Hakafot Under Fire

Hakafot Under Fire

The hakafot were in full swing. Round and round went the circle of dancing worshippers in the little shul, chanting a snappy Simchat Torah melody and dancing rhythmically to its tune. Circles formed and reformed as some dancers dropped out exhausted and others took their place, the dancers holding each other by the hand or shoulders. Now and again someone would strike up a new tune, and the pace would quicken with the rhythm of the new melody. Those who dropped out of the dancing circle would continue to participate by swaying to and fro, clapping their hands and urging the dancers on to renewed vigor.

I had come to watch, that's all. But I had come too close to the dancing circle. Somebody from the circle grabbed me by the arm and pulled me into the whirling mass of dancers. Somewhat bewildered at first, I soon caught up with the rhythm and excitement of the dancers. I now felt part of these lovely people who were dancing and rejoicing with G‑d's greatest gift-the Torah. It was a wonderful feeling.

As the circle grew I found myself pushed more and more into the center, I turned my head to steal a glance at the man who had "roped me in." He was still resting his hand lightly on my shoulder. He seemed an elderly man, and I wondered where he got so much strength to dance and dance without end.

As his eyes were closed, I did not mind studying his face a little longer without seeming rude or curious. His lips were moving, but not a sound came from them. Beads of perspiration stood out on his forehead and face, and I was astonished to see that tears were streaming down his cheeks. An inner happiness and ecstasy were written all over his noble face. I felt drawn to him, and though I was almost exhausted, I should have been ashamed to admit it, seeing the lively energy of this elderly man.

Finally, the hakafot were over, and the circle broke up. The dancers sat down to relax and catch their breath. I followed my dancing neighbor and sat down near him.

"It's a long time since I had such inspiring hakafot," he said, wiping the perspiration from his face.

"Yes, it makes you feel good," I said, trying to keep up the conversation. I felt that if the gentleman would only continue to speak, it would be worth listening to.

"Good!" exclaimed my neighbor. "Young man, do you know what 'good' is? Have you ever felt so gratefully happy that you wept for joy?"

"Well . . ."

"Ah! Let me tell you of those hakafot many years ago, and you will know what I mean…"

I was never more interested in my life. My neighbor must have read my eagerness, and he did not keep me in suspense.

"It was about thirty years ago. Let me see, yes, exactly thirty years ago today, or rather tonight. Those were the terrible days after the First World War. I lived in Riga then, the capital of the newly born independent Republic of Latvia.

"That night of the hakafot we were sheltering in a cellar in the old city. The thud of cannon bombard­ment could be heard in the near distance, and the rattle of machine guns. For the German insurgents under Bermont were just across the river Dvina, and the city was resolutely defended by the nationalist forces. Things were not going well for the nationalists. They were losing ground, they were nervous, and they suspected treachery and espionage. Anybody that fell under suspicion was put to the wall and shot, without even any investigation made.

"Now imagine that night, with a heavy bombardment by the enemy across the river, the sky overcast, and the whole city in a total blackout. Suddenly, sentries see a light through a window in a top floor apartment. The light dances up and down, then disappears. 'The spy nest has been discovered at last! the sentries decide, and they rush to the house to lay their hands on the spy. They run up the steps, and down again. We can hear their heavy boots. Finally they burst into our cellar and cry, 'Where is the dirty spy?!'

As I raised my eyebrows, as if to say, I don't get it, the old man smiled.

"You are wondering what those sentries were doing in our cellar at hakafot? Well, then I must tell you about Zalman. His second name was Michelson, but hardly anyone knew it. He was better known as Zalman the Mattress-maker. He was as poor as a church mouse, but as cheerful and carefree as a lark. It goes without saying that he was a pious man. He did not know what it meant to be sad at any time, let alone at times when rejoicing was in order. Heaven knows, he bad plenty to be worried about: many mouths to feed, a marriageable daughter, an ailing wife. But G‑d had blessed him with a cheerful disposition, and seemingly nothing, absolutely nothing could break his spirit.

"Well, Zalman the Mattress-maker was with us in the cellar that night. That night of all nights, when Jews are expected to rejoice with the Torah, to dance with the Torah, there we were sitting downcast, depressed, shivering in our skins every time an explosion shattered the silence.

"Zalman could not stand it any longer. 'Brothers!' he exclaimed. 'It's simchat Torah to-night! We must rejoice! But his words fell flat upon our ears. He looked hurt for a moment, then he suddenly remembered something. 'I see, my friends, that without a drop of shnapps there will be nothing doing. Well, I just remembered: I have a pint of shnapps in the cupboard at home, which I have been saving for tonight. Clean forgot! I'll be back in a jiffy.'

"We looked at him in amazement. 'Are you crazy, Zalman? You cannot climb all those steps to the sixth floor, with shrapnel flying about, and bullets, and broken glass and masonry-for a pint of shnappsl Don't be a fool, Zalman.'

"But Zalman said: 'Don't worry, brethren. We have a great and mighty G‑d. I'll be right back, and then we will celebrate hakafot.' And before we could hold him back forcibly, he had disappeared, taking with him a candle...

"Zalman climbed to the sixth floor, where he lived. He lit the candle and found the bottle. He was so happy, that he danced about with the candle burning in one hand, and the bottle in the other, forgetting all about the war, the bombardment, the regulations. It was in this state that he finally came back to us in the cellar.

"Now, my young friend, you understand what the sentries saw in the darkness of the night....

"It was just as we prepared to celebrate hakafot, that the sentries burst in crying, 'Where is the dirty spy?!'

"We were horror-struck, and remained speechless. 'We knew what it meant to be accused of spying. 'Turn the spy over to us, or we will have you all shot!’ the sentries shouted. 'Somebody was giving signals to the enemy a few moments ago, and the arsenal is but a block away! You dirty Jews would have us all blown up, would you? For the last time, who was giving the signals to the enemy?'

"At this moment Zalman stepped forward, bottle in hand, and calmly said: 'Officers, it was I whom you saw with a light upstairs, but I was not signaling to the enemy. I..."

"Never mind, come along!' the soldiers said briskly, and marched poor Zalman off under heavy guard.

"If we had been depressed before, now we were truly grief-strickcn. Poor Zalman! He would be put to the wall and shot immediately. No questions asked. Every time we heard a burst of machine gun or rifle fire, we thought, there goes poor Zalman. Many of us cried. 'We immediately pledged ourselves to support poor Zalman's widow and orphans, and to place a stone on his grave, if his body were delivered to us by the authorities.

"Time dragged on slowly. We thought the night would never end. All the time we were talking about the late Zalman and his poor bereaved family. Everybody had a good word about Zalman, how he cheered everybody up at all times, how he was the life of every simchah, every wedding and happy occasion, whether he was invited or not, he was always welcome....

"Suddenly we heard steps, and presently in walked --who do you think?-- Zalman! We couldn't believe our eyes. We thought it was a ghost. But no, the bottle in his hand looked real enough. Zalman was deathly pale, but happy and smiling, as always… We rushed at him and nearly floored him. Everybody tried to kiss him and embrace him. There were tears in all eyes. Some of us mumbled, Blessed be He who revives the dead...

" 'Stop it! Stop!' cried Zalman. 'I love you, too, but there is no time for that now. Let's celebrate hakafot!' But we would not start with hakafot until he told us what happened to him, and by what strange miracle be had escaped certain death.

"'Didn't I tell you, we have a great and mighty G‑d?' Zalman began. 'Well, when I was brought to headquarters and placed before the officer on duty, he hardly looked up at me. 'To be shot' he called out. 'No time to investigate.'

"'I looked at the officer for a moment, a thought flashed in my mind, and I called out: 'Styopka! What on earth are you saying?!

"'The officer looked up sharply, gazed at me for a moment, then burst out laughing. 'What a joke! You, Zalman, a spy! Ha, ha, ha! And with that bottle in your hand ... Ha, ha, ha! Well, well, sit down, let's talk about old times. Do you remember when I used to come to your house to remove the candlesticks on Saturday mornings, and light a fire in the winter? I used to get a nice slice of white bread, let me see, challah you called it. I was a kid then, but you treated me as though I was a grown up. I loved you, Zalman. Those were happy days in our little town, quiet and peaceful. But these are grim days… You are lucky that I was on duty tonight. It was not even my turn, but I was substituting for a friend. You would have been a dead duck by now. But, say, what's the idea of the bottle? Is it Purim tonight?'

"'You ought to know better, Stephan Ivanovitsch,' says I to him. 'Purim is at the end of winter, and it's the fall now. No, it's Simchat Torah tonight.'

"'Sure, I remember. You go round and round in a circle dancing…”

"'That's what we were going to do tonight, when we were 'slightly' interrupted…'

"'Well, go back to your dancing, and say a prayer for us, Zalman. You Jews are marvellous, risking your neck for your religion, dancing in the shadow of death....'

"That was Zalman's simple story. He got a special pass to come back to us at once, and to use at all times of curfew in the future. And then we began hakafot.

“…Oh, those hakafot! I'll never forget them. Every time I celebrate hakafot, I remember them; for the last thirty years!"

Then he began to hum a melody: "Swing your feet and raise your voice, with our Torah, do rejoice!”

Excerpted from The Complete Story of Tishrei, published and copyright by Kehot Publication Society, Brooklyn NY
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