When I was a little girl of about five or six (so my father tells me), I used to go up to complete strangers in the park and cross-examine them: “What’s your name? How old are you? Are you Jewish?” – thus (as I conjecture), declaring my own Jewishness of which I was, even as a small child, immensely proud, even though I was not then, nor am I now, what might be described as “an orthodox Jew” (or, in Yiddish - frum).
Not only was I proud of being Jewish, I was also terribly sorry for those who were not. I mention this now, at the end of Sukkot, because one of my most vivid childhood memories is of (literally) dancing to shul (synagogue) for the Simchat Torah service, waving my coloured flag with its Magen David (“Shield of David”, often mistakenly translated as “Star of David”), crowned with a sugar-coated apple, and thinking to myself how fortunate I was to be Jewish and to be able to enjoy such a wonderful festival and how unlucky were all these non-Jews, who could not share in such pleasures.
Nor am I the only one for whom the festival of Simchat Torah has become an emblem, a symbol, not only of pride, but also of joy, in our Jewishness. In the dark days of the Soviet Union, the Jews of Moscow and Leningrad chose this day, out of all others – not Rosh Hashana, not Yom Kippur, not even Pessach (Passover), with its celebration of the Exodus from Egypt – to demonstrate to the authorities their determination to remain Jews. This was the day marked by large assemblies of Jews, especially young Jews, who had been forcibly cut off from Judaism all their lives, who came together to demonstrate their pride in a heritage that the Soviet authorities had attempted to strip from them.
How sad then, to think that these days, in the wake of fears of terrorist attacks, Israelis travelling abroad, even in supposedly “civilised” Europe, are advised by the Israeli authorities not to openly demonstrate their Israeli nationality, or even their Jewishness! How sad it is that, when travelling abroad with my choir, I see those of the men who are religiously observant, replace their kippot with ordinary hats so as not to draw attention to themselves as Jews.
I do not usually wear a Magen David, but, when travelling abroad, I make it a practice to wear one on a silver chain around my neck, which (with what some people might consider foolish bravado) I make sure to display prominently in public places. I have heard of the increase in antisemitic attacks on Jews in Scandinavia, in France, in other countries in Europe – even in the UK, where I was born. I also remember a lesson learned at school – bullies look for those who are perceived as weak and afraid. I refuse to be weak and afraid. I say to my fellow Jews – there is no need to go looking for trouble, but, on the other hand, there is no need to run and hide. Bullies should be met head on and should be made to understand that Jews fight back. The Jewish Defence League had the right idea.
Stand your ground. Whatever your degree of observance, be proud of your Jewishness. Enjoy it! Of Sukkot, we are commanded in the Torah (Deuteronomy 16:14 – 15): “And thou shalt rejoice in thy feast … because the Lord thy God shall bless thee in all thine increase, and in all the works of thine hands, therefore thou shalt surely rejoice.” And the rejoicing continues on Simchat Torah, whose name means, literally “Rejoicing in the Torah”.
We have a national homeland. We are free to practice our religion. We have survived attempts to annihilate us for almost four thousand years. We are still here. Isn’t that reason for rejoicing?
I will leave you with a traditional – and popular – song for Simchat Torah.
“Rejoice and be glad, in the Rejoicing of the Law – and give honour to the Torah.”
Chag Sameach – חג שמח