- Embodying Hebrew Culture: Aesthetics, Athletics, and Dance in the Jewish Community of Mandate Palestine by Nina S. Spiegel, and: Seeing Israeli and Jewish Dance ed. by Judith Brin Ingber
by Nina S. Spiegel. 2013. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press. xii + 257 pp., 47 illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. $39.95 cloth, $31.99 e-book.
edited by Judith Brin Ingber. 2011. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press. xii + 458 pp., 182 illustrations, 2 tables, notes, glossary, bibliography, notes on contributors, index. $34.95 cloth.
In Dani Rosenberg’s 2008 film Bet Avi (Homeland), two men’s distinct ways of embodying Jewishness at a desert outpost during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War/Israeli War for Independence define the early–mid-twentieth century cultivated physical differences between Jews in the Yishuv (ancestral Land of Israel in Palestine) and in the Diaspora. One, the Commander, a Hebrew soldier, is shirtless, sun-kissed, and tough. The other, Lolek, a Holocaust escapee who stumbles upon this outpost while searching for his wife’s family, is pale, physically and emotionally weak, and out of place in the desert in his button-down shirt and slacks. These men represent the ideologies associated with the divergent physiques of the effeminized Jewish European man versus the tough, masculine New Jew of Hebrew-Israeli creation. The camera’s glimpse of the number tattooed on the Commander’s arm shows that he, like [End Page 111] Lolek, is a Holocaust survivor who ostensibly arrived in the Yishuv pale and speaking Yiddish instead of Hebrew. The soldier tells Lolek that no one will know where he is from once he learns Hebrew and gets into top physical shape. This scene shows how the Yishuv transformed pale galut men (Diaspora; here, Eastern European) into suntanned, masculine New Jews ready to leave behind the anti-Semitism, pain of persecution, and weaknesses associated with the European Diaspora.
Two recent publications in the growing literature of Jewish dance studies address this contrast and other ways in which Jewishness is marked upon and performed through the body within the geographical and political boundaries of Israel and the Jewish Diaspora. In her monograph, Embodying Hebrew Culture: Aesthetics, Athletics, and Dance in the Jewish Community of Mandate Palestine, Nina S. Spiegel argues that physical culture and dance defined Hebrew identity and built Hebrew nationalism in British Mandate Palestine (1917–1948).1 Judith Brin Ingber also engages Jewish identity in her anthology Seeing Israeli and Jewish Dance, in which she brings together eighteen essays that focus on Jewish dance, identity, and culture across countries and centuries.2
Rosenberg’s film introduces a common conception of Europe as the Diasporic half of a binary between Israel and the Jewish Diaspora. The Spiegel and Ingber books add nuance to this discussion by attending to the complexities of myriad Jewish regions in and outside Israel. Spiegel focuses on Jewish nationalism as part of Yishuv traditions, addressing the struggles between East and West among Jews of Ashkenazic (European), Sephardic (Spanish/Mediterranean), and Mizrahi (Middle Eastern) descent displayed through dance and physical culture events. In doing so, she challenges a teleological narrative of building Israeli nationalism via components of imagined community (see Anderson 1983). Ingber’s anthology includes dance from many traditions in and outside the geographical region of Israel. The essays address how folk and theatrical dance in Israel and the Diaspora manifest Jewishness, as well as ethnic and racial difference among Jews. Spiegel and Ingber follow Jewish studies literature that argues for embodied ways of being Jewish and the centrality of physicality to Jewish Diasporic and Israeli culture (see, among others, Eilberg-Schwartz 1992; Moore and Troen 2001). At the same time, they build on dance studies literature that investigates Jewish and Israeli choreography while highlighting how these themes play out in social, traditional, and theatrical dance (Galili 2012; Graff 1997; Jackson 2000; Ross 2007).
In Embodying Hebrew Culture, Spiegel organizes her historiographic study around four sets of events that defined Hebrew physicality through what she calls “the development of a national public culture”: Purim beauty pageants from 1926–1929...