Yesterday I heard many people, in media and in person, repeating the post-Las Vegas mantra What’s wrong with us? What’s wrong with this country? So last night, in an effort to shake off the blues, I went to a contra dance in Amherst.
At the beginning of one dance the caller is arranging the set, which consists of long lines of couples, and my partner and I find ourselves in a square formation with another couple. We start talking, waiting for the dance to start, and one young, bespectacled woman mentions a recent holiday.
I’m sorry, I’m not Jewish, says her partner, who obviously has just met her. What holiday is that?
Yom Kippur, she explains. Day of Atonement. It’s the holiest day of the year for Jews.
He nods, he’s heard of it, then smiles sheepishly. I’m Methodist. Family Methodist for 200 years.
Isn’t that where you take out the Torah? asks another man, darker-skinned, curly black hair, familiar accent. Middle East, I think to myself. His partner is a young man with a pink, muslin see-through skirt over pants with very sweet, moony, blue eyes. In contra dance, while the caller refers to Gents and Ladies, a person of any gender can be a gent or a lady.
No, that’s coming up, she explains. That’s Simchat Torah.
Isn’t that also when you jiggle the Torah? asks a middle-aged Japanese man waiting with his partner. Do something with the handles?
Well, it depends, she says. The Orthodox do it one way, the Conservatives do it another way, and the Reform do it differently, too. She begins to explain the differences, invoking different traditions, sayings of the rabbis, and Talmudic commentaries.
Everyone listens respectfully while the fiddlers tune up onstage.
In Islam it’s the same thing, says the man with the curly black hair, shaking his head. In the mosque everyone prays the same, but my family in Lebanon did it differently.
Not my family, says the Methodist. They’ve been doing the same thing for hundreds of years.
The accordion player plays an octave, they’re getting ready to start. Who’s the active couple? the caller asks, and my partner raises his hand with others and cues me to do the same since I have no idea what the caller is talking about.
Meantime, the Japanese man has asked the young Jewish woman why they jiggle the Torah on Sinchat Torah, and she’s not exactly sure but will ask Rabbi Andrea. If you’re here next week I’ll let you know then.
I’ll be there. I never miss contra dance, the Japanese man says, and everyone else nods their heads about this quintessentially American folk dance, and we stand by our partners, the centuries-old Methodist with the scholarly Jewish woman with glasses, the Lebanese with the young swooning man in his pink skirt, while the Japanese man returns to his partner in the next square. We’ll meet them all soon as we progress down the rows.
I’m feeling better about my country already.
Ladies and Gents, says the Caller, with a small cough, ready to start.
I am new at this, I tell my partner quickly. His name is Don, like Donald Duck, he told me. I’ll do what you do.
No problem, he tells me. I’ve been doing this since 1947.