Chaim Potok on Simchat Torah

In recognition of Simchat Torah, an excerpt from In the Beginning, by American Jewish novelist Chaim Potok. The narrator is a teenager in New York City [I forget which borough; only a New Yorker would be provincial enough to think it matters] who has immersed himself in historical criticism of the Bible, an encounter that both shakes and fascinates him. Near the end of this except, he recalls a childhood friend, an Italian Catholic. The story is set during World War II.

I remember the night in the second week of October when we danced with the Torah scrolls in our little synagogue. It was the night of Simchat Torah, the festival that celebrates the completion of the annual cycle of Torah readings. The last portion of the Five Books of Moses would be read the next morning.

The little synagogue was crowded and tumultuous with joy. I remember the white-bearded Torah reader dancing with one of the heavy scrolls as if he had miraculously shed his years. My father and uncle danced for what seemed to me to be an interminable length of time, circling about one another with their Torah scrolls, advancing upon one another, backing off, singing. Saul and Alex and I danced too. I relinquished my Torah to someone in the crowd, then stood around and watched the dancing. It grew warm inside the small room and I went through the crowd and out the rear door to the back porch. I stood in the darkness and let the air cool my face. I could feel the floor of the porch vibrating to the dancing inside the synagogue. It was a winy fall night, the air clean, the sky vast and filled with stars. [. . .]

The noise inside the synagogue poured out into the night, an undulating, swelling and receding and thinning and growing sound. The joy of dancing with the Torah, holding it close to you, the words of God to Moses at Sinai. I wondered if the gentiles ever danced with their Bible. “Hey, Tony. Do you ever dance with your Bible?”

I had actually spoken the question. I heard the words in the cool dark air. I had not thought to do that. I had not even thought of Tony–yes, I remembered his name: Tony Savanola. I had not thought of him in years. Where was he now? Fighting in the war probably. Or studying for the priesthood and deferred from the draft as I was. Hey, Tony. Do you ever read your Bible? Do you ever hold it to you and know how much you love it?

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