At the Old City Jewish Art Center on the evening of Oct. 1, a crowd schmoozed inside the tight space, some spilling out into the humid night air and under the partially undone sukkah decorated with art.
It was the 18th annual Simchas Torah Sushi & Stoli crawl at the art center. Starting at about 8 p.m., attendees began showing up to mill about and chat, noshing from platters of sushi and drinking vodka from red Solo cups.
Simchat Torah is a happy occasion that marks the conclusion of Sukkot and the High Holidays with dancing around the Torah. Simchat Torah also includes the reading of the last parshah and the first parshah of the Torah — the turning over of a new yearly cycle.
“It’s a very important time of our year, as we reflect on the year … and spring forward for the rest of the year and reset,” said Bryan Leib, the Republican nominee for Pennsylvania’s 3rd Congressional District, who attended the event.
For him, the end of the High Holidays is “bittersweet.” Though his campaign continues full-steam ahead, the holidays gave him an opportunity to slow down a bit and reflect.
With his birthday and the anniversary of his grandmother’s death around this time of year, the holidays have additional weight for him.
“My grandma passed away four years ago during this time. Actually, on [Sept. 30], it was four years,” Leib said. “When she passed away, these past couple years, my holidays have always been very deep and meaningful to me.”
For some attendees, Simchat Torah and the end of the holidays includes some reprieve.
“It’s kind of a relief [that the High Holidays are ending] because you don’t have to worry about all of the rules and planning for everything,” said Bernadette Barrett, an intern in the National Museum of American Jewish History’s academic liaison department. “You can kind of chill out a bit until Chanukah.”
At some point in the evening, a Torah made an appearance at the art center, providing a focal point for the celebration.
Around 10 p.m., art center Rabbi Zalman Wircberg led the group out of the building and to the corner, where different men took turns dancing with the Torah as the crowd sang and clapped along.
The procession continued south, winding through Old City, singing and clapping, while people took turns carrying the Torah.
Some people, who happened to be sitting outside at the bars and restaurants lining the streets, clapped in synchronization and whooped as the crowd passed.
The procession eventually stopped at a parking garage, where the celebration amped up. The attendees fell into two main dancing groups, one of men and one of women. They sang Hebrew songs like “David Melech Yisrael” and “Gesher Tsar Me’od,” the words echoing off the garage walls.
As the night wore on, the crowd thinned. One woman brought the Torah from the men’s dancing circle to the women’s.
“In this big, loud, bustling world, where we’re not just in nature … you tend to forget spirituality,” said Asya Zlatina, who led much of the singing and dancing in the women’s circle. “But if you can connect through song or dance or something visceral, not something that you’re taught about, but something that you actively participate in. The best part about it, what I love about all the holidays, is if you can get somebody to dance and sing, it’s cool because you don’t have to know the words. A lot of it is just, ‘aiy aiy aiy’ or noises.”
Zlatina, a dancer and the program coordinator for the Chevra, said non-Orthodox women in particular tend to feel uncomfortable in Orthodox spaces and to feel put “on the back burner.” It’s important for her to make sure these women feel included. Despite her appreciation of the High Holidays, though, Zlatina doesn’t mind much that they’re ending.
“Just because this year, they all happen to be on a weekday rather than on a weekend, I actually feel ready to go back to work in a way where I don’t feel stressed that I’m missing so many days,” she said.
One attendee, Andrew Galati, decided to spend his evening at this Simchat Torah celebration despite not being Jewish. He came across the Old City Jewish Art Center seven years ago when he first moved to Philadelphia. During one First Friday, a monthly event where many of the art galleries in Old City open their doors to the public, he stumbled across the art center. Over the years, he continued to attend events there and befriended Wircberg.
“I came [to this Simchat Torah event] two years ago, and it was just such a blast,” Galati said.
When asked if he had anything more to add, Galati lifted his red cup.