A few weeks ago I attended CIYCL‘s forum on Yiddish art in Los Angeles, where I learned about American Yiddish dance and theater throughout the 20th century. On the flier, there were two pictures of dancers: one of a woman kicking her leg high into the air, and another of a man (Benjamin Zemach) mid-twirl. I was fascinated by them because they were so unlike all my other experience with Jewish dance – the clumsy horahs I’ve muddled through at weddings, the antiquated folk dances from Israel and Eastern Europe. These Jews honed their art form, pushed their bodies. These Jews were daring, dynamic, sexy, and modern. These Jews weren’t artists-who-were-Jewish – they were Jewish artists. How did Yiddishkeyt move from a vibrant, avant-garde art scene to a static focus on constrictive tropes and nostalgia for romanticized Shtetl life? Is it really as simple as assimilation and Holocaust trauma? If so, why has our memory proved so selective? It seems we fixate on what’s safe – food, grandparents, traditional music and dance. So does that mean that what we’ve forgotten is maybe a little dangerous? Why? What is it about Benjamin Zemach’s twirl that has relegated him to obscurity? I’m not saying that klezmer can’t be cutting edge, as well – but you’ve got to admit it’s a bit fishy that half a century or more has been blotted out of our cultural memory.
What fires me up about Yiddishkeyt isn’t the shtetls, the horahs, or the clarinets. Marc Chagall’s paintings are lovely, but they leave me cold. Give me the political radicals, the union organizers, the socialists. Give me the dancers and poets and actors! That’s my Yiddishkeyt. That’s what I’m grasping for. But a Google search for Benjamin Zemach turns up little more than his obituary. Even the footage I saw of one of his performances was recorded in his later years; you could tell his body wasn’t as agile as it had once been.
Of course, Zemach himself – along with the other actors and dancers whose performances I watched at the forum – focused on Old World themes, as evidenced by the costumes in the two photos. The irony of this isn’t lost on me. Is 20th and 21st century Yiddish identity ultimately recursive? Are we destined to circle back to the same modes of Jewish expression over and over again? Was all hope of a kinetic and evolving secular Yiddish identity lost with the rise of Zionism? And do other cultures share this problem? Federations and synagogues constantly complain about the lack of interest among young adults in Jewish identity – but sometimes it feels like Jewish identity doesn’t give us any room to stretch, to question, to move. We go on Birthright, we learn Hebrew, we study the Holocaust, we sing about the shtetls. But the identity that’s painted on our faces and bodies always seems to be expressed in someone else’s terms.