or a similar organisation specifically working with Gaza civilians, but will it do any good? Or will I just paint a target on my back for the local PSC? If you can support going door to door and raping and murdering every Jew you see, what’s to stop you doing it where you are?
Pain is worse
On a joyful day
On this Shabbat
When we dance
Our holy book
Pain is worse
Whilst we sing
Mip pi el
Our voices hoarse
Our hearts full
Pain is worse
When amidst this
Dizzy with spirit
We speak of
I heard the devastating news from my wife, on Shabbat/Shemini Atzeret morning, before I went
to shul. She showed me the pictures and reports of what was happening, and we discussed our
shock and horror.
When I arrived at shul, I didn’t know if people knew, but bad news travels fast and it seemed
that most people knew.
The first public sign that something was happening was that a Police car was parked outside
when I arrived at Shul, there in anticipation of potential trouble.
Then before Yizkor, the memorial prayer, the Rabbi made a speech (which I missed much of, as
I was getting a glass of water, and then a quick whisky and chat with a friend). We then we said
tehillim (psalms) and acheinu kol beis Yisrael (“As for our brothers, the whole house of Israel,
who are given over to trouble or captivity, whether they abide on the sea or on the dry land: May
the All-present have mercy upon them, and bring them forth from trouble to enlargement, from
darkness to light, and from subjection to redemption, now speedily and at a near time.”)
The man behind me asked what had happened, why were we saying these psalms, and when I
told what I had heard, he broke down and wept uncontrollably head in hands, for relatives and
friends, for past losses and for all of us. It felt, to me, like a lament for all the martyrs and
suffering we have endured as a people.
Another man behind me told me his parents are in Ashkelon, and he wanted to get there as
soon as he can, and the man in tears behind me added that he had family all over South Israel.
The images I had seen in the morning, which were terrifying and shocking, suddenly became
very up close and personal and pierced my heart. I feel for everyone involved in this terrible
conflict, but these are my people; and the people around me, even in London.
Shemini Atzeret is a sombre day in the Diaspora, where by tradition, we are judged for rain and
the mood is more serious. Even though it is all zeman simchateinu (the “season of our
I volunteered for security on the Sunday, which is Simchat Torah, a joyous day where we sing,
dance and celebrate the Torah. I was told that they had enough people now, even though
before Shabbat there had been a shortfall of volunteers
Sunday morning was very different, everyone knew and it was Simchat Torah, we are supposed
to dance but no-one wanted to.
The Rabbi quoted some words from Rabbi Lamm, from the 1973 Yom Kippur. He said that God
commands us to dance, even though it is hard, this is what is asked of us. I spoke to one of our
members, who told me of his service in the Israeli army at that time, when one of his fellow
soldiers was killed and everyone was in shock. The unit had a recreational day planned and no-
one wanted to go. Their commander said they have to remember their fellow soldier, but go, life
must go on, they just mourn but also look after themselves and be prepared for what may come
I found myself very moved and very emotional, both from these and other discussions, and also
because watching the videos and hearing of the slaughter, was, and is, traumatising.
We also attended a party on Saturday night, for the chatanim from another shul, where, oddly,
what was happening was barely discussed.
They murdered indiscriminately. They murdered people at a peace festival. They murdered care
workers. I know if I had been on those kibbutzim, I would have been murdered or kidnapped
The afternoon service brought some of the news home yet again, one of the gabbaim told me of
how people in the community were directly affected.
I started thinking of the memorial or the bombing at the Dolphinarium discotheque massacre in
2001, also carried out by Hamas. The memorial says “we will not stop dancing” and I felt our, restrained, dancing on Simchat Torah was a memorial for them also, and all the victims of this seemingly endless conflict. The dance of life and death, which was our focus during the Ten Days of Repentance, carried on
and continues, leaving us breathless and exhausted.
My family and I are shocked, and continue to be as these events unfold. We are finding it
difficult to concentrate, are tearful and in contact with our friends to see how they are.
I am grateful to have a chance to share all this and also for the strength of solidarity we had as a
We finished yom tov singing acheinu kol beis Yisrael and, from the Haggada, vehiyh sheamda
(which includes the impossible line “HaKadosh Baruch Hu matzileinu miyadam.” – Almighty God
has always saved us). It was beautiful and yet devastating, somehow underscoring how helpless we all felt, in the face of such evil. And how we yet must still, always have hope, however we find inspiration for this.
“When I beg, or plead, it implies you have more power, and consequently I must abase myself. God is infinite… Suppose you’re an Egyptian peasant praying to the gods for rain… You cajole your super to fix your faucets. So you have to build circumstances that agitate you.”
Stella Adler, On Acting
“Moloch the vast stone of war! Moloch the stunned governments!”
Allen Ginsburg, Howl
I’m not actually one for Adler’s method acting; if too agitated my throat closes and I cannot perform. I was leading the libation for the watershed in Israel, Geshem, concurrent with the massacre there. Was I supposed to have gone out of my way to agitate myself more by knowing the news? If so, would I have performed everything the same, or would my apparatus be inhibited? I was citing biblical water mythologies “their offspring whose blood was spilt for You like water; turn to us – for woes engulf our souls like water”. Samuel Alman’s 1938 music score for Geshem included agrarian passages from Stravinsky’s scandalous ballet, the Rite of Spring (1913), a macabre dance around a virgin sacrifice; the
citation covers “remembrance” passages including the Binding of Isaac, “we spill our soul like water” with the opening oboe solo and ending with an imperfect cadence, like a question. It was only supposed to be allegory.
Was this violence developed into trope? Cantor Leib Glanz uses a later modulation from the ballet at the last “Amen” (he has been known to use agnostic rhetorical inflections); the liturgical British Blue Book’s portions for Tabernacles “Hodu” (God’s just spiffing, isn’t He?) and “Hoshanah” (please save!), have citations from Stravinsky as well. I had reasoned, adarabah, that Stravinsky was citing our nussach. (Rosenblatt was manic – I added a few verses of his tunes too). So I trusted Alman’s knowledge from 1938, ignorant of the devilish dance of the human trophies concurrent with my song in an Ashkenazi synagogue.
The next day at the Sephardi Lauderdale Road Synagogue all were pale and disoriented. Their way their liturgy is set to music seems unincumbered by historic trauma. Very pleasant. I tried to sing in choir but my voice wasn’t engaging well. In his sermon the preacher said something apposite like ‘the rabbis always taught that Land is earned through pain’; after the service a man who runs a think-tank rummaged through the kitchen cupboard for his superior whiskey – he needed a stiffer drink. I ask him how people know what’s going on (given that we’re not supposed to check our phones). He replies kindly but instructively to my innocence, it’s our duty to know the what’s going on, “we are all looking it up” The CST
does for security, the Jewish Leadership Council is always informed, working in fact, as we speak. At kiddush a lady I spoke to discussed the music a little, yes there’s more a sense here of saying the prayers and leaving it to God. I wouldn’t. She apologized – “I’m sorry I’m a little skittish, my son Isaac is in Jerusalem”. Had I known more, I would have sung Geshem like that all the same.