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  • Converging Movements: Modern Dance and Jewish Culture at the 92nd Street Y
  • Naima Prevots
Converging Movements: Modern Dance and Jewish Culture at the 92nd Street Y. By Naomi M. Jackson. Hanover and London: University Press of New England, 2000. xii + 288 pp.

This important and well-documented book provides valuable insights into American Jewish life in New York from the 1930s through the 1960s. Jackson shows how a major institution, the 92nd Street YMHA, made it possible to grow up in the city and have a strong Jewish identity, achieved not through religion or synagogue affiliation, but by "the cultivation of the individual within an American democracy" (p. 21). One of the major goals of the YMHA was to support creative expression and the search for knowledge, and this included Jewish and non-Jewish themes and artists. As a result, the Y played a major role in the cultural life of New York, and reinforced the idea of being Jewish in a secular framework. Jackson's analysis focuses on the broad development of contemporary dance at the Y and how this reflected the institution's philosophy.

The Young Men's Hebrew Association at 92nd Street is the largest and oldest YM-YWHA in the United States, founded in 1874 at another location, on West 21st Street, by well established German Jews. In 1900, the philanthropist Jacob Schiff donated the real estate for the current building. Jackson notes that the distinguished rabbi Mordecai Kaplan played a significant role in shaping the Y's approach to Judaism. He was elected to the board of directors in 1913, and became chairman of its Committee on Religious Activities. Even after his resignation in 1919, he continued to remain active, giving speeches and participating in decision making. Kaplan saw the Y as a non-synagogal institution which would meet the spiritual, physical, educational, and social needs of the Jewish community, insuring survival and growth.

The story Jackson tells begins in 1930, when the original building at 92nd Street was replaced by a grand structure, housing a modern gymnasium, pool, classrooms, dormitory, and the elegant Theresa L. Kaufman Auditorium. At that time Jewish programming was placed under the jurisdiction of the Religious Department, and the Educational Department was charged with developing general programs unrelated to Jewish themes or issues. William Kolodney was hired in 1934 to head this department, and was to become a driving force at the Y until his retirement in 1969.

Kolodney's background is key to the philosophical grounding of the institution and the programming directions he developed. He received a diploma in 1918 from the Teacher's Institute of the Jewish Theological [End Page 156] Seminary, and credited its dean, Mordecai Kaplan, with shaping his ideas on Jewish life and expression. His graduate work at Columbia from 1922-1925, which culminated in the completion of his Ed.D in 1950, put him in closer contact with the ideas of John Dewey. Kolodney was heavily influenced by Dewey's conception about educating the whole person, in order to allow for optimum individual development and personal growth, which in turn would improve democratic life.

Kolodney conceived of educational programs at the 92nd Street Y as encompassing a host of activities: lectures, classes, and cultural events. His wanted these basic recreational components for members and nonmembers of the Y to cover not only Jewish themes and artists but any ideas and work important in contemporary life. It was through Kolodney's imaginative, daring, and broad ranging programs that the 92nd Street Y became an intellectual and artistic center for many New Yorkers, and an important haven for the exploration of Jewish identity that was not tied to religion or any particular dogma.

Jackson's primary focus in terms of cultural activity is on Kolodney's support and development of contemporary dance. Even before he was hired, as early as 1930, the Y had supported dance. Benjamin Zemach, whose work emphasized Jewish themes, was brought in to teach and to perform, and he was followed by Matilde Naaman, who taught through 1934. But it was Kolodney who made the Y one of the most important dance centers in the U. S.

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