For the past 62 years, two seemingly unrelated events in the Jewish world mark the early days of spring in New York City: The Annual Israeli Folk Dance Festival and preparations for the Passover seder.
Both are a kind of participatory performance with a broad outreach. There are those who present while others are encouraged to respond. At the festival, there is a shout out from the stage and the audience responds with a clapping rhythm or the calling back of lyrics. At the seder, guests comment on passages and join in communal reading, sing along and answer amen, as a designated leader sets the pace.
Both the seder and the dance festival are self-conscious, purposeful attempts to ingather a pluralistic tribe, ritualize certain values and create the desire for belonging. The seder was shaped over many centuries and in countries all over the world in post-exilic times, after the destruction of the Holy Temple, when a whole new manner of telling our foundational story had to be devised. Israeli dance came into being at the other end of diaspora’s history, at a time of return to the long-neglected land; it too served as a tool of cultural unification. In the early days of Zionism, Palestine was home to Jews from the world over, many of whom shared no cultural experiences or common language. A freshly invented, collective song and dance ritual was the perfect vehicle for the promotion of a new national identity.
I have rarely missed a Passover seder but I was returning to the 62nd Annual Israeli Folk Dance Festival for the first time since the last one in which I too danced in the heady, post-victorious 1968 season. Much has changed in the intervening years. Once upon a time, dancing in the festival was the uncontested highlight of our high school year. My enthusiasm for Israeli folk forms informed my life-long devotion to dance. Back then, attendance, funding and interest was such that we brought our group choreography to the stage of a sold-out Carnegie Hall. This year I joined a somewhat thinned out crowd in the basement auditorium of the Martin Luther King High School on the Upper West Side. Still some things remain the same – the shimmering costumes, the exuberance of the kids, the irresistible drum solos, the high leaps, the uplifted arms, the dizzying spins, the yelps from cheering fans.
While many a seder could benefit from the energetic charge of a dance festival, I wish the festival would share the satisfying seder’s persistent quest for updated meaning. We ask ourselves what it might newly mean to celebrate freedom as an emancipated, thriving community. The dance might better refresh a new generation’s loyalty to Israel with references that go beyond the halcyon days of the early pioneers, with affirmations that transcend now historic victories whose ultimate price we once could not foresee.
Susan Reimer Torn, a writer who lives in New York City, blogs at susanrtorn.wordpress.com