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Reviewed by:
  • Seeing Israeli and Jewish Dance
  • Norman Simms
Seeing Israeli and Jewish Dance, edited by Judith Brin Ingber. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 2011. 457 pp.

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 (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, [End Page 167] 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...


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pp. 167-169
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