One of my fondest childhood memories is of my mother’s father being in synagogue on Simchat Torah. The rabbi always ordered the hakafot (processions around the synagogue with people carrying Torah scrolls) by age, and my grandfather, Benjamin Goldstein, was in the first one. I don’t remember him as a particularly religious man (he died when I was 10), but I will never forget the joy on his face when he carried the Torah.
Simchat Torah was (as it still is in many places) the occasion for the Consecration ceremony for students beginning their religious school studies. The rabbi called us up to the bimah for a blessing with a huge tallit spread above our heads, and then we each received a miniature Torah from the pile on the steps to the bima of small gold boxes containing the scrolls .
When I was six, I must confess, I came back into the empty sanctuary after the service was over and helped myself to as many of the remaining miniature Torahs as I could carry. I cannot remember how I hid this larcenous deed from my parents, but I stashed the contraband in the bottom draw of my bedroom night table where they remained for many years.
When I pilfered those scrolls, Torah study was not what I had in mind as a professional pursuit (I planned to be the catcher for the New York Yankees), but I hope the Almighty will consider my rabbinical career to be suitable penance.
The scrolls certainly came in handy in later years. During the meal at the first communal Passover Seder I conducted at my congregation in Columbia, MD, I remembered to my horror that I had forgotten (and no one on the committee had thought of it either) to buy a prize for the young person who found the afikomen (the piece of matzah hidden and looked for after the meal by the children present). While everyone ate, I quickly drove to our house and grabbed a miniature scroll to give to the winner. I don’t think I have ever revealed that I was making a young boy or girl party to my trafficking in stolen goods.
On Simchat Torah we read the last verses of the book of Deuteronomy and then immediately begin again to read the opening lines of Genesis. Even when I was six the message came through: the study of Torah never ends. As years have gone by I consider it increasingly remarkable that we have a special celebration just to honor study!
This year, as I prepare to celebrate Simchat Torah in Kiel, Germany, another memory rushes into my consciousness. Just before I went up to the bima for my blessing as a child, my father told me to ask the rabbi if Kaddish (our prayer for the dead) would be part of the ceremony because the Yahrzeit (anniversary of the death) of his father was Simchat Torah. I remember being terrified by my father’s request. “Me,” I thought, “speak to the Rabbi! I could never do that!” But I did, and the rabbi said he would include the Kaddish in the service.
My father never really knew his father because German soldiers shot him during World War I when my father was 18 months old. My grandfather was in Belgium on business when soldiers asked for his papers. When he reached into his pocket, they thought he was reaching for a gun and killed him.
For all the years of my childhood, Hirsch Wolf Fuchs was only a photograph that sat atop my father’s highboy. Now that I am in Germany I will tell my grandfather’s story before I lead Kaddish at our Simchat Torah service here. I will think of my own father lovingly, with a new awareness of how difficult it must have been for him to be a father because he grew up without one.
I will also be grateful for the love of Torah that he and my mother planted in me, and I will pray that the way that love continues to sprout will always be worthy of their efforts.