Moving Jewish Bodies

dancer1A 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.

zemachOf 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.

9 Responses

  1. This is an amazing post and I don’t even know how to begin responding to it, but there’s a lot I want to say, so I will just do my best. I’m not Ashkenazi, so my experience is different from yours, but there is a lot of overlap and this post really resonated with me.

    On the one hand, you said you learned about these dancers at a forum on Yiddish art. There were other people there, right? And people who organized and funded it? So you must not be alone in your interest in that part of Jewish history. There must be other people where you live who care about this and want to learn about it.

    On the other hand, this breaks my heart. There is so much that has been lost. My grandmother is always saying, literally, “Let’s go back to Europe, take me back to Europe,” but the Europe she’s talking about has been gone for a long time. And yet I feel that nostalgia viscerally, and I’m terrified in equal parts that my children won’t feel it, or that they will, but only because they’ve been handed backbreaking guilt like me.

    Just a few months ago my grandmother wanted to come visit my new apartment, and told me that there is a special cookie one is supposed to make “when someone gets a new apartment” (a housewarming cookie?), but she doesn’t know how to make it and doesn’t know the name, and everyone who would remember it is dead. As stupid as it is, I’ve cried for that lost apartment cookie, and I’m angry that I will never learn to make it.

    Anyway, all this nostalgia is partly what you’re objecting to (why am I living in the past?) and partly what you’re talking about (so many wonderful parts of my culture that I wish I knew about). The two are similar, right?

    And on yet another hand, me dwelling like that is exactly the opposite of what we need to do. You want a dynamic, challenging, living Jewish culture? Then you need to make one. We are the living Jews; there is no one else but us. What are your answers to all the questions you asked in this post? What modes of Jewish expression are meaningful for you? Is your identity recursive? What would an identity expressed in your terms look like?

    (I have a lot of thoughts about what my answers to all those questions are, but I this comment has gotten more than long enough!)

  2. you should totally meet Felix Fibich, a european-born dancer in his 80s who was in the midst of the avant garde dance scene mid century, and incorporated a lot of the typical gesture of Jewish daily life from his childhood, (the hand gestures folks make while learning talmud, for instance) and the shapes of jewish letters into his choreography. he has a fascinating life story and still teaches dance at klezkamp.

    as far as your larger point, i think all culture is recursive. all creative expression uses pre-existent tools and vocabularies. the fact of huge cultural rupture (and it think the repression from the inside was/is far more insidious and long-term damaging than the oppression from the outside) just means this recursivity is more self-conscious for awhile. and, yeah, that makes some people uncomfortable, but it’s not ultimately just about looking backwards. and, from my kukvinkl (vantage point) on the margins of the yiddish world, i don’t actually see a dichotomy between the ‘clarinets’ (i.e. the musicians committed to enriching and vivafying Yiddish music) and the political radicals. some of the cultural workers lean more towards political advocacy and some less; some of the political advocates/activists lean more towards the culture and langauge side and some less, but it’s not a clean break between kitshy, backward-looking nostalgia and hip, forward-looking radicalism.

  3. Daisy – first off, it’s not stupid to cry over a cookie recipe! That anecdote made me really sad. Culture is just as much about little details as it is about big events.

    There were a lot of people at the forum – but almost all of them were seniors. I think if you ask most Jewish teens and twenty-somethings what Yiddishkeyt means, those who have even heard the term will talk about shtetls and the Holocaust. I don’t think many people know about this side of it. (Or is this just my perspective because growing up, my family wasn’t really interested in Jewish culture? I admit that I’m groping in the dark here.)

    I guess what frustrates me about the nostalgia isn’t what people are nostalgic for – I like horahs, after all! – but that it’s precisely that: nostalgia. Can we have a different relationship to where we come from? One that’s based more on doing than wishing?

    Ephraim, maybe that’s what you’re talking about when you say you don’t see a dichotomy between traditional culture and the political radicals I mentioned. Benjamin Zemach’s themes were very traditional, but very avant-garde at the same time. (And I like what you say about recursivity being “more self-conscious for a while.” That’s a good way of looking at it.)

    And I’ll check out Felix Fibich! Thanks!

  4. Oh, and Daisy, I realize I didn’t answer any of your questions – in fact, I kind of just restated them in my comment. One peculiar problem I’m having is that I’ve seen other Jews who are doing what I want to be doing (see and, but they’re all in different cities. Where are all the radical Yiddish artists in L.A.? Am I missing something here? Our Jewish population is approximately a bajillion!

    I’ve been thinking about trying to start a chapter of something here, but I’ve got another huge project on the horizon, so I’m hesitant to commit to anything else before I know how much of a time-suck that’s going to be.

  5. This post comes at an opportune time for me, and I have something I want to say. But I’m not sure how coherent it will be, so please bear with me if I appear to be flailing about.

    Perhaps all culture is recursive, but I think there is a particular tendency to do this within Jewish culture. Consider the very existence of Yiddish and Ladino. Jews flee horrific violence and oppression in Central Europe and Spain for slightly more hospitable climes, and instead of tossing aside the oppressors’ language that they took with them and adopting the language of their new host countries, they preserve their language nearly intact for centuries, such that if a prosecutor of the Inquisition were to be magically reconstituted today, he would have an easier time communicating with a Ladino speaker than with a speaker of modern Spanish (and the same would be true of someone from medieval Germany).

    Being someone who grew up culturally identified as Jewish, but secular, and being someone who is trying to raise Jewish children with a non-Jewish spouse, I clicked on some article the other week about raising Jewish children in a mixed marriage. The article pissed me off for several reasons, not least of which is that more than half of it was spent lamenting the very existence of intermarriage, which, okay, I understand it’s a sensitive topic, but how does browbeating me about something that’s a done deal help me raise Jewish children? But moving on to the part that’s germaine here. The suggestions for creating a sense of Jewish identity were things like perhaps the grandparents could tell the grandchild about keeping carp in the bathtub to make gefilte fish. Well, first of all, my son’s grandmother never did that and my grandmother never did that, though I think maybe her mother, my great-grandmother, might have, so this article, published last year, is about three generations out of date. But more importantly, is that what being Jewish is? Keeping carp in the bathtub? Will we somehow stop being Jewish if we stop carrying some romanticized, never-was version of the shtetl (or Brighton Beach, for that matter) around with us? I’m not opposed to that heritage being one aspect of our Jewish identity. I like tradition and being connected to the past. (And Daisy, I would mourn that cookie, too.) But why are we so lost when it comes to having an American Jewish identity?

    Sorry this is so long. This post kind of touched a nerve.

  6. there’s plenty of American Jewish (largely Ashkenazish) material to mine in constructing an American Jewish identity, but for any number of complicated reasons (i’m guessing it has to do with some combination of American ‘melting pot’ style assimilationism, mass media, and holocaust guilt), it’s not very appealing to people at this point in time. i know that inside the current wave of the klezmer revival (just to use that as an example) people are subtly rejecting American klezmer styles and turning to European styles that strike them aesthetically and emotionally as more authentic. this is nothing exclusive to Jews though. Irish-American musicians look to Ireland as the locus of all things authentic, even though the contemporary styles of Irish music in Ireland were highly influence by Irish-Americans in the early 20th century. it’s just part of how the immigrant experience seems to work itself in the course of generations. And it applies as much to language, food, and other kinds of expressive culture it does to music.

    Personally, my investment in or attachment to the old world culture is about maintaining meaningful, emotionally resonant alternatives to the hegemony of either top-down religiosity or cultural Zionism. In learning about what cookies you make when moving into a new place or how to butcher a carp in the bathtub (or how women would make talismans out of rope that was wound around gravestones, or any number of other practices that would probably be called ‘folklore’, but i’d rather call ‘populist Judaism’), we’re not just dallying in romantic nonsense that has no relevance to our daily lives. We’re making room for potential practices that can be thoroughly Jewish, non-Rabbinic, non-Zionist, and that aren’t as vulnerable to feeling empty, contrived, forced, or ‘made up’ like the neo-hassidic, renewal, hippie stuff that’s also supposed to be that kind of alternative.

  7. I’m with you Julie and that’s why I wrote The River Midnight. I was interested in that excitement, that danger, that vitality before nostalgia made the shtetl cutsie and innocuous. And I found it through my research. For a while the Ahskenaz festival in Toronto was a vital source of the newly reinvented music, art, literature of not only Ashkenazi Jews but also Sephardi Jews. (Then there were sectarian battles in the committee. What else is new?) However the reality of my life is something else in the present day, more diffuse and broader. My family is multicultural. So is my neighbourhood. Although I light Shabbat candles, it doesn’t have the centrality and intensity for me that it used to. I’ve changed. My spirituality has become much more personal, direct. I sometimes envy people who have a singular cultural/religious identity. I’m not one thing. That’s the fact of it for me. So what am I a part of?

  8. Hey Julie,
    If, instead of this kind of performance being something that inspires you in general and makes you then want to go off on your own radical/artistic/etc. path, this won’t be relevant…

    …but if it makes you want to delve more fannishly/obsessively into those particular folks–seeing more of them, trying to learn to dance/create/etc. like them–LA is probably a great place to try to do so.

    Swing dancers who live in LA have had the best luck exchanging footage, building up collections, having watching/practice parties at each others’ houses, etc. because they live in LA, where a lot of stuff has been recorded and a lot of people saved things after they quit trying to be in the industry, etc.

    It takes a ridiculous amount of time, meeting folks, asking to see their old recordings of stuff from some television show they VCRed in the 80’s, etc. But it can usually be done w/ better luck in LA than in other parts of America!

    My 2 cents. 🙂

  9. I just came back from a jewish tour of Poland. I’m not Ashkenazi, but for the first time I really appreciated just how rich a cultural heritage Ashkenazis have.
    In Warsaw, there is still a Yiddish theatre going strong. None of the actors, or the audience actually understand Yiddish, which is interesting, but the theatre is very popular with Polish audiences.

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