Unraveling Joy

This is an excerpt from Jenna Zark‘s new book Crooked Lines: A Single Mom’s Jewish Journey, which began life at TC Jewfolk and was published by Koehler Books in September. This chapter is reprinted courtesy of Koehler Books.

There’s a story — I guess there’s always a story about things like this — that says God brought the five books of Moses, called the Torah, to everyone else before it was accepted by the Jews.

“Will you take this?” God asked.

“What is in it?” they said.

“My commandments.”

The Jews are supposed to have said, “All that God has commanded, we shall obey.”

So, God shows up and asks if you want 613 Laws. How to eat, when to cook, pray, do business, what holidays to observe, what to do when you wake up and what to put on the doorposts of your house. Of course, these are in addition to the basic ones, like do not steal, kill, or commit adultery. The laws on keeping kosher require books unto themselves, and there are thirty-nine activities forbidden on the Sabbath.

These are only a tiny portion of the Laws. Yet the Jews bound all of them into two large scrolls that contain the five books. According to the story, they did not ask why. But if ancient Jewry was anything like my relatives, I’ll never believe it. The Jews I know would never settle for anything without asking why.

Then there is another story. This one says if they didn’t ask why, there could only be one reason. They were asking, “Why not?”

The Torah was given at Mount Sinai, after the Jews escaped Egypt and Pharaoh’s armies. If God could free them so completely, they might have been thinking, how bad could his Torah be?

I pondered this in a synagogue, listening to a man playing accordion. It was Simchat Torah, the holiday when we celebrate the Torah and begin reading it each year. I had been on my own a few months and knew a few people slightly, but for the most part I was with strangers — being a very single stranger myself.

The accordionist played a medley of Klezmer tunes. There were children everywhere, and watching them, I missed my four-year-old. I had begun the dance most divorced parents know, giving their child up for one holiday and taking him for another. Watching the families around me, I could not help but wonder if it would always be that way.

The others began singing.

“Torah Simchat Lanu, Moshe!”

We sang, “Torah brings us happiness, Moses.” But what did the Law really bring, and why did so few Jews pay attention? Only a small number of the Jewish people I knew observed either Shabbat or kashrut. Yet there we were, dancing and singing in celebration of laws most of us barely adhered to, and that, at best, demanded a discipline we rarely have. I couldn’t help wondering what everyone around me believed. I envied those who come to synagogue and drank deeply, because belief is never verbal. If you had it, I thought, it lived at a level many layers deeper than where thought begins.

When I was a child, I attended a Jewish day school and the celebrations of Simchat Torah were in the school cafeteria, with music, balloons, and caramel apples. The same caramel apples were in the synagogue here, arranged in shiny brown rows on a tray. I remember biting into the sticky-sweet side of the apple, the hard, sugary candy mixed with the tart skin of fruit breaking apart in my mouth, and how it came to symbolize the pleasure of the holiday.

I think scores of other children grew up thinking this way, too. I read somewhere that when Islamic children read the first words of the Koran, they are given honey so they’ll think of something sweet when they read the words. Maybe caramel wrapped around the apples was supposed to be like the wrapping of the Torah, which unravels when we bite into it. But did treats and songs make it easier to observe?

In Orthodox neighborhoods, people were dancing in long lines, singing, laughing, and drinking wine. In a synagogue across town, my son was laughing, too. Then, someone next to me grabbed my hand and suddenly I was moving, the accordion music carrying me around the room, until I stopped caring about rules or restrictions. All I felt was the music. Is that what Simchat Torah really was, I thought?

As if in answer, Torah scrolls previously behind curtains around the room started appearing, and people dropped out of line to carry them. My son’s father once told me a story about a poor village where they had no Torah. When the holiday came, they passed their babies around instead, raising them to the sky and kissing them. I thought of my son, dancing around with a miniature Torah at his father’s synagogue. I could not help but smile at the thought.

Sweets and children, songs and laughter. We were celebrating joy, and the Torah was supposed to provide it.



The Torah I know never asked us to be happy. Instead, it demanded — honor parents, do unto others, give to those less fortunate, consider the repercussions of our appetites. It told us life is hard and we will want to escape it, to drown in food, drink, sex, drugs, shopping. It said there are limits, and to limit ourselves.

But it also told us to celebrate. To bless the moment, taste it, revel in it, sanctify it, see a baby as holy and raise it high, like a prayer. Most of us might not remember all the Laws, but we can remember the sweetness. And in that sweetness, in the touch of someone’s hand or the sound of an accordion, we might realize that even though we were divorced, or single, or lonely, we were not alone; we were part of a fabric, a story, and a tradition that carried us through the centuries to home.

So, if I was asked at this moment, “Would you take this Torah?” I would say at least, I’m glad someone took the Laws — even if we were not able to keep them all.

Maybe, in a way, the rules made us more interesting, because even if we rejected them, we knew they are there, taking our measure. Maybe that’s why we still dance around the Torah, because it stands, like a pillar, in the middle of all our messes and fears and dilemmas and happiness. And if we choose to, we can use it to see what we might be. Or become.

I mean, it’s possible, right? Why not?