“Yiddish dance? What’s that?” That’s what most people ask me when I tell them I lead Yiddish dance for workshops, simchas and festivals around the Bay Area.
And who can blame them? After World War II, Yiddish dance was almost wiped off the map, along with the shtetls in Eastern Europe that danced them. With many of our grandparents yearning to shed their immigrant past, and with the great push to link the community exclusively to Israeli culture and education, Yiddish dance, by the 1960s, was almost completely stuck in the tar pits of nostalgia and relegated to Jerome Robbin’s choreography for “Fiddler on the Roof.”
Until recently, I had studied, taught, choreographed and performed dances from many different world traditions — except my own. Besides knowing a few classic Israeli folk dances, I was completely illiterate.
I became more curious about Jewish dance after reading Martin Buber’s “Tales of the Hasidim” and coming across stories of dancing rabbis and their students.
For example, there was Rabbi Hayyim of Kosov, who was dancing one day in front of his students. “His face aflame, every step spoke sublime meaning and then … KABOOM! He falls over a bench and the bench falls on his toe. His students rush to his side and ask if he’s OK. He replies as he rubs his sore toe, ‘I’d be a lot better if I hadn’t stopped dancing.'”
I liked this philosophy and wanted to know more, so I headed to my nearby Chabad storefront synagogue. After all, there was a picture of a dancing Chassid above the door.
It was Simchat Torah; shul was jammed with men and boys shuffling around and around the bimah. Someone passed me the weighty Torah and told me to dance. The rebbetzin, women and girls were in a circle doing the Hora.
And the rebbe? He was red-faced and shikkered, performing headstands and summersaults. He was, in Buber’s word, aflame. It might have seemed like a madhouse to some, but never had I seen dancing with so much intention.
Not long after my first visit to Chabad, I heard about a weekend of Yiddish culture sponsored by KlezCalifornia at the JCC in Berkeley. There were workshops in klezmer music, singing, storytelling and Yiddish dance. Yiddish dance? What’s that?
Fortunately, my first teacher was Jewish dance master Steve Weintraub. “The feet are the roots,” he explained. “They keep the beat. The arms and hands are fluid and free to express themselves.”
Another tip he told us: “Yiddish dance is not about the fancy footwork. It’s about the interesting patterns you make on the dance floor.”
I wasn’t sure what he meant until I saw him in action at the final klezmer dance party. As the band broke loose, all eyes were on our fearless leader. Weintraub led a crowd of about 200 people into endless circles within circles, changing directions, creating all kinds of geometrical patterns on the floor, inviting all to stomp, clap and enter into the center to shayne, or show their stuff — and leaving everyone breathless, laughing and begging for more. By the end of the night I was drenched, and my life had changed. I had found my dance.
With a newfound passion, I turned my focus to learning more about the rich treasures of Jewish dance that go as far back as Miriam dancing at the shores of the Red Sea. From the ancient dances of the Yemen Jews to the mystical folk dances of the Chassids, from the spunky Yiddish dances of the Ashkenazi to the free-spirited and elegant Israeli folk dances of modern Israel — one thing became clear to me. Jews dance!
Still, it’s Yiddish dance that makes me and others laugh for some reason. No one has to worry about getting any steps “right.” The dances are all improvised on the spot with a few basic steps — just follow the leader! You dance with community, but you bring your unique self into the circle to shayne. If there is a meaning behind Yiddish dance, that is it.
So with great pleasure, I am happy to announce that Yiddish dance is back and looking marvelous — thanks in part to the tireless fieldwork of Yiddish cultural historians such as Michael Alpert and Zev Feldman and to my own master teachers, Steve Weintruab, Deborah Strauss, Felix Fibich and Julie Egger. Their burning passion to pass on Yiddish dance and culture to the next generation is a gift of spirit, spunk and joy that can never be extinguished.
I hope to see you all out on the dance floor to experience this new … er … old dance come alive again.
For an opportunity to learn Yiddish dance with Bruce Bierman, attend the Community Dance Party, presented by the Jewish Music Festival, 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. March 30 at the JCC East Bay, 1414 Walnut St., Berkeley. Tickets cost $12 for JCC East Bay members, seniors and students, and $15 for general admission. For more information, go to www.jewishmusicfestival.org.
Bruce Bierman is artistic director of the Jewish Dance Theatre, now in residency at JCC East Bay. To learn about upcoming Yiddish dance events, contact him at Jewishdance@yahoo.com.