Beyond Faded Eyeliner

By Alexandra Fleksher

The latest flurry of articles and social media discussions about how women celebrate Simchas Torah made me think about my own relationship to the holiday.

Simchas Torah was the most meaningful to me when my husband was learning in the kollel at Yeshivas Ner Yisroel in Baltimore during the early years of our marriage. I had never a question in my mind why I wasn’t dancing, why I wasn’t celebrating my connection to Torah in the same way the men did. Simchas Torah was about him, a literal celebration of the toiling in Torah he did day and in and day out. Truth be told, Simchas Torah was my celebration and the celebration of all the young kollel wives watching their husbands’ faces light up with true joy while clutching sifrei Torah. We were the ones who made this all happen.

There’s something beautiful about giving wholeheartedly and gaining in return, without expectation. That is what those years were about. His celebration was my celebration. I never asked what was in it for me. Watching my husband celebrate across the mechitzah was gratifying and joyous, in a sense confirming my commitment to our joint goal of enabling him to learn in kollel. He was rejoicing in something he – and we — had worked so hard to earn. ‘What’s mine is yours and what’s yours is mine’ was most certainly our mantra.

Fast forward through four years of medical school and three years of residency (all facilitated by yours truly and a bunch of loans) followed by a few years now of gainful employment, and my husband is a baal habayis in the circle. These days, he isn’t celebrating the daily toil of learning ten hours a day. He celebrates the minutes, the hour he can get in the evenings as long as he and his fellow doctor chavrusa don’t have night shift. He is celebrating that Torah living and adherence to mitzvos is still at the core of his being. He is celebrating the meaning that Torah brings to his life, which at times seems like jam-packed days strung together without respite until Shabbos comes. He is celebrating the accomplishments of keeping his outlook straight and his beliefs in line with the Torah, despite the challenges posed by his entrenchment in the secular world.

I see Simchas Torah as a mirror to each of one of us, reflecting back our relationship with the Torah and with Hashem. In the circle that spins around the Torah every year, there may be person who is celebrating his returning to Torah. Another who invested countless hours of Torah study in himself and in his students. Another who has doubts but at this moment is reveling in the joyous pulse of the moment. Another who has worked so hard to set time for Torah study each day despite the demands of his professional life. And yet another who is celebrating his commitment to keeping and living the Torah in today’s modern world.

Each woman on the other side of the mechtiza has her own relationship with Torah which comes to the forefront on this holiday. Often for women, by taking on the role of observer which is the case in most Orthodox shuls, Simchas Torah can shed light on her relationships – or lack of – in her life. A woman may be longing for a husband or children and another may be comparing her husband and children to others. One woman may be celebrating Torah vicariously through her husband’s public celebration, another may be evaluating where she stands in her own connection to Torah. Whether a woman is dancing on her side, attending a Torah class during hakafos, discussing (and most likely moaning about) yom tov menus, or sharing some bonding time with friends, Simchas Torah is most certainly a yom tov that reflects something different to each person.

This year, ten years out of kollel, I continued to gain tremendous nachas seeing my husband and two sons dancing on the other side of the mechitza. The experience shed light on my feelings towards them and the pride I take in each of them. My youngest daughter enjoyed holding Abba’s hand and seeing the sefer Torah up close, proudly standing right next to it as her Abba held it tight. Accompanied by her friends, my older daughter went back and forth between the shuls for the experience, and it reminded me of what I used to do as a teen.

As I looked at the woman around me in shul, some more engaged in the experience of observing than others, I do wonder about how we’re all doing, where we’re holding, how we’re connecting. In our shul, dancing on the woman’s side is not done, so that isn’t even on the radar. But I wonder: we are not celebrating the connection to Torah in the same way as the men, but do we have a connection to it beyond being enablers and providers? Do we make sure to feed ourselves while we are so busy feeding others? By enabling others around us to connect to Torah, do we also find ways to actively connect to it ourselves? Do we have our way, whatever our way may be?

Do we as frum women consciously strengthen ourselves enough in our Torah and our commitment to its practice and values? Or does the experience of staring into the men’s side with only thoughts of our faded eyeliner and how we’re going to warm up the potato kugel in time permeate our mind and soul?

To me, the question of the hour isn’t as much how we’re celebrating, but what we’re celebrating. And every Jewish woman and man needs to have an answer.

[Reprinted from The Chicago Jewish Home, Volume 1, Issue 6.]

Alexandra Fleksher holds a M.S. in Jewish Education from Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education and a B.A. in English Communications from Stern College for Women. Her essays on contemporary Jewish issues have been published in various blogs and publications including Cross-Currents, Hevria, Klal Perspectives, Torah Musings, The Jewish Press and The Five Towns Jewish Times.

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18 Responses

  1. Loved your piece, Alexandra. I wish more people would view the role as a Jewish woman the way you do. I think you have reflected both Emes and your Emunah.

  2. dr. bill says:

    Because of what the holiday of Simchat Torah has become, with 1000+ years of expansion and adaptation by Jewish communities across the many lands where we have been exiled, it is for me an odd way to end the holy day period just celebrated. (EY and ShA make a lot more sense.) As one who knows of the early morning hours primarily as a non-constructive existence theorem, on ST I rise to attend a somewhat yekke inspired hashkamah minyan, to avoid more pronounced modes of celebration.

    The real Simcha of torah is learning torah itself. Perhaps as a concession to those who do not regularly merit that experience or perhaps as a day where the community honors the source of its ability to blossom repeatedly over the last 2000 years, a “people’s holiday” has emerged. In any case, rabbis over the centuries only mildly applied strictures to what various communities created; I guess it would be arrogant and wrong to question their tolerance.

    That said, all of us can celebrate in a way that honors our mode of attachment be it as a wife toiling to allow her husband to study, as a proud parent or grandparent or as one rejoicing in their own achievements / understanding. For me that day, my entertainment came from stumping some rabbis and others about the odd trop, that repeats TWICE, in the second passuk of the short Kiddush made before imbibing (too much.) For those interested, see Ramban on that passuk; my guess is it may be related.

    • joel rich says:

      lol you kalte litvak you 🙂 i attend a local shul that expresses joy in short, powerful bursts (a.m starts at 9 and done by 11:30)
      “The real Simcha of torah is learning torah itself.” encapsulates my experience as well but I strongly agree “all of us can celebrate in a way that honors our mode of attachment ” (I’d actually say should rather than can). I think it sad that for many it becomes either a social experience or a bizarro purim celebration.


      • I must interject a very different point of view I heard from a remarkable figure, a Gerer chasid in London who is an accountant by training, but uses his skill with numbers in Torah as well – he generates the most elegant gematrios I have ever encountered, always joined with a number of maamarei Chazal. Anyway, he insists that we Litvaks have ST entirely wrong. The “Torah” in ST is not limud Torah, he argues, but living the life prescribed by the Torah. That leaves room for about everyone who is overjoyed to be Jewish to participate. He claims that he successfully proved his point once to Rav Mattisyahu, who conceded that hashkafically he was correct, but would stand by the mesorah of the yeshivos.

      • Raymond says:

        It seems to me that there is an obvious reconciliation between those two points of view. I seem to recall that the true purpose of learning Torah is to learn to do the commandments properly…in other words, studying the Torah is inextricably intertwined with doing the commandments. Therefore to celebrate Simchat Torah for the joy of Torah learning amounts to the same thing as celebrating it for the joy of doing the Torah’s commandments.

      • dr. bill says:

        just to clarify the record, my distant ancestor, who died in 1820, was opposed to dividing the rabbonus of dembitz, giving the ropshitzah chassidim their own Rov. his son and grandson, served as av beis din, but not rov of the city, since the chassidim established their own rabbonus. that part of the history is very well documented; his matzavah still survives despite the destruction by the communists of the jewish cemetery.

        in more recent times my late mother’s father and uncle davened by the eldest grandson of the divrei chaim. after 8 years of learning with litvishe oriented gedolai olam my late father formally exempted me from his and my mother’s quasi-hasidic minhagim, something RAL ztl approved. to this day my son eats gebrochts, something i cannot bring myself to do.

        I agree with Rabbi Adlerstein point. does the chassidic or yeshivas attitudes better reflects jewish practice in pre-modern times? i think that tends to favor the chassidim more than most would care to admit. nonetheless, except for a few hours a year, i feel like a kalte litvak, not by ancestry but by affiliation.

        and i can always rely on joel rich to modify what i wrote positively.

      • Steve Brizel says:

        Would not eating gebruchts be a tartre desasrei to your often voiced views re davening Mincha after Shemiah as defined by the Gaonim and Gra?

    • Steve Brizel says:

      I also think that Siyumim whether of a communal or personal nature underscore the importance of Talmud Torah than ST where far too often those who are not Talmidei Chachamim or Lomdim tend to dominate the festivities. At night I go to a shtiebel with 5 minute leibidik but not mshuga hakafos and I tend to bring a sefer so that I can learn if I am sitting out a hakafa. Perhaps for those of us in Galus, ST is on the last day to emphasize the importance of TSBP and its proper transmission and eternity no matter where.

  3. Leah K says:

    I went to shul but my husband and son did not even see me watching them dancing. It was hard to see. The women were socializing, chatting about the usual, weddings, kids, etc. My girls thought it was boring to stand and be spectators. They were right. It was. Why can’t women dance on our side of the mechitza? Especially my daughters who learn Torah for many hours each day. I get that the writer enjoyed watching her husband and kids but my girls (ages 9 11 13 and 14) are not going to enjoy watching their father and 16 year old brother…

    • Alexandra Fleksher says:

      Yes, my daughter preferred shul hopping than standing around watching my son and father dance. I personally would be happy to dance if the mechitza was closed. My daughter who is 12 would not be interested.

      I think dancing would make my experience more personal and meaningful. I can’t see a reason prohibit it (there is dancing at weddings!) with a mechitza. Many yeshivish orthodox shuls are not eager to make such changes and are very wary of such things appearing “feminist.” Dancing just “isn’t done.” Interestingly, I have a friend who tried to encourage dancing at a young Israel and there were very very few women who joined her; it is as if it hasn’t caught on culturally in many communities.

      • tzippi says:

        But if you give a girl a Simchas Torah dancing circle, she’s going to want a Sefer Torah.

        Seriously, I appreciate this article and the discussion. As a mother, I don’t want my girls to feel left out of the day. I hope that even if they don’t have the experience of dancing, they’ll have enough of a personal connection to Torah, learning and living, that they will on this day reflect on the great bracha of the Torah in our lives. I hope that this is something all women can access in their lives, regardless of marital status, regardless of whether they watch their husbands dance with that most cherished accessory – a child – or not.

        And maybe it’s a generational thing – I am, by the skin of my teeth a baby boomer – but I felt that my husband’s Simchas Torah was just as meaningful once he left full time learning as it was while he was in kollel. The charge and opportunity to live as a ben Torah made his connection as authentic to me. Of course, I come from and have married into a line of men for whom the greatest simcha of the day is to actually learn Torah, though they do get into the other avodah somewhat, sometimes.

      • Yaakov says:

        Our shul in Detroit had a women’s shiur during morning hakafos. I know many shuls do this and is certainly a way for women to feel part of the Chag, while getting a (rare) chance to learn.

      • dr. bill says:

        i am happy to report that in my left leaning orthodox world, the word (rare) would never occur.

      • Yaakov says:

        Just to be clear, I did not mean rare in the sense that our shul only “allows” them to learn once a year; I meant rare in the sense that in general women have less free time to learn.

  4. Leah K says:

    Orthodox Bais Yakov girls celebrate bas mitzvas today. Lets not pretend that isn’t a direct outcome of Reform and Conservative Jews pushing for ceremonies marking their daughters coming of age. Our uncles had bar mitzva celebrations, a kiddish or a party of some sort; our mother did not. Our brothers had parties and so did we. Not every feminist idea or every push for fairness is a bad idea.

  5. Yaakov Novograd says:

    Thank you for writing so well, once again.
    While I enjoyed hearing from several women and girls in my family about the true joy they had while watching some of the hakafos … last night I had the additional pleasure of re-reading this astute article with my chavrusah, your wonderful father!

  6. Raymond says:

    All I can say is that I thank G-d for not making me a woman, for there is just no way that I would be willing to give up the joy of learning Torah for the sake of having somebody else, even my potential spouse, succeed in that activity. It is a testimony to those women who are so self-sacrificing, although at the same time, makes me feel some sympathy for the feminist movement which, perhaps not so coincidentally, has largely been orchestrated by Jewish women.

  7. Steve Brizel says:

    FWIW, in my neighborhood on ST there is a Siyum on Tanach and shiurim by women for women as well.

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