So. There's time.
Yeah, that's the name of it. I know you feel like you should say "Gesundheit", or wonder if maybe I was just making that one up. When I told one boss I needed to take Wednesday off to prepare, I said "Simchat Torah" on the assumption he'd have a greater chance of recognizing that one. It means "8th Day festival". That's because the Torah says that the holiday of Sukkot is seven days with another festival added at the end. Thus...we don't really go for imagination for holiday names. :) It's bland enough that in Israel and other groups who only celebrate one-day Yom Tovs call it Simchat Torah, which actually is the day after.
However, there are observances attached to it. One is that it is immediately preceded by Hoshanah Rabbah, which is the final day of the holiday of Sukkot, and when people (usually men) go to a very long service in the morning to symbolically request rain. By beating willow branches on the ground. Which meant that poor Jonathan had to go to shul at 6:30 in the morning. We don't want rain until Sukkot is over, because can't eat in the sukkah in the rain.
That leads to the S"A services. because that's when we change from praying for dew to praying for rain in the prayer services. There's a lovely hymn that the cantor sings to signal this change. There's also yizkor, which is the memorial prayer for the dead. This is said four times a year - the last day of Pesach, the second day of Shavuot, Yom Kippur and on Shemini Atzeret, and it is traditionally said only by those who have lost at least one parent. Everyone else leaves. Our rabbi leaves, and he's a grandfather. Other shuls and other groups have different customs. I use the time to have a chat with my father, as I do when I light the yarzheit candle (a candle that's meant to burn for about 24 hours) for him. It's not a long service - maybe fifteen minutes - but it's meaningful. And for a lot of people, especially women, it's the sole reason they go to shul that day. Honestly, I'm not sure I would have gone. Except then I'd have missed my friend Alan's lovely prayer for rain.
We had guests for lunch, in our sukkah. Some people have a custom to eat in their sukkot on Shemini Atzeret, without the blessing because it's no longer required. Others, like us, do not. However, it's a permitted thing, and as it happens, it's the only way we can have these guests for a meal. We live in a second floor walk-up and she's in a wheelchair. We did the highly embarrassing thing of arguing in front of him - a continuation of a tiff from before shul - but things did clear up and the only problem with lunch was that it was so very hot.
This means "celebration of the Torah." This holiday is a second day festival. Normally, it would be the day when we say yizkor, but the other celebrations of the days - dancing, singing, drinking - is incompatible with this. They still combine them in Israel. It has to be hard. Also, since the drinking is supposed to happen after morning service, during the additional one, the normal "duchaning" - the blessings of the Kohanim, which normally happens for the additional service, happens during the first one.
It's one of the longest and most joyful services we have - both the evening one and the morning one, which extends to afternoon. As I said, there is singing, there is dancing with the Torah scrolls - there are even women-only services so women who want to can also dance with Torah scrolls. And there is drinking. We broke in the middle of the nighttime one to have kiddush because anything else would mean waiting too long.
Me? I danced a little, until I was tired, and then I read. I took a John Varley book (Red Lightening) and I read when I wasn't chatting with friends. And my rebbitzen told me that she really enjoyed the book I gave her - Elizabeth Moon's The Speed of Darkness, which is an SF novel from the point of view of an autistic man. She works with autistic children, you see.
S"T is a rollercoaster of a day for me. I feel all the joy of the Torah, all the celebration for this great gift. But it's also the day my father died, and between that and yizkor and the kaddishes I say for him that day, it's all rather complex. Add to that my mother's remarriage, and the fact that my stepfather is a lovely man, he makes my mother happy and I do love him. But I miss my father and his brilliant, caustic wit and his idiosyncracies and it's all very complex. Plus, while most of the year it doesn't bother me that men get all the honors and aliyot (if it did, there are places I could go in the Orthodox sphere) but it does on Simchat Torah - especially since there's one point where all the adult men in the shul get an aliyah, and towards the end, they start asking if "Anyone hasn't had one yet." And the women look at each other and laugh, and even men make remarks about that. At least in this shul, unlike my old one, when "all the children" are called for their special one, they mean *all* the children, not just the boys. That I really hated.
A lot of women stay home or go to women's services or other events on S"T morning. I can't. I say kaddish for my father and I need a minyan. So, I read, and chat. And maybe have a shot of whisky from the kiddush we sponsor in Daddy's honor.
That night, we took part in a dairy buffet hosted by a couple in our shul - Miriam is a marvelous cook, and she prepared salads and fish and cheese lasagna and even homemade pizza, and Shalom took a large portion of the congregation with him. It was late, so dairy was pretty much what we wanted.
There was a sponsored lunch in the morning (afternoon, really), but we'd already planned to have salami and eggs, so we went home.
And it was just an ordinary Shabbat - not Yom Kippur, and not a day of Sukkot. No special customs at all. We went to neighbors for dinner, and we had guests for lunch. One was a near-vegan, so I experimented with vegetarian cholent. It came out really good - the secret is, I think, ketchup, but I made far too much. And I didn't bother going to shul. It was nice, and I had the expectations of a full week ahead of me.