As we arrived at Baka’s Kehillat Yedidya, for this year’s Simchat Torah festivities, we were greeted by a large number of soldiers, most armed, all in uniform. It wasn’t clear how they had gotten to us or why they were here. Had they been assigned to protect us? Did every shul have a cadre of dozen or more members of the IDF? Or were they, perhaps, here to simply enjoy the services?
Truthfully, we didn’t need the extra guns…there are already quite a number of shul members who arrive on Shabbat and holidays packing heat. I’ve never served in the army here (got here when I was already 34 and the army not only didn’t want me, but refused to enter me into their database in order to exempt me). So I don’t know the nuances of different types of weapons. But we always have a few pistols, a couple of Uzi’s (one slung over the shoulder of a kid with long wavy hair where he should be sporting a tallit). And there’s Dan with this scary looking unit he wears on his belt that I can only describe as a pistol on a tripod.
Back in March when things were so bad, all of Jerusalem’s synagogues started asking those members who had guns to rotate davening with guard duty. We locked any unnecessary doors and gates. Some shuls hired guards. I remember how visitors - back when we used to have visitors here - would comment how unnerving it was to them to see so many soldiers strolling nonchalantly down the center city pedestrian walkway. And this was back in the “safe” 80s. I imagine they would have been doubly unnerved seeing today’s unholy mixing of guns and Torah.
I, on the other hand, have always felt calmed by the army presence. I am happy to be frisked before entering a coffee house. I am comforted passing a police checkpoint on my way into the Talpiot Industrial Zone to grab a Whopper at the kosher Burger King. If this is the life we must live, then I can gladly suffer such dichotomous absurdities.
Still, on this particular night of Simchat Torah, I felt on a state of higher alert. Kehillat Yedidya attracts a very large number of worshippers for the holiday, given its pluralistic approach where women can freely dance with the Torah, unlike most other Orthodox synagogues.
Usually I recognize everyone. Not tonight. My mind began to wander. Could someone in disguise slip past the soldiers, like at the Park Hotel in Netanya? My eyes scanned for anyone with a coat amidst the sweating dancers, someone with a belly too bulky who didn’t look pregnant or well fed. No one. Thank God. There was one teenage boy who had a really funky afro with a very small kippa on top. Was that really his hair? It looked like a wig. And that kippa, it was just too small. Could he be a terrorist? Do pimples distinguish between Jew & Arab?
The night passed uneventfully. We celebrated. We shmoozed. We waved flags. I put Aviv on my shoulders. I quickly took Aviv off my shoulders. I never did find out why the soldiers were there. They didn’t dance. But they seemed to be enjoying themselves, like it was the first time they were ever at Simchat Torah celebrations.
Maybe that was the point. War brings people together in the most unlikely of ways. Tradition and music take things to the next level, providing common ground.
Next year, let it be Guns & Roses.