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Sep 23 2013

Celebrating Simchat Torah in a Closet in Taipei

By at 5:03 pm

taipei“Let’s go to Simchat Torah.” I said. “It’ll be fun.”

My husband isn’t Jewish, but he can power through the transliterated Hebrew in the Reform siddur (prayer book) with the best of them. He was skeptical, but my promise of fun (and possibly dessert) won out.

Having never celebrated the holiday growing up, the only reason I had any inkling it would be fun was because of the only other time I ever celebrated. In a closet in Taipei.

That’s where the Jews meet. A small room–a nicely converted supply closet room, really–hosts some Jewish literature, a small table, a few chairs, and an honest to goodness Holy Ark.

I was there as a recent college grad, interning at the embassy. Although Taiwan’s Jews are few and mostly foreign born, anyone who wishes to attend services is always welcome to the annex of Ritz (Landis) Hotel. There, you’ll find an Orthodox service complete with a kiddush on any regular Shabbat.

There’s rarely enough for a minyan. Since the room was too small to separate the sexes as tradition requires, I would sit squished against the back right corner of the room.

Simchat Torah morning services lasted an hour or two, and as we broke for lunch, the congregants sniffed around for lunch buddies. The well-heeled, fashionable Brazilian in the Armani suit was in town on business. The casual Brit in a button down and khakis was freelancing and teaching English. Then there was me, the college grad intern.

Three worlds, three languages, three cultures united by the simple need to be Jewish today.

We agreed to have lunch. We had terrific friend chemistry, even though we were from three different continents. The Brazilian was married with kids. The Brit was divorced. I was ready to get engaged to my boyfriend back home.

When we returned for afternoon services–a major stretch for me–there were even fewer than the not-quite-minyan that morning.

But by golly, did we dance.

I’ll never forget the Brazillian whirling around with the 80-year-old rabbi and the Torah hoisted high. I’ll always remember the Brit bellowing his favorite psalm, faced flushed from too much green tea mixed with the afternoon delight.

We danced and sang and celebrated and partied and gave that Torah the time of its life. The five of us. Then we lovingly caressed its soft velvety cover and placed it back in the Holy Ark.

Chazak, chazak, v’nit chazek!” (“Be strong, be strong and let us strengthen one another.”)

Fast-forward five years. I married my boyfriend back home. I was pregnant with our first child. Simchat Torah was in the middle of the week, and our shul wasn’t expecting a big turnout.

Go, we did. We easily quadrupled the number of Taipei attendees. Our voices filled the old wooden sanctuary. We danced and delicately held the story of our people.

My husband became fanatically careful about the scroll. As the strongest 20-something man, our religious school director designated him to hoist the re-wound scroll at the end and deliver it safely back to the bimah.

Still today he talks about how honored he felt, and how immediately the tradition came alive for him. And I remember how their unquestioning inclusion of him that day helped our interfaith marriage cement a little more tightly.

That’s the beauty of the tradition of our people. Closets or temples, Orthodox or inter-married, East or West. Through Torah, we are strengthened.

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