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Seeing Israeli and Jewish Dance, edited by Judith Brin Ingber.  Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 2011.  457 pp., b/w illustrations.  $34.95.


This book is a major resource for anyone interested in the history and development of dance in general and in particular those aspects which are actually quite problematic, such as Jewish, Palestinian, Israeli, European, and American dance, choreographers, folklore, artistic, professional, and commercial dance. There are twenty chapters, including the Introduction, with eighteen contributors, divided into seven parts. There is also a glossary, selected bibliography, a biographical list of the contributors and an index of names, places, key terms, and dances. Almost all the chapters were printed in journals before but have now been expanded by the original authors and others, with additional information, new interpretations juxtaposed to earlier views, and more historical photographs inserted. Though this makes for some repetition, the whole book is extremely rich in discussions, interviews, and documentation of various kinds. Ingber herself calls dance a kaleidoscope that is ever changing (p. 1), but the whole of this book, though much more limited than the history and aesthetics of dance, is also a kaleidoscope of perceptions of Jews dancing, Jewish dancing, and the place of dance in Jewish life at various times and in different places.

But it is also rather an unbalanced project. It is mostly about how a relatively small cohort of dancers in the first decades of the twentieth century, mostly women, deliberately set about to create a folkloric culture and identity for the Land of Israel, known until independence as Palestine; these were sometimes trained ballerinas from great artistic companies in Austria and Germany before they decided to emigrate, out of idealistic Zionist aspirations or to escape the coming Holocaust, and sometimes young sabras who trained to be gymnastic teachers and were swept up in the enthusiasm of dance as a modern, secular, nationalistic manifestation of what became the State of Israel. To a great extent, rather than modify or imitate East European peasant dances, such as the hora, popular though it was, these women and some men were deeply impressed by Yemenite traditions, as well as local Arab and occasionally other mid-eastern practices. Within little more than a generation, a whole popular and distinct Israeli folkloric repertoire was created.

But as the settlers in Israel grew into a more organized and powerful nation, changes occurred in the national character and the demography of later waves of olim, so that the modernist invention of those pioneering creators was overtaken by other developments, more intricate and complex, more commercial and staged by professional dancers, and more open to American and globalized styles and tastes. Ironically, then, some of the same pioneering choreographers or their students went to America, mostly California and New York, where they used Israeli dance as a way of allowing non-migrating Zionists to bond with the idea of Israel, and either merging with or at least being juxtaposed to a focus on the Shoah as a Jewish identity that was usually unaffiliated to mainstream Jewish traditions.

At the same time, especially after the 1967 War, many Jews abroad and in Israel began to adapt what they conceived to be East European dance motifs, often extrapolated and idealized from Hasidic customs. Chapters in this book offer tantalizing essays on the difference between historical Hasidic practices, including a fascinating account of women’s dances ancillary or even parallel to the more well-known men’s customs, and on the way in which American leftwing groups in the middle of the last century sentimentalized, spiritualized and universalized an unreal version of shtetl and ghetto experiences—as some liberal Americans were doing to the Holocaust itself—into an art-dance vocabulary of superficial associations with Jewishness.

Little is said about Jewish dance outside of the American and Israeli zones of influence. One chapter treats ancient biblical and liturgical dances associated with the Temple and pilgrimage festivals, and another looks at Jewish dancing masters in sixteenth and seventeenth century Italy. Questions on basic definitions of art and law, folklore and nationality, essential Jewishness and historical influence—the ancient Hebraic culture and the Galut, the Holocaust and Nazi war on Jewish culture, the State of Israel in relation to the remaining Diaspora, survivors and sabras, high art versus low—appear in many places, then occasionally are dealt with at some length by one author or another, on how Jews and Judaism have traditionally valued and performed movements of the body, the choreography of space and time, and the relationship of dance to religious practices and national identity. Aside from a chapter on Kurdish-Jewish dance, the entire range of Sephardic, Mizrakhi, Indian, and Arab-Jewish culture is virtually unaccounted for. In addition, though some of the great artists of European ballet, opera, and theatre are mentioned when they became teachers and performers of folkdance in Israel or the United States, the role of Jewish composers, choreographers, impresarios, critics, and scholars of dance remains unexplored. Jews were, after all, also influential set designers, costume makers, and architects who designed the theatres where some of the greatest performances took place. Thus, while there are many photographs to meditate on while reading this book, most of the texts are voices from inside the world of dance itself, and inside the minds and hearts of the women and men who created Israeli folklore and recreated new attitudes towards dance in Europe, America, and the Land of Israel.

Be that as it may, let us accept the limited scope of this book and praise it for its depth of feeling, its detailed analysis of the historical phenomena it deals with, its close attention to the words of performers and organizers of festivals in Israel. Some of the essays are repetitive and a few wallow in the sludge of post-modernist jargon and sociological conceptualizing; more often than not, however, the language is clear and emotive, the thinking straightforward and commonsensical, and the descriptions pertinent to the photographs of individuals and groups of dancers.

Wonderful insights emerge from the informal conversations and formal interviews. Felix Fibich, for example, says in a discussion with Judith Brin Ingber:

Later, when I started this [I realized that] when we are dancing, our movements are not round. Our movements are . . . like the Shin . . . the Hebrew block letters . . . those broken and angular lines. . . . All these things, all these are Hebraic in style which nobody realizes, that these are the images. (p. 51)

In another chapter, Janice Ross points out, “The specific gesture and dance vocabulary [Leonid] Jacobson created is drawn stylistically from shtetl mannerisms and gestures blended with folk and classical dance steps” (p. 63). Though some dancers and groups seek originality and are eclectic, others are more concerned with the “authenticity” of tradition, while still others seek fusion and dialectical tensions in their performances. Contradictions are inherent in the Jewish approach to art. As Nina S. Speigel puts it:

Although on one level Western Europe was esteemed as representing dominant high culture, it was at the same time denigrated as representing a passive, degenerating Jewish life in the galut. Similarly, although the Middle East was looked down upon for representing low culture, it was simultaneously looked up to as representing the strong origins of the biblical past as well as of the present new Hebrew, with the new life on the land (p. 73).

Norman Simms

University of Waikato