From the Desk of Zev Eleff: A Touchy Subject

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The following post is from Zev Eleff, chief academic officer of the Hebrew Theological College in Chicago, Illinois, and author of Modern Orthodox Judaism: A Documentary History (Jewish Publication Society, 2016).

A Touchy Subject: A Short History of the Rise and Fall of Orthodox Social Dancing

In November 1960, Rabbi Gershon Taschman issued a plea to members of Young Israel synagogues to reconsider the way in which Orthodox Jewish boys and girls met and mingled. Taschman recommended discrete matchmaking, the kind observed in a “few Chassidic communities.” The rabbinic writer certainly recognized just how unpopular his position would be received. “Marriage by arrangement,” he admitted, “is the exception in our society, where dating is the convention.”[1] The implementation of a matchmaking system into Orthodox circles, he reckoned, would be difficult against the dominant culture of casual Saturday night movies and ice cream parlor dates that had a firm grasp on Orthodox young people.

More trying, still, would be any attempt to rid social dancing from the social repertoire of Orthodox youth culture. Orthodox rabbinical students in Chicago and New York danced, despite the remonstrations of their teachers.[2] Moreover, Orthodox synagogues and institutions had long provided forums for young women and men to meet and greet one another. Young Israel, in particular, countenanced social dancing, even if it meant honoring Jewish law’s proscription on physical intimacy in the breach. It was well-known that “social dancing represent[ed] Young Israel’s only compromise with orthodox Judaism.”[3] This was the synagogue movement’s compromise to accomplish its ambitious mission. Young Israel synagogues served as one of Orthodox Judaism’s best responses to modernity. These sacred spaces featured more decorous prayer services and demanded decorum. Young Israel’s accommodations to American norms were intended to recruit a younger class of traditional-minded Jews to the synagogue. Its spread throughout the United States and into the Jewish hinterland proved its success despite some religious failings.

Social dancing, then, was one method to accomplish this goal. In fact, the National Council of Young Israel promoted these events in its newsletters. It publicized such activities as a Brownsville charity ball, a Williamsburg “Carnival Nite” and “Dean for Fun and Charity” concert. In 1942, a Young Israel congregation in Manhattan held a “Matzo Fund Dance.”[4] Other Orthodox institutions held similar philosophies. At Ramaz School on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, the gym teacher also taught students to dance in homeroom. “I remember,” recalled one student, “learning the fox trot and the rumba.”[5] Unsurprisingly, rabbis railed against the practice. In the prewar period, though, Orthodox Jews believed that this was the only manner in which their synagogues could compete with their more “modern” Conservative counterparts. For example, Rabbi Yaakov Yosef Herman of New York’s Lower East Side once stormed into a Young Israel synagogue to upbraid the rank-and-file congregants. He insisted that the congregation remove a sign that read: “Young Israel Dance Tonight.” Rabbi Herman demanded this on the grounds that the “Torah forbids mixed dancing.” It didn’t work. A pair of “husky young men” picked up the “zealot” rabbi and unceremoniously set him down on the street.[6]

Yet, change was eventually detectable, at least to perceptive observers. In 1952, the president of Congregation Kneseth Israel of Far Rockaway (the “White Shul”) urged his community to ban social dancing from synagogue events. “I have danced in synagogues,” he freely admitted. However, “particularly when it is a question of law,” the lay leader pleaded with his fellow congregants to respect the ruling of its rabbi and refrain from this activity in public spaces.[7] In the 1960s, the social scientist Charles Leibman noted that “mixed dancing, once practiced even among Agudath Israel youth, is a thing of the past in most committed Orthodox groups.” He also commented on the rightward shift of other Orthodox enclaves and predicted that certain social activities that “Young Israel had closed its eyes” would soon disappear.[8]

He was right. What caused the change? Some point out that the generation that halted social dancing was the first graduates of Orthodox day schools.[9] These women and men were more Jewishly literate than their parents and helped “slide” their community to the “right.” Others maintain that it was the result of the influence of a more rigid crop of rabbis who had immigrated to the United States directly before and after the Holocaust.[10] Both points are valid and contributed to the transformation of Orthodox youth culture.

Yet, another explanation should also be added, one that takes into consideration the broader scene of American religion. In the heat of the so-called Sexual Revolution of the 1960s, a number of conservative religious communities redrew their red lines. Consider the situation at faith-based colleges. In this turbulent decade, for example, Gordon College in Boston banned social dancing. The school’s administration warned that any “violations involving dancing or the use of profane language will be referred for disciplinary actions.”[11] In another instance, one suitor wrote to his girlfriend at the Presbyterian-affiliated Hanover College in Indiana that he was “sorry to hear that your mother frowns on the hop.”[12]

The same was true of the leading Orthodox Jewish college in New York. In 1960, the Yeshiva College student newspaper polled students on their religious punctiliousness. Sixty percent of the undergraduates admitted, despite Jewish law’s proscription against it, to having regular “physical contact with girls.” In response to the startling figure, the editors lamented that a “majority of the Yeshiva boys apparently have not the slightest appreciation of what Orthodox Judaism fully entails.”[13] One decade later, a Yeshiva Collegian complained that some of his peers had confiscated dozens of the posters that he had hung in the dormitories. The notices, advertising a dance organized by a “Jewish youth organization,” were deemed inappropriate for Yeshiva University’s standards and were promptly replaced with alternative signs inviting students to “lectures to be given by rabbis.”[14]

In fact, some commentators believed that Jewish youngsters were even more vulnerable to the “passions” and “ills” of dancing than were their gentile counterparts. According to one observer, middle class Jews took a liking to “pseudo-orgiastic Latin-American dances like the cha-cha-cha and the pachanga.” To explain this, the writer in not-so-scientific-terms reasoned that “dancing provides for some Jews an outlet similar to that offered by alcohol to many gentiles.”[15] Correct or not (but probably not), Orthodox Jews read reports of this sort and took a keen interest in guarding their children from sexualized settings.[16] No doubt, this sentiment empowered Rabbi Pinchas Stolper and other leaders of the National Conference of Synagogue Youth who, in the 1960s, sought to ban social dancing from the youth movement’s activities.[17]

In the 1980s, mixed dancing finally faded from Orthodox memory. One historian characterized it well when he wrote about Orthodox youth in the seventies and eighties who, unlike their parents, “do not check the synagogue calendar for socials and dances.”[18] An Orthodox synagogue in New Jersey had once featured square dancing at its annual dinner. This changed on a particular occasion when, in the final decades of the twentieth century, a banquet was planned to honor congregation’s rabbi. The clergyman—“ostensibly in deference to his colleagues who would be in attendance”—asked the congregation remove dancing from the program. Social dancing was never reintroduced in that synagogue.[19]

Moving forward, Orthodox Jews required new forms and forums for courtship. In some circles, dating was encouraged so long as it did not encourage physical contact between young women and men. However, many more Orthodox Jews tended to embrace less intimate matchmaking, despite how unpopular that had seemed just a few decades prior. The problem was felt acutely at Young Israel synagogues that sought to regain its status as a place for young Orthodox Jews to meet and marry. In 1985, the National Council of Young Israel passed a resolution urging “Young Israel Rabbis to take an active role in devising and instituting new forms of social gatherings, within the ambit of Halacha, for the purpose of assisting our young men and women in their efforts to meet and mingle, and thereby to further the mitzvah of making marriages.”[20] Young Israel and other Orthodox establishments remained committed to merging Orthodox lifestyles and American culture. For sure, this mission was a more challenging one for a more religiously committed and rigid generation of Orthodox Jews. Still, it was, at its core, the very same goal to which their forebears aspired.

 

NOTES

[1] Gershon Taschman, “A Psychological Appraisal of Traditional and Conventional Courtship,” Young Israel Viewpoint 51 (November 1960): 20.

[2] See Shmuel I. Feigen, “Beit Midrash Le-Torah bi-Chicago,” in Sefer Ha-Yovel shel Agudat Ha-Morim Ha-Ivrim, ed. Tzvi Sharfstein (New York: Hebrew Teachers’ Union, 1944), 285; and “Senior Class History,” Masmid (1936): 32.

[3] David Stein, “Mr. Orthodoxy,” Jewish Forum 45 (May-June 1962): 13.

[4] Sylvia Finkelstein, “Leaves from our Branches,” Young Israel Viewpoint 33 (April 1942): 16.

[5] See Jenna Weissman Joselit, New York’s Jewish Jews: The Orthodox Community in the Interwar Years (Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1990), 142.

[6] Ruchmoa Shain, All for the Boss: The Life and Impact of R’ Yaakov Yosef Herman, a Torah Pioneer in America (Jerusalem: Feldheim, 2001), 114-15.

[7] William N. Ciner, “Law is Law.” Kneseth Israel Bulletin (November 1952): 3.

[8] Charles S. Liebman, “Orthodoxy in American Jewish Life,” American Jewish Year Book 66 (1965): 59, 90.

[9] See Shubert Spero, “Orthodox Judaism,” in Movements and Issues in American Judaism: An Analysis and Sourcebook of Developments since 1945, ed. Bernard Martin (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1978), 88.

[10] See Samuel C. Heilman, Sliding to the Right: The Contest for the Future of American Jewish Orthodoxy (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006), 16.

[11] See Student Handbook, 1968-1969 (Boston: Gordon College, 1968), 10-11. I thank Sarah Goss of Gordon College for identifying this source for me.

[12] Clarence Mast to Judith Moffett, September 15, 1960, MSS-25, Box 6, Folder 3, Duggan Library Archives, Hanover College, Hanover, IN. I thank Jennifer Duplaga of Hanover College for identifying this source for me.

[13] “With Malice Toward None: An Editorial,” The Commentator, December 15, 1960, 1, 3.

[14] David Mark, Letter to the Editor, The Commentator, December 3, 1970, 5.

[15] David Boroff, “Jewish Teen-Age Culture,” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 338 (November 1961): 85.

[16] See Rachel Gordan, “Alfred Kinsey and the Remaking of Jewish Sexuality in the Wake of the Holocaust,” Jewish Social Studies 20 (Spring/Summer 2014): 72-99.

[17] See Zev Eleff, Living from Convention to Convention: A History of the NCSY, 1954-1980 (Jersey City: Ktav, 2009), 23-27.

[18] Jeffrey S. Gurock, “The Orthodox Synagogue,” in The American Synagogue: A Sanctuary Transformed, ed. Jack Wertheimer (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 66.

[19] See Edward S. Shapiro, “Orthodoxy in Pleasantdale,” Judaism 34 (Spring 1985): 169.

[20] “Resolutions Passed at the 73rd Anniversary NCYI National Convention,” Young Israel Viewpoint 26 (September 1985): 8.