Art is Jewish Education

Project MUSE
Uneasy Duets
Contemporary American Dances about Israel and the Mideast Crisis

by Rebecca Rossen
click here to download full pdf

Throughout the 20th century, American Jews grappled with the often competing drives toward identification and integration into American society. American Zionism thrived because Israel was not conceived as a substitute for Jewish life in the US, but rather as a symbol for Jewish existence that was compatible with American notions of democracy, freedom, egalitarian- ism, and ingenuity (Gal 1996; Raider 1998; Rosenthal 2001, 2005). In the 1930s, choreogra- phers such as Dvora Lapson and Benjamin Zemach articulated this utopian vision in dances that idealized the tenets of Labor Zionism and celebrated the haluzim (pioneers), replacing neg- ative images of Old-World Jews with industrious and spirited "new Jews" that complimented American pioneering mythologies. Throughout the 1930s and '40s, large-scale pageants, includ- ing Romance of a People (1933), Fragments of Israel (1933), The Eternal Road (1937), and A Flag is Born (1946), used theatre and dance to promote Zionism and raise awareness about (and even funding for) the Jewish state (Citron 1989; Fischer-Lichte 2005; Whitfield 1996).3 Despite the magnitude of these spectacles, the most financially successful and long-running Zionist extravaganzas were the Chanukah Festivals presented at Madison Square Garden throughout the 1950s and '60s, which raised millions of dollars in Israel Bonds annually. Choreographed by Sophie Maslow, a critical figure in American dance, the festivals equated American mod- ern dance with the modern Jewish state and cast the US and its Jews as Israel's chief benefac- tors.4 Although the festival's theme varied each year, Maslow's dances consistently presented a progression from biblical heroism to Eastern European nostalgia, ultimately culminating in a Zionist finale in which dancers would cultivate and defend Israel with their young and vital bodies.

In the years following the 1967 and 1973 wars, American Jewry looked to Israel as a pana- cea for its own troubles — assimilation, reduced commitment to Judaism, intermarriage, anti- Semitism, and survival. During this period, most American Jews practiced unconditional support for Israel without much reflection. As historian Steven T. Rosenthal has noted, "For millions of American Jews, criticism of Israel was a worse sin than marrying out of the faith" (2005:214). Israel's invasion of Lebanon (1982) and the first Intifada (1987–1991) began to chip away at American Jewish support for Israel, particularly on the left (215–16). By the late 1990s and early 2000s, a number of organizations emerged, such as Jewish Voice for Peace and Not in My Name, which called for American Jews to take "visible action" against the occupa- tion (NIMN 2000–2005), including voicing dissent publically, encouraging debate, staging demonstrations, and overcoming fears about exposing oneself to criticism or accusations of self-hatred.

Choreographer Liz Lerman seemed to take on this cause when, on 25 April 1998, she pre- miered a full-length piece at Arizona State University's Gammage Auditorium for the L'Chaim Festival, an event sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater Phoenix to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Israel's founding.6 Throughout 1998, in cities all over the US, Jewish orga- nizations and cultural institutions celebrated Israel's anniversary with Jubilee festivals, art exhib- its, music, theatre, and dance (most notably national tours of several Israeli dance companies). Lerman's approach differed greatly from the formal and festive nature of many of these events: she began her concert by sitting at the edge of the stage and speaking candidly with the audi- ence about her fear that American Jews have become overly invested in the Holocaust, Israel, and prosperity, causing many Jewish artists of her generation to disinvest. "I can't say that Israel, even the Holocaust, suburban life, and affluence," she remarked, "were elements of the world that my peers were interested in exploring." By directly confronting mainstream Jewish values, before even beginning the dance, Lerman directly undercut expectations for a "nice Jewish dance" about Israel, and asked the audience to open themselves up to new possibilities for Jewish identity and expression. Her initial interrogatory approach certainly alienated some — at least one person walked out (Lerman 2009). But ultimately she united the audience members by asking them to name and describe someone that they honored (a grandmother, a rabbi, a mother, etc.) and then skillfully transformed their memories into a gestural sequence that the spectators practiced performing collectively to music. Finally, the audience was invited to move from the large house to an intimate arrangement of seats onstage, where Lerman began her dance — Fifty Modest Reflections on Turning Fifty (fig. 3).

Lerman has been asking controversial questions and re-imagining collectivity for the major- ity of her professional career. A choreographer, activist, educator, and director of the multigen- erational Liz Lerman Dance Company, she explores in her works and in her community-based educational initiatives ways to bring people together across difference. Since the early 1980s, she has created many dances that confront standard modes for depicting Jewish culture, crit- icize the patriarchal and homophobic aspects of Judaism, reinvent Judaic ritual, and present Jewish identity as a process that is neither fixed nor free from controversy. Lerman has not just done this work onstage, but she has also brought her methods to synagogues and Jewish organi- zations, where she uses dance to help Jewish leaders and their constituents envision, build, and sustain new models for community. Given her background, it is not surprising that she would be invited by a branch of the Jewish Federation to create a work for Israel's anniversary. Nor was it out of character for her to fearlessly destabilize Jewish and performance conventions by begin- ning her dance with a heartfelt, interactive discussion that openly addressed her concerns about Israel, and by association, questioned the celebratory nature of this commemorative event.

Fifty Modest Reflections on Turning Fifty merges autobiographical and collective narratives, and imagined and actual events, to reflect upon the personal and political impact of Israel's history. Although the dance's title binds Lerman to Israel — she was born 25 December 1947, less than five months before the establishment of the state on 14 May 1948 — she reveals a disconnec- tion from Israel early on in the piece by admitting to having visited it only once. In contrast, she describes her brother's ardent Zionism — "He yearns to go to Israel again and again. Not me." Despite this disavowal of Israel's significance in her life, the work intersperses dynamic move- ment passages that alternatively evoke ritual, Hasidism, folk dance, and athletic postmodern- ism with expository monologues that chronicle her family's emotional and political investment in the state.

In one section, she performs an elegant waltz while discussing how Theodor Herzl's First Zionist Congress in 1897 coincided with her grandfather's emigration from Russia to Milwaukee, where he would evolve from a territorialist into a Zionist and eventu- ally meet Golda Meir (Lerman 2011).8 Midway through the story, she disrupts the grace of her promenade and presentational narration by dissolving into kinetic and verbal temper tantrums — frantic stomps, manic pacing, dramatic belly-crawling, and spoken outbursts in which she asks whether she should assimilate or fight for a Jewish homeland. Her formal nar- ration depicts a history of anti-Semitism, exile, immigration, and political fervor that produced Zionism and that romanticizes the founding of the Jewish state. In contrast, her physical actions reveal confusion and friction, embodying the conflict her grandfather's generation perceived between becoming Americans and embracing Jewish nationalism.

Other sections of the work further amplify how such discord impacts the body and the body politic. In one of the piece's most striking segments, Lerman invites the audience to imagine that her body is the map of Israel, using text and movement to literally and figuratively demar- cate the state's contentious borders and boundaries. Pointing to her forehead, she locates Haifa, and uses her hands to draw a line from her feet up past her head to represent the sprawl of resorts in Eilat. Her hip, which she casually sinks into, is the Gaza Strip; her armpit represents Tel Aviv. Tilting her head back to expose the vulnerable underside of her neck, she identifies the West Bank between her esophagus and trachea. Sliding her fingers slowly down her chest, she says, "Right here is where Abraham entered Canaan. And here is where Jesus was born." Her heart is Jerusalem — a trite and problematic meta- phor — but one that she none- theless embraces because, "No one gets to 50 without a bro- ken heart." She dances as Israel, shifting between anatomical, geographical, biblical, and emo- tional analysis; her actions and words coagulate to suggest ten- sion, harmony, shifting borders, and competing claims. At the end of this sequence, she speaks to the audience about her recent work with the Abraham Fund, a foundation that aims to promote equality between Israeli Arabs and Jews. When researching the meaning of the fund's name, she discovered that both Jews and Palestinians claim Abraham as their patriarch. "I didn't know this," she quips. "Of course I was only 49 at the time." The revelation shocks her: "It's like finding out that your father has a sec- ond family." Instead of holding on to an incomplete and biased origin myth, she states that she decided to accept that she has a larger family.

Fifty Modest Reflections on Turning Fifty does not simply acknowledge parity between Arabs and Jews; the work also insists that we recognize aspects of Zionist history that we would rather overlook. In another section, Lerman describes events that occurred exactly 50 years before, on 25 April 1948, when the Irgun (a militant Zionist group) attacked the Arab city of Jaffa. Quoting Menachem Begin's speech to his troops, she says:

Men of the Irgun — we are going to conquer Jaffa. Tonight we go into one of the deci- sive battles of the independence of Eretz Israel. Know who goes before you, and who is behind you. Before you the enemy, cruel, who has risen up to destroy you. Behind you, your parents, your brothers. Smite the enemy heart. Show no more mercy to them than they have shown for your people. Spare the women and the children. Anyone who lifts his arm and surrenders shall be saved, do not harm them. The only direction is forward.

As she recites this text, she slowly lowers herself to the ground and progresses through a series of poses — a painful shoulder stand, a swift withdrawal back on her belly, an imploring reach, a curled fetal position, fingers that uneasily tap on the floor, an obsessive scrubbing action, a sud- den thrust to the side, her body stiffly rocking back and forth. Her voice confidently quotes Begin, but her body struggles to come to terms with this violence. She may not take a direct stance against Israel's militarism, yet she demands that her audience reflect more fully on what they are actually commemorating and recognize the impact of Israel's founding on the Arab population.

Lerman further accentuates this point with another dancer, Gesel Mason, who quietly sup- ports, and eventually interrupts, her testimonials. There are a number of distinct differences between the two performers. Lerman is white and middle-aged; Mason is black and younger. In contrast to Lerman's costume, which includes a black overcoat, pants, combat boots, and shawl (alternately evoking a rabbi and the epitome of '90s dancer chic), Mason is shrouded like a nomad in an earth-toned costume and hooded robe. Lerman also performs onstage, in close proximity to the audience seated around her, while Mason mostly performs in the distance, throughout the blackened house, occasionally echoing one of Lerman's positions. Her exilic passage eventually comes into focus, while Lerman's danced monologue recedes into darkness. In this poignant segment, Mason becomes a desert wanderer, struggling to move across chairs, bounding lithely over rows, occasionally pausing to rest or survey her progress. Mason's jour- ney is accompanied by a tape recording of Lerman's elderly father: "There are three things I stand for in my life," he says. "Civil rights, civil liberties, and Israel. And you want to know why I included Israel in this category? [...] Because for two thousand years I wandered around with- out being a nation, without having a nation. Now I have one." Lerman hoped that the audience would initially view Mason as a Wandering Jew. At the end of the dance, however, Mason joins Lerman onstage while she recounts how Abraham's sons, Isaac and Ishmael, came together only once to bury their father. Lerman, as Isaac the Jew, and Mason, now identified as Ishmael the Arab, collectively perform a burial ritual composed of the very same gestures gathered from the audience at the beginning of the evening. By first establishing her audience's identification with Mason, and then revealing Mason's status as a Palestinian (who nonetheless shares with Jews a common origin and ritual vocabulary), the piece encourages viewers to have empathy for this character, whether Jew or Arab (Lerman 2009). The casting also subtly comments on racial and class tensions in the United States. While Jews and African Americans began the 20th century facing similar challenges, American Jews assimilated into whiteness, or as Lerman put it in the preshow talk, they became invested in affluence, perhaps losing sight of their commitment to social justice and economic equality both in Israel and in the United States.

In the introduction to their anthology, Wrestling with Zion: Progressive Jewish-American Responses to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Tony Kushner and Alisa Solomon argue that a "cer- tain version of 'love for the State of Israel' requires nothing less than the disappearance of Palestinians" (2003:5). By presenting Mason as a kind of specter whose fleeting presence haunts the dance, Lerman underscores, and to some degree purposefully replicates, the ways in which Zionism has rendered Palestinians invisible. Mason is not given a voice, but she does not sim- ply fade away. Rather, her Palestinian gradually moves into focus and intrudes in the tale, elo- quently demanding that we not only acknowledge her presence but also admit our role in her plight.