10 Simchat Torah stories, joyful and tragic


Sometimes the Jewish holiday of Simchat Torah brings more than just a hora — for better and for worse. 

From Al Gore’s L’Chaim to Ethiopia’s first Hebrew Torah, here are 10 news stories from JTA’s historical Simchat Torah coverage:

  • 10. Macarena dance sneaks into Simchat Torah celebration (1996)
    The Latin dance craze of the 1990s found its way into a Los Angeles synagogue on Simchat Torah.
  • 9. Amid Yom Kippur War, soldiers dance with Torah in Sinai (1973)
    IDF soldiers pulled over their tanks and danced with the Torah in the place it was first given: the Sinai dessert. In 1981, 30,000 Jews in Sinai used the holiday as an occasion to protest the forthcoming withdrawal from Sinai.
  • 8. Drunken Jews surprised by “armed insurrection” charges in Lithuania (1927)
    "Six Jews has drunk a glass or two too many and had made a bit of a noise in the street," a JTA report explained about the Simchat Torah revelers. "The policeman had come along and there were some words between them, and the policeman went away and wrote out a protocol, not a charge of disturbing the public peace, but of organizing ‘armed insurrection.’" Talk about a sobering experience.
  • 7. Reform Jewish rights in Israel brought to forefront (1962, 1986)
    In 962, an Israeli Supreme Court ruling ordered that a Reform group be allowed to celebrate Simchat Torah in a public hall in Israel. In 1986, Reform rights in Israel surfaced in headlines again after charges were filed against an Orthodox rabbi who disrupted a Reform congregation’s dancing with the Torah outdoors. The charges were ‘amicably‘ dropped shortly thereafter.
  • 6. Jewish Communist party charges two with participating in religious services (1928)
    Simchat Torah services are participatory in nature in that everyone is called to the Torah for an aliyah. Other public honors and recitations are doled out, which worked against two Soviet Jews who got in trouble with the communist party after they "were honored with the reading of passages from ‘Atho Horeiso’ at the Simchas Torah celebration."
  • 5. Ethiopian Jews receive first full-sized Hebrew Torah (1976)
    Accustomed to reading Torah in the Geez language, 28,000 Jews in Ethiopia were gifted a full-sized Hebrew scroll from New York, which was read for the first time during Simchat Torah in 1976.
  • 4. Japanese consul crashes Kishinev hakafot (1924) 
    Intrigued by Jews rejoicing in the main synagogue, the Japanese diplomat joined in on the fun.
  • 3. Al Gore makes a L’chaim over vodka (1998)
    "Vice President Al Gore stood in front of a Conservative congregation with a shot glass filled with vodka in his left hand, and a pickle and piece of pumpernickel bread in his right. ‘Rabbi, teach me how to do this.’"
  • Perhaps he should have saved his shot for after he was heckled in the Jewish nursing home.

  • 2. Synagogue terror attacks shock communities (1980s)
    In separate incidents a few years apart, synagogue celebrations in Paris, Rome and Tunisia were brought to a crashing halt by fatal attacks involving grenades and machine guns.
  • 1.  Soviet Jewry solidarity (1960s)
    In the 1960s, Moscow and Leningrad played host to some of the largest Simchat Torah gatherings in the world. Under Soviet authority, though, that was grounds for trouble as Jewish leaders were arrested for their roles in these and other Jewish gatherings. In North America, the holiday became an occasion to rally on behalf of Soviet Jewry until the collapse of the Soviet Union. By 2003, JTA reported that the crowds in Moscow had dwindled to 200 outdoor revelers, down from 15,000 in the 1960s.

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