- Embodying Hebrew Culture: Aesthetics, Athletics, and Dance in the Jewish Community of Mandate Palestine by Nina S. Spiegel
The 1990s saw a trickle of academic research dealing with the history of Israeli culture that turned into a flood. Among the works written at the time was a PhD dissertation by Nina S. Spiegel, “Jewish Cultural Celebrations and Competitions in Mandatory Palestine 1920–1947: Body, Beauty, and the Search for Authenticity,” submitted to Stanford University in 2001. This original work explored several public events: a beauty contest held annually between 1926 and 1929; the first Maccabiah Games (“the Jewish Olympics”) of 1932; a dance competition held in 1937; and a folk dance festival that took place in 1944 and again in 1947. All the events discussed there were extensively covered by contemporary media and provoked vocal controversies. By weaving many of the available sources — both textual and visual — into a highly readable story, complete with clarifications that are undoubtedly useful to many non-Israeli readers, the author brought the events to life and skillfully portrayed the prevailing views regarding the ideological conflicts they aroused. By the imaginative juxtaposition of those diverse case studies, and by placing them in a wider perspective, both historically and theoretically, the young American scholar provided refreshing observations of some vital components of the evolving preIsraeli culture and offered interesting insights into its bodily, physical aspects. As it uses the prisms of gender and culture studies, [End Page 165] dance and sports history, the research is a fine example of the strength of Israel Studies as a multidisciplinary approach.
Other than in the title, that became more ambitious in scope, and in the addition of a concluding chapter, Dr. Spiegel’s book, published in 2013, is in essence nearly identical to her dissertation. Some of the numerous relevant studies published after the year 2000 are mentioned in the updated bibliography, but very few were usefully employed, and the author is at times dismissive of current historiography. She states, for example, that “although a few aspects of some of these events have been previously examined, they have been investigated either individually or in brief and thus have remained peripheral to the history of the era. None have been integrated into the broader history of the Yishuv or placed within the context of the building of an embodied national public culture” (Note 18 to the Introduction).
In this reviewer’s opinion, the book at hand comes no closer than many previous attempts to integrate elements of pre-Israeli culture into a broader history. The events discussed here, important as they were, represent only segments of the diverse cultural activities of the Jews in British-held Palestine. Many cultural fields, such as music, literature and theater, are mentioned here only briefly. The chosen case studies — well researched as they are — cannot depict the whole picture. Yet, paying little regard to the non-physical aspects she did not examine closely, the author comes to some far-reaching conclusions, for example that “the culture was intentionally and distinctively physical” (p. 1). By trying to expand her observations and discoveries into grander generalizations, the author at times draws near Manichaean distinctions, with sharp dichotomies between East and West, old and new, socialist and bourgeois, and secular or religious. The reality was, and still is, far more complex.
The author is aware of the problem, but deals with it mainly through disclaimers such as: “Although I am dealing with the concept of socialist Zionism here as a unified whole, I want to clarify that there were different competing strains within this broad grouping” (note 14 to the introduction). And also: “Although I refer to these sectors [religious and secular] as a whole, they were varied and complex” (note 58 to the introduction). Shielded by such waivers, the author allowed herself to make gross generalizations (“the Yishuv aimed,” p. 131) that are not always fully supported by her case studies or by other evidence.
The concluding chapter of the book, titled “The...