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Modern Dance and American Jewish Identity

Diana Scott
August 9, 2015

Shaping Assimilation & the Reinvention of Jewishness

by Diana Scott

From the Summer 2015 issue of Jewish Currents

Discussed in this essay: Dancing Jewish: Jewish Identity in American Modern and Postmodern Dance, by Rebecca Rossen. Oxford University Press, 2014, 336 pages.

KonerWHEN MIDDLE-CLASS American Jewish children of my boomer generation made demands considered excessive by our elders, we were at times reprimanded: “Just who do you think you are?!” This question, minus put-down intonation, has been taken literally by 1990s post-modern scholars of ethnic, gender, feminist, and performance studies, and underlies Rebecca Rossen’s engaging, embodied, interdisciplinary study, Dancing Jewish.

Rossen notes that dance has been largely sidelined in American Jewish cultural studies. As a dance historian, critic, and choreographer, she clearly enjoyed the “embodied research” that took her back and forth among archival papers, film clips, oral histories, and interviews to produce both the book and a collaborative, choreographed piece “danced Jewishly.” She describes and annotates, with relish and care, selected Jewish-themed dances by Jewish choreographers (some early character pieces, some classic modern dances, some less-known postmodern works), decoding markers of Jewishness and analyzing how they have evoked, transmitted, and modified ethnic and gender identity from the 1920s to the present. This is clearly a labor of love and sweat, dynamic balancing, and discovery.

Its accessibility is another matter: Having managed for years to avoid postmodern, poststructuralist, cultural-theory discourse (as elaborated in her Introduction), I found some of Rossen’s assumptions and terms vague and esoteric, even frustrating. Contemporary cultural theory underlies her approach: that Jewishness is a social construction that shifts according to time and place, and that ‘authentic’ Jewish heritage is at least in part an invention, composed of a limited range of images, practices, and ideas. She sets out to demonstrate how modern dance reflects and has shaped transitions in American Jewish identity, and why it deserves a more prominent place in cultural scholarship, postmodern and otherwise.

ROSSEN LEAPS over the impossible question posed by researchers since the 1970s, “What is Jewish dance?” (its noun-essence) by focusing on the verb, “dancing Jewish,” the how, what, and why of it: “How have American Jewish choreographers per- formed Jewish content, and how have their dances both reflected and shaped changing Jewish identity from the 1920s to the present day?” Her sampling delves into artists’ family background, dance training, and some of the historical context surrounding their works, as well as critics’ responses.

There’s a wealth of rewarding reading here for dancing feminists, fans of performance art and Jewish standup comedy, and aficionados of Jewish history, film, and theater. Rossen describes dozens of dances: some heroic, some recalling lost community, some surreal family scenes, some responding to stony silence about Israel-Palestine. Others embrace Jewish identity, collective and individual, with grotesque exaggeration, or covertly, or with a comic twist. Excerpts from many can be viewed on the Oxford University Press companion website (the book provides access to the site with a password), which offers an exciting visual complement and reality check on Rossen’s observations.

THEORY ASIDE, delights begin with an indelibly beautiful, gender-ambiguous cover photo [at the top of the article] of Pauline Koner (1912-2001) in “Chassidic Song and Dance,” performed at New York’s Town Hall in 1932. Koner’s Orthodox Jewish cross-dresser motif showed up repeatedly on early 20th-century American and European Jewish stages and screens, with Molly Picon its most iconic representative.

Rossen reconstructs Koner’s playful performance from a few archival photos, program notes, and reviews. She does likewise with two similar performances that dropped out of the modern dance record: Dvorah Lapson’s in “Beth Midrash” (“House of Study,” from the 1930s), and Hadassah’s (Spira Epstein’s) in “Shuvi Nafshi” (“Return, O My Soul,” 1947). These pieces were deemed too ethnically Jewish to merit critical notice.

All three of these dancers, Rossen observes, revamped ethnic stereotypes and gender roles. Koner possibly strengthened an early, regressive stereotype of the feminized Jewish man, but undermined another, the “exotic Jewess,” while

Lapson and Hadassah offered more complex versions of Jewishness that situated the Jewish woman as a cultural and artistic producer and disputed the need to distinguish Jewish dance from modern dance, and Jewish traditions from modern American life.

anna-sokolowChoreographers Anna Sokolow (1910-2000) [shown at left in “Slaughter of the Innocents,” a dance inspired by the Spanish Civil War] and Pearl Lang (1921- 2009) were members of Martha Graham’s company before forming their own (although Lang remained a guest soloist with Graham for nearly two decades after establishing her troupe in 1952). Each presented dances portraying heroic Biblical women. Sokolow’s “Songs of a Semite,” her first major Jewish work, expressing leftwing concerns and incorporating Graham technique (performed at New York’s 92nd Street Y in December, 1943, only months after news of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising reached the world), portrayed a series of Biblical matriarchs, with voice-over poetry and Biblical text. “[D]epicting Jewish women as survivors and heroines, alternately reinforcing and upsetting traditional gender roles,” writes Rossen, the dance received lukewarm praise, and no visual recordings exist.

Lang’s “Song of Deborah,” on the other hand, premiering as a duet at Julliard Concert Hall in November 1949, less than a year after the establishment of Israel, was remounted more than once. Strongly influenced by Martha Graham’s introspective, mythical solos, Lang danced her own American-inflected, Zionist-oriented Jewishness, modernizing religious traditions and gender roles with her “astonishing technique,” writes Rossen, “... all clean lines, stark angles, and sheer force.”

Liz LermanROSSEN ASSERTS postmodernism’s place alongside “high” modernism by juxtaposing photo-illustrated analyses of iconic Jewish modern choreographers with the edgy monologues that Jewish postmodernists Liz Lerman [shown at left, leftmost dancer] and Victoria Marks use to engage audiences. Lerman, for example, has “embodied” Israel-Palestine by literally mapping geo-historical landmarks on her torso in “Fifty Modest Reflections on Turning Fifty” for her and Israel’s big birthday in 1998 (at Arizona State University auditorium). Following her surprised discovery, at 49, that Palestinians also consider Abraham a patriarch, Lerman “does not simply acknowledge the parity between Arabs and Jews” in her piece but “insists that we recognize aspects of Zionist history that we might rather overlook,” writes Rossen. “Pointing to her forehead, she locates Haifa. Using her hands to draw a line from her feet up past her head, she represents the sprawl of resorts in Eilat.” Lerman sinks into a hip, Gaza Strip; her arm-pit, Tel Aviv; the vulnerable underside of her neck arched back, the West Bank. Fingers on her chest trace sites where Abraham entered Canaan and Jesus was born. Her heart, as Jerusalem, is “a trite and problematic metaphor,” says Rossen, “but one that she nonetheless embraces, ‘Because [says Lerman] no one gets to 50 without a broken heart.’”

Lerman’s piece differs dramatically from the classic, Jewish-themed modern dances that won popular and critical acclaim after the Holocaust, when Sophie Maslow’s “The Village I Knew” took the spotlight at the American Dance Festival (1950). Also a Graham dancer, Maslow emphasized human experience over her leftist politics in dances that epitomize the reconciliation of American and Jewish identities. The Americana-themed “Dust Bowl Ballads” (1941) was a solo set to Woody Guthrie songs, and “Folksay” (1942), which added Carl Sandberg lines to Guthrie songs, “wrote Jews into the annals of American history while expanding what ‘American’ might look like,” according to Rossen. Then came “The Village I Knew” (1950), based on stories by Sholem Aleichem, whose optimistic view of life, despite hardships and pogroms, inspired Maslow. Brighter yet darker than “Folksay,” it helped many Jewish Americans connect deeply to their recently destroyed Eastern European roots. (A trio section from “Village,” set to the haunting, wordless melody of a song I’ve sung in a Yiddish chorus, “May Ko Mashma Lon” — Aramaic for “What does it mean?” — was especially moving to me as it evoked a yeshiva boy, ill-clothed, hungry, and dependent on strangers.Unfortunately, music isn’t identified on Rossen’s companion website; ideally, it should be, especially pieces from the Jewish music canon.)

From 1952-70, Maslow also choreographed Israel Bond Chanukah Festival fundraisers at Madison Square Garden; I learned about these celebrity-studded events for the first time from Rossen’s book.

Tamaris NagrinHELEN TAMIRIS [at left, with Daniel Nagrin] (1905-1966), a left-wing Henry Street Settlement House alumna with her own dance company, spearheaded the WPA Federal Dance Project, choreographed successful Americana musicals on Broadway in the 1940s (including Showboat and Annie Get Your Gun). Yet her story doesn’t jibe with the mainstream Jewish history narrative that links rapid “assimilation” and American success. In “Memoir,” Tamiris’s “first and only dance foregrounding Jewishness” (1959, American Dance Festival), she turned the clock back from her leftist concerns about civil rights (“Negro Spirituals,” 1928, and “How Long Brethren,” 1937) and danced a nightmarish evocation of her Lower East Side childhood. “[U]nlike her predecessors,” says Rossen, “she created an ambiguous dance in which she presented American and Jewish spheres that were completely separate and did not offer a solution for bringing them together.”

Tamiris’ central female figure was a “wandering Jew,” which “could describe the artist/outsider,” writes Rossen, “who felt doubly alienated — disenfranchised from his or her own Jewish background... [and] from the mainstream, middle-class America.” More specifically, like Maslow, Tamiris had just experienced first-hand the destruction of the left — very disproportionately a Jewish left — under McCarthyism. (Rossen quotes dance critic Margaret Lloyd in 1949: “There are no reds in modern dance... left wings are... tucked out of sight.”) Exit internationalism.

A CHAPTER “The Jewish Man and his Dancing Shtick” links together the pre-modern Jewish character dancing of Benjamin Zemach (1902-1997), work by David Gordon/PickUp Company in the 1970s and ’80s, and work since then by performance artists Dan Froot and David Dorfman, of comic shtik fame (“Job,” 1990-1996). Both Froot and Dorfman played a role in Rossen’s own choreographic project, “Make Me a Jewish Dance” (2000-2005), which she describes in refreshing, short vignettes at the beginning, middle, and end of the book (and which is included in video clips at the website).

In “Farewell to Queen Sabbath” (1931), a legacy of Zemach’s east European outlook and training, he portrayed a khasid, championing “Jewish dance” (Zemach’s term) by exaggerating, with powerful, at times grotesque movement and makeup (“Jewface”), specifically Jewish characteristics. Zemach’s performance philosophy went against the prevailing American grain in order to invoke “a human intent beyond the given character,” yet was well-received. He explicitly embraced cultural pluralism rather than assimilated Americanism, and his Russian-derived style (“fantastical realism”), he said, “is and always will be, ancient and modern at the same time. Just as the modern dance goes back to the primitive for its fundamentals...”

At the opposite extreme, in “My Folks” and “The Family Business” (1985-94), David Gordon “addressed Jewish themes with a combination of ambivalence and wit, utilizing abstraction and repetition to flirt with and deny signification,” says Rossen. Refusing to have his work pegged as Jewish, Gordon, who subsequently collaborated on Robert Brustein’s 1994 adaptation of I. B. Singer’s “Shlemiel the First,” stated emphatically: “I wouldn’t, no, I would not call it a ‘Jewish play.’ I would call it a furiously paced postmodern farce with contagious hand-clapping, foot-tapping klezmer music by Hankus Netsky and Zalmen Mlotek, conceived and adapt- ed by renowned Robert Brustein, from a play by renowned Isaac Bashevis Singer, with the sweetest love-song lyrics and the most hilarious patter-song lyrics by renowned Arnold Weinstein, choreographed, directed, and edited very sincerely by David Gordon.”

Some people also claimed that Jerry Seinfeld’s comedic style was not about Jewishness, reports Rossen, resting her case. Rejecting the classification of one’s art as Jewish, however, is not necessarily equivalent to suppressing Jewish identity.

On the other hand, redefining Jewishness may require reclaiming it.

WHAT ROSSEN HAS SHOWN is a far-from-obvious connecting thread of American Jewish “assimilation” (that is, changing Jewish identity) that runs through the choreography of Jewish dancers, most of them women: from “khasids in drag,” as women choreographers appropriated the iconic male Jewish role around the time that the first khalutzim, including young, liberated women, were settling in British Mandate Palestine; to the embrace of American folk images in the Depression and New Deal years, when America championed democracy against European fascism; to nostalgia in the late 1940s and the ’50s for the lost Ashkenazic worlds of eastern Europe and Yiddish-speaking immigrant American neighborhoods; to the more recent, critical upending of those definitions of Jewishness linked to suburban affluence and unconditional support of Israel. Jewish-themed dances themselves were mostly responses, Rossen notes, to events affecting the Jewish people specifically; how this was communicated and reconciled with American identity, she argues, is the measure of assimilation.

What’s missing from these fluctuating images of Jewishness in American dance is a more prominent place for the radical political dance of the 1920s and ’30s — dance that was implicitly Jewish in its vision of creating a better world — and for other implicitly Jewish work like the healing dances of early postmodernist Anna Halprin. Lillian ShaperoSophie Maslow, Helen Tamiris, and Anna Sokolow all had roots in left-wing modern dance, and while it is well-documented in a study that Rossen mentions, Ellen Graph’s Stepping Left, it deserves fuller exploration here. (Rossen does, after all, discuss ‘implicit’ Jewish themes in Margaret Jenkins’s Breathe Normally [1999].) The strong choreography of other Jewish modern-dance radicals who were Graham dancers, including Edith Segal and Lillian Shapero [shown at left, ca 1936], has also fallen out of mainstream modern dance history.

Another flaw in Rossen’s deeply insightful survey is her absence of attention to Yiddish songs and literature — as in Maurice Schwartz’s Yiddish Art Theater and the Artef (Shapero and Segal choreographed for both) — and to the rhythms of the mameloshn itself, not as a source of shtik but as a source of Ashkenazic Jewish cultural transmission. The decline of the language and its literature was the first, most critical step in Jewish assimilation. Its absence in this study of modern dance parallels its absence in much of mainstream Jewish historiography.

Perhaps scholarly analysis and dance are severely at odds — and not only in the effort of applying a “Jewish lens” of analysis to dance. Certainly, there are enlightening and compelling dances that include the spoken word on a range of Jewish subjects: Liz Lerman, for example, included as part of “Fifty Modest Reflections” discussions with her audience about Israel and their own Jewish identities. But movement itself retreats in this style of performance. Pearl Lang, a maker of striking Jewish-themed dances, complained to Rossen about the pedestrian work she felt post-modern choreographers were creating, full of walks, rolls, gymnastic tricks, petulant stares, and talk. “If you’re angry,” asserted Lang, “don’t just stand there and stare! Don’t tell us you’re angry, dance the anger!”

Are we losing movement itself — the expressive, non-verbal “signifier” that communicates directly, empathetically, free of overlaid narrative — in today’s dances? Is the dance space, like the public space, simply unable to stave off the tsunami of words that academic study and electronic social connectivity has created? Rossen, for one, resists the undertow by weaving together academic scholarship and “embodied research”: dancing what she’s learned, while writing about it! Her impressive book changes what I’ll look for, see, and think about, when I’m watching (Jewish) dancing.

Diana Scott, who lives and writes in San Francisco, last appeared here with a review of Tony Michels’ Jewish Radicals. Post-college study at the New Dance Group (1974) earned her a short-course certificate in teaching methods, signed by Sophie Maslow.