The last time I danced — really danced — on Simchat Torah was the evening of Oct. 8, 1993.
I remember the date specifically because my father died the next morning.
I was living in Los Angeles at the time. I had two very young children, and one on the way. My father was in Indianapolis, where he had lived for his entire life, and where I grew up. He was battling cancer and had just been admitted to the hospital for what would be the final time.
It was Shemini Atzeret, the afternoon prior to Simchat Torah, that I got the phone call from my brother-in-law, telling me that my father had taken a turn for the worse and that I needed to come home right away. I called the airline immediately and booked the red eye to Indy.
But before I headed to LAX to catch the midnight flight, I went to our shul, Kehillat Ma’arav in Santa Monica, to celebrate Simchat Torah.
I still vividly remember how surreal that night was, singing and dancing with the Torahs, knowing that in just a few hours I would be on my way to say good-bye to my father.
I arrived at the hospital the following morning. My father passed away two hours later. He had been born on Rosh Hashanah, at the commencement of the Jewish fall holiday cycle, and I always saw a certain poetry to his leaving this world at its end.
Here is where I want to say how close I was to my dad. My mother died of cancer when I was 6 years old. My father remarried six months later. His second wife died when I was 7. The following year, he remarried again, and I was blessed with the kindest of all stepmothers for the next four decades.
But it was my dad who was the constant in my formative years. Although a difficult childhood during the Depression had given him a pretty tough veneer, he was the most generous person I have ever known. He was larger than life, brilliant and wise and funny and always my biggest champion.
Celebrating his yahrzeit on Simchat Torah — arguably the most festive of Jewish holidays — eventually became a gift despite its sad irony. It has given me the opportunity to always mark the day of his passing with ample community and to drink toasts to his memory, which he would have loved.
Over the years, there were one or two times that I tried to join with the rest of the congregation in the dancing and the singing and the jubilancy of the day. But that just didn’t work for me. It felt not just fake, but almost like a betrayal of the mourning that I still feel for the loss of my father. Instead, I stand on the sidelines and I watch, letting others celebrate, on my behalf, the beginning of a new cycle of the reading of our Torah.
As the holiday of Simchat Torah approaches this year, I am thinking a lot about the three Pittsburgh congregations that lost dear members last Oct. 27. I think about their Simchat Torah celebrations, coming less than a week before the one-year mark of the anti-Semitic massacre at the Tree of Life building they shared. They will be remembering their Simchat Torah celebrations of 5779, and who was there, and who cannot be there this year. I am imagining they also will be wrestling with the contradictions of a joyous holiday tied inextricably with despair.
There surely are those who admirably will carry the Torahs and sing loudly and dance in the aisles of the synagogue. In doing so, they will be honoring the memories of the martyrs who are not there to dance themselves, and they are, in my mind, heroic.
But not everyone may be able to dance. For some, it may be impossible.
And that’s OK. Being there may just be enough.
Toby Tabachnick is the senior staff writer at the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle.