Jewish Dance in America

Modern and postmodern concepts of individualism and female expression have challenged traditional Judaism--while creating new dance traditions.

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During the 1930s, several Americans focused on Jewish dance, especially as a result of their training at the Neighborhood Playhouse, part of the Henry Street Settlement House on New York’s Lower East Side, under the direction of the Jewish dance teacher Blanche Talmud. Lillian Shapero, for example, was born on the Lower East Side, and after studying at the Playhouse, danced for Martha Graham’s company from 1929-35. In 1933, she choreographed the dances for Maurice Schwartz's production of Yoshe Kalb and thereafter was associated with both the Yiddish Art Theatre and the Artef (Workers Theater Group).

Dvora Lapson, another New Yorker who performed and wrote about Jewish dance in the 1930s, clearly framed her use of biblical, hasidic, and Palestinian source materials in terms of the "return of the Jew to Palestine." Lapson worked closely with the Jewish Education Committee in New York, and later advised Jerome Robbins on Jewish dance when he choreographed Fiddler on the Roof (1964).

From the 1950s onward, several dancers such as Felix Fibich and his wife Judith Berg further maintained Eastern European dance tradition through their extensive involvement with Yiddish theatre and codification of characteristic Jewish gestures.

Post-War Developments: Jewish Folk Dancing and Fred Berk

After Israeli independence in 1948, newly crafted folk dances were transported to America largely through the efforts of Fred Berk, a professional modern dancer from Vienna who arrived in the United States in 1942.

While Berk's early theatrical dances drew more on hasidic and biblical material, other pieces increasingly referred to contemporary Israeli life and culture. In a 1949 performance at the 92nd Street YMHA in New York, the evening concluded with a piece called Songs Come To Life in three sections: "Pioneers," "How Beautiful Are the Nights," and "Hora." The program note stated, "Israeli folksongs throb with a new life and rhythm, which derive from the utterly novel experience of a people rehabilitating itself in its historic homeland."

jewish danceBeginning in 1950 Berk's focus shifted from creating theatrical works on Jewish themes to disseminating folk dances created in Israel or by Israelis. He organized and led classes, festivals, companies, and summer camps. Along with the early efforts of influential Israeli choreographers who moved to the United States, like Danny Uziel, Moshe Eskayo, and Dani Dassa, these efforts were extremely popular and successful in spreading the practice of Israeli folk dancing across the United States.

Jewish Dance by Modern and Postmodern Choreographers

As the horrors of WWII became evident, important dancers who had previously stood aloof from their Jewish identity began to consciously create dances based on Jewish themes. In the modern dance world this was particularly the case with Anna Sokolow and Sophie Maslow, both of whom initially studied at the Neighborhood Playhouse and danced with Martha Graham, but increasingly choreographed their own works. Their dances on Jewish themes carried on the tradition of Zemach in constructing quintessential images of Jewishness that were nonetheless radical in their emphasis on female experience and embracing of racial diversity.

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Naomi M. Jackson

Naomi Jackson is an Associate Professor of dance in the Department of Dance, Herberger College of the Arts, Arizona State University.