On this unusual Yom Ha’Atzmaut, when we’re not dancing in the streets and parks as we usually do. I thought I’d share some historic perspective on Jewish dancing, not that there’s been that many great Jewish dancers since King David, but there were Jerome Robbins and Arthur Murray.
There’s a famous joke about the evils of social dancing. A couple asks a clergyman if they can have social dancing at their wedding celebration. The clergyman is shocked, ‘Of course not! Dancing leads to lewd behavior!’ The couple then asks questions about their own intimacy after the wedding. The clergyman is very liberal and encouraging until they ask if they can be intimate while standing. The clergyman is aghast, ’But that could lead to dancing!’
Well, my shock came when I checked on line and found that joke originated among Pentecostals, Mennonites, Adventists and other fundamentalist Christian groups. I thought it was an Orthodox Jewish joke.
However, the joke on Orthodoxy was really the state of dancing in the 1950’s. Look, I’m not here to decide Halachic issues, and I don’t think that social dancing was the worst problem facing Modern Orthodox shuls back in the 1950’s. It was, though, a bone of contention.
One of the first to outlaw the practice was Knesseth Israel (the “White Shul”) in Far Rockaway, New York. In 1952, the shul president wrote a forceful letter in the synagogue bulletin:
There are many who are opposed to dancing in the synagogue. Their argument is that “law is law.” Shall we present arguments to the contrary? Shall we call them fanatics? Or shall we respect their sincerity and true belief? We, as an orthodox congregation, profess to be the standard-bearers of Jewish traditions and principles…Let us not come to a hasty conclusion on this subject, but rather review it over carefully in our minds. For the record, permit me to state that I have danced in synagogues. However, as your president, I should like to think that we all respect the belief of others, as we would like to have others respect ours, particularly when it is a question of law, for “Law is Law.”
In reality, social dancing remained with Orthodox shuls into the 70’s and beyond, especially away from New York. When I was at a Bar Mitzva in North Miami Beach in 1988, I was sitting at the rabbi’s table. Just before desert, I noticed that my wife and I were deserted. Soon, the mechitza on the dance floor had disappeared (Did one of the rabbis take it home?). Then rock music and social dancing ensued. It didn’t really bother me, but it was bizarre.
Recently, a rabbinic friend of mine was asked about a certain well-known rabbi (Full disclosure: I asked.). He thought for a moment about something positive to say about this colleague from previous generation of rabbis. Then, he smiled, and said, ‘He was a really good dancer. Very graceful, like Fred Astaire.’
I had my own experience with this reality. Before bar and bat mitzva, our synagogue provided dance lessons by the local Arthur Murray Dance Studio, In the social hall of the shul, we learned ball room dancing. I remember that I earned an Arthur Murray tie clip for my prowess on the dance floor.
A few years later, I got involved with the National Conference of Synagogue Youth (NCSY, the youth arm of the OU), and became president of the Malden, MA chapter. By then (about 1965), I had started moving towards a more religious life style, and got into a controversy with the synagogue leadership. The youth groups in the shul held dances sponsored by the shul. The leadership in the shul believed that you couldn’t get teenagers to come to shul if there weren’t dances, but that was against NCSY policy.
When Rabbi Pinchas Stolper took over NCSY in 1959, this was to become the policy. In June 1960 at his first national convention of the movement, he met with chapter advisers, and laid down the law:
Mechitza at every service, no mixed swimming, no mixed dancing; none of the cuddly socializing that was so typical of American teenage youth groups.
The advisers were up in arms, Rav Stolper calmed, and pleaded, ‘Just give it a chance.’ He held sway for NCSY, but not necessarily for OU synagogues.
In my hometown, I became the firebrand fighting the status quo. I felt the righteousness of the nouveau frum zealot. With some support from Rabbi Charles Weinberg OB”M, who was torn, because he agreed with me, but didn’t want a controversy with his board, we came to a compromise. The synagogue would host dances for teenagers, but NCSY, as the official youth group of the shul wouldn’t participate. Very soon, the dances faded into memory in Malden, but not necessarily elsewhere.
Was the switch to Israeli or simcha dancing the biggest revolution in Orthodoxy in the 60’s? No, but it was a remarkable phenomenon, which delineated the boundaries between Orthodoxy and the other flavors of Judaism.
It became a new badge of our distinctiveness. We wore it proudly, but necessarily gracefully.
Next: One Man Renaissance