- Dancing Jewish: Jewish Identity in American Modern and Postmodern Dance by Rebecca Rossen
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“Jewishness is not a matter of essences,” Rebecca Rossen argues, “but rather a repertory of images, themes, and frames that signify ‘Jewish’” (3). With this claim, Rossen situates her new book boldly within an exciting new wave of dance scholarship that is exploring the intersections between movement and Jewish identity. Writers such as Hannah Kosstrin (2011), Dina Roginsky (2006), Janice Ross (2015), Nina Spiegel (2013), Henia Rottenberg (2004), and Hannah Schwadron (2013) are some of the predominantly female voices shaping this new discourse. They are interested in shifting the discussion away, as Rossen states it, from a traditional question of “what is Jewish dance?”—which suggests a static, fixed, universal, trans-historical response—to the question of what it means to be perceived as “dancing Jewish.” For Rossen, this move entails considering the “artistic, ideological, political, and racial implications of this term over time” (3), and recognizing that it “embraces the fluidity and complexity of Jewish identity” (2).
The importance of shifting the focus of dance studies in this arena cannot be overemphasized. For much of the twentieth century, choreographers and writers on dance such as Benjamin Zemach (1972), Fred Berk (1975), Felix Fibich, Hadassah, Naum Rosen (1934), and Pearl Lang, who related to Jewish culture, seemed intent to distill quintessential gestures, body postures, and themes that mark “Jewish dance.” Such gestures included rocking backward and forward, as if in devout prayer, stroking one’s beard like a Chassid deep in thought, or raising one’s arms up high in joyous celebration of the Sabbath. Body postures embraced asymmetry, with the upper body reaching upward, and the lower body pulling down with bent knees, toward the ground. Themes were drawn from a select number of sources: the Bible, Eastern European life in the shtetl, working the land on the kibbutzim in Palestine, or the Holocaust. These were the parameters drawn by Jewish choreographers and writers of “Jewish dance,” and they negated not only the complexity and variety of actual lived Jewish experience, but limited what could be achieved creatively by choreographers working with this material.
Rossen’s perspective provides a more richly nuanced understanding of what many older, as well as more recent, Jewish choreographers and dancers have undertaken, by recognizing their efforts as part of a broader project to affirm the “significance of dance and dancing bodies to the formation of American Jewish identity” (2). It is within a duet between the “Americanization of Jews and the Jewification of American culture” (6) that Rossen deftly traces how her subjects historically and more currently achieve (d) their significance. By recognizing “dancing Jewish” as a complex, constructed act, she is able to illustrate how inventively Jewish dancers and choreographers have used the concert stage as a “site for building multifarious identities and have attempted to dance a balance between seemingly conflicting positions—American and foreigner, insider and outsider, white and off-white, masculine and feminine, modern and traditional—achieving an impression of solidity while in constant flux” (3).
Indeed, the totality of Rossen’s book project is a beautifully crafted testament to the multilayered, interdisciplinary, consciously constructed, communally achieved nature of the topic she tackles. This is in large part because of the two other choreographed movements that accompany the written text and exist in confluence with it. One of these is a meticulously compiled companion website of video clips and photographs that accompanies the book and provides valuable visual illustrations of her written analyses of rare dance works. The other is a dance piece Rossen herself conceived and performed, titled Make Me a Jewish Dance, as she was conducting her research. This thirty-minute work was created in collaboration with postmodern choreographers Dan Froot and Victoria Marks. Rossen performed it on a variety of stages between 2000 and 2005. David Dorfman also [End Page 86] performed the piece...