Dance in Yiddish | The Jewish standard


The last time Dr Sonia Gollance saw her great-great-uncle, who had raised her grandmother and was like a great-grandfather to her, he said to her: Learn Yiddish.

She was 14 and wanted to learn 20 languages ​​growing up.

His linguistic ambitions then narrowed. But she took her charge seriously; first studied German in high school because it was the closest language to Yiddish she could find in the curriculum at Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan; then studied Yiddish at the National Yiddish Book Center and at the University of Chicago.

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At the University of Chicago, she obtained a grant of $ 2,000 to produce Yiddish cultural programming. She invited Steven Weintraub, a Yiddish choreographer and dance performer, to campus to host a dance workshop with a local klezmer group.

“I have danced my whole life, starting with ballet when I was about 2 years old, so the idea of ​​learning Yiddish folk dance made a lot of sense to me,” she said.

After college, a Fulbright scholarship took her to Germany, where she studied how Yiddish is taught in a Germanic language context. (A key finding: “The focus was on older 18th-century German written texts, while in the United States the focus is more on 19th and 20th-century literature.”) She then went on to say obtained a doctorate. at the University of Pennsylvania. While pursuing her studies, she also continued her involvement in Yiddish dance.

“In graduate school, it became more apparent to me that dancing wasn’t just something I did as a hobby,” she said. “It helped me learn more about the culture of performance.”

She discovered that reading accounts of social dancing in Yiddish and German literature by and about Jews was a way to understand the changes that were taking place in Jewish society “between the Enlightenment and the Holocaust, 1780-1939.”

“There have been a lot of changes during this period: urbanization, changing ideas about the roles of women, changes in the way people approach courtship and marriage.

Dr Sonia Gollance

“They were moving from a traditional environment, where men and women often lived separate lives, to a situation where men and women studied together at universities, went to cafes together, attended salons together.

“And the most popular of these activities, whether by members of the economic and cultural elite or by those who live in the countryside, was dancing.”

While originally she had thought about researching changes in courtship, her final thesis was on dance. His book based on this research, “It could Lead to Dancing: Mixed-Sex Dancing and Jewish Modernity,” has just been published by Stanford University Press. (You can hear him talk about it next Sunday in a Zoom talk sponsored by Congregation Rinat Yisrael in Teaneck; see sidebar for more details.)

The most famous mixed dance scene in Jewish culture is that between Perchik and Hodel in the musical “Fiddler on the Roof”. But it was “a Broadway innovation,” said Dr. Gollance. In the stories of Tevye the Dairyman by Sholom Aleichem, on which the musical was based, “there is no dancing”. The scene was invented by choreographer Jerome Robbins when he realized that a fast dance could tell the story of Perchik’s radicalism better than a four-minute song written for it. The song was cut.

Weddings were just one of the places where dancing took place. In his book, Dr Gollance devotes separate chapters to taverns, ballrooms, weddings and dance halls.

“Jews from Central and Eastern Europe were often involved in running taverns,” she said. “There was dancing going on there. Even if the Jews did not participate in the dancing, you have Jewish innkeepers trying to raise children when literally in their house there are people getting drunk and partying. These children could have more contact with their non-Jewish Polish peasant neighbors than with any Jewish community. The texts on the tavern dance show a great deal of concern for Jewish education and for the children growing up in these rural communities.

Literary representations of balls, on the other hand, reflect the concerns of and about an upwardly mobile elite.

“Urban Jews attended balls that were largely non-Jewish and held their own balls, and rehearsed some of the same kinds of social exclusion that they might have encountered at non-Jewish balls,” Dr. Gollance. “These exclusionary questions were often about class, wearing the finest clothes and finding the best possible marriage partner. These were places where all kinds of activities could be done, with the assumption that everyone who was there belonged there because they reached a high enough standard.

“Weddings are a very common site where writers think about dancing. Not only do you bring the couple together on either side of the family, but it is also the primary place where religious authorities are likely to come into contact with transgressive dance. When mixed dance occurs at weddings, it is often closed very quickly. It is a place where a lot of tension arises over the role of community leaders, and this leads to intergenerational conflicts. At weddings you have people of different generations and people from the cities coming home and showing what they have learned in the city.

Sholom Aleichem’s depictions of Russian Jewish life are often seen as a prototype of Yiddish literature. But as a result of the massive migration of millions of Eastern European Jews to America from 1881, New York City became one of the greatest centers of Jewish life in the world, and Yiddish writers such as Joseph Opatoshu, who immigrated from Poland when he was 21, recounted the lives of his Jews.

And young New York Jews could also be found in dance halls.

“The chapter on dance halls deals with issues related to immigration and Americanization and how the new courtship standards relate to American capitalism,” said Dr. Gollance. “In the dance halls, the men often did what is called ‘treating’ the women – they bought things for their dance partners. This was something quite useful for women, as they often earned much less than these men. These dancers were new immigrants, who could have come without a family support network.

“If a man offers something to a woman, the question often arises as to whether she is supposed to repay it somehow. Is he treating her just so they can have a good time? Or is there a link between dancing and prostitution? Social reformers were very concerned about this, ”she continued.

Because Dr. Gollance’s work explores representations of Jewish life in German and Yiddish literature, it highlights the difference between these two sources of information.

German texts were written earlier, usually in the 19th century, reflecting the early acculturation of German Jews, she said. “Most of the Yiddish texts I write about date from the late 19th century to the early and mid-20th century. Many of them were written in the United States, even though they described life in Europe.

“Some of the forms of transgression that are shown on the dance floor are different. There is a little more emphasis on Jews and Christians dancing with each other in the German texts.

On the other hand, “in Yiddish texts, the class comes back a lot,” she says.

For his next Zoom lecture, Dr Gollance promises some “funny literary examples” by speaking of the “taboo of mixed dance and its connection to discussions and debates about Jewish modernity and how communities grappled with changes ”.

Who: Dr Sonia Gollance, author of “It Could Lead to Dance: Mixed Dance and Jewish Modernity”.

What: Conference, “Mixed dance and Jewish modernity”

When: Sunday July 11 8 p.m.

Or: Zoom Appeal sponsored by the Rinat Yisrael Congregation of Teaneck. Details on


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