Dancing Jewish: Jewish Identity in American Modern and Postmodern Dance, written by Rebecca Rossen

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  • 1 Portland State University

Rebecca Rossen, Dancing Jewish: Jewish Identity in American Modern and Postmodern Dance. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014. 336pp., 50+ illus., and companion website (www.oup.com/us/dancingjewish), $31.95.

Dance is a performing, visual, and kinesthetic art, so analyses of the form intersect with a range of fields. However, in the realm of Jewish studies, relevant research, although it has expanded in recent years, continues to lag behind studies devoted to other genres, both in the number of scholars engaging in the area specifically, and in the appreciation of the subject across Jewish studies at large.1 Although it is slowly becoming more accepted as a legitimate area for study in the field, dance in the context of Jewish studies is still generally marginalized and under-examined, especially relative to the concern with visual culture, fine arts, music, and theater.

In light of this lacuna, Rebecca Rossen’s Dancing Jewish: Jewish Identity in American Modern and Postmodern Dance is a welcome and needed addition to the field. Rossen examines the relationship to—and representation of—dynamic and changing Jewish identities in works of American Jewish choreographers in modern and postmodern dance from the late 1920s to the early twenty-first century, exploring, as she notes, “how American Jewish choreographers dance Jewish,” defined as “an action or process that embraces the fluidity and complexity of Jewish identity (3).”

Rossen’s volume is important and relevant to a variety of disciplines including Jewish, American, dance, gender, performance, and visual culture studies. In particular, she bridges major gaps in American Jewish history and dance studies. Dance history has not yet been fully incorporated into the American Jewish story. In studies of American Jewish culture, scholars have investigated such subjects as the importance of the Yiddish theater and radio, the development of film and Hollywood, and the creation of American musical classics.2 However, they have not devoted much attention to modern and postmodern dance, in spite of the fact that American Jewish dancers, choreographers, activists, and writers have played and are playing a central role in the development of these forms.

Moreover, until recently, Jewish dance studies were not well integrated into American dance history. Although American Jewish dancers and choreographers were key figures in the evolution of these forms, several classic texts on American modern dance history neither mention nor address their Jewish backgrounds or identities, or the impact of their Jewish identities on their choreographic work.3

Rossen’s volume will play an important role in American Jewish history and dance studies. It is not only the particular subjects she selected for study, but also her skillful scholarly research and analyses that serve to elevate the field. Her book reflects an exceptional degree of thorough research on many previously unexplored dance works. She vividly describes the movement in the works alongside the themes they address or grapple with, which range over concepts that embrace issues of gender, ethnicity, memory, nostalgia, politics, and religion.

A highly-trained dance scholar, Rossen also introduces her identity as a dancer, choreographer, and performer into the text. She intersperses the different sections of the book with discussions of the way she created, performed, and directed the piece “Make Me a Jewish Dance” (2000) and notes how her own questions in this dance-making process both fueled and illuminated the research and concepts developed in the book. The dynamism of her connection to the material is evident throughout and enhances the study.

An additional advantage is derived from the online companion site, with film excerpts of several of the dance pieces she looks at.4 Among the challenges involved in studying dance history is the nonexistence of film footage or photographs of the dances (especially in pre-twentieth-century eras) and the limited access to the films and images that do exist. The film excerpts of select pieces analyzed in Rossen’s volume largely resolve this difficulty, by enabling the reader to watch several of the dances. These invaluable visuals also enhance the usability of this book in the classroom.

Rossen divides the monograph into two “acts.” The first act, entitled “Dancing the Jew(ess),” addresses different images of Jewish figures onstage—including representations of Hasidic and biblical figures—and gender issues, examining both female and male dancers and their choreographic approaches to gender concepts. The second act, which she calls “Dancing Jewish,” investigates broader communal themes, including ideas around memory connected to the lost Eastern European Jewish past after World War II and into the late twentieth century, and relationships to Zionism and Israel. She incorporates a range of additional themes and topics into the discussions throughout the two sections.

Whereas several monographs on the subject of American Jewish dance deal with one particular significant choreographer, Rossen’s volume, like Naomi Jackson’s seminal work Converging Movements: Modern Dance and Jewish Culture at the 92nd Street Y, includes a range of choreographers across the span of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first. For the early and mid-twentieth century, Rossen studies such choreographers as Pauline Koner, Helen Tamiris, Anna Sokolow, Sophie Maslow, Pearl Lang, Hadassah, Dvora Lapson, and Benjamin Zemach. In the latter part of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, she addresses such names as Liz Lerman, Margaret Jenkins, Dan Froot, David Dorfman, and Victoria Marks. Noting that the volume is not intended to be comprehensive and that she had to make “difficult choices” (16), she leaves room for future comparative studies concerning other important American Jewish choreographers, many of whom, as those she has chosen to deal with, have not been researched.

Rossen’s thematic approach allows for interesting and rich comparisons of choreographic works spanning different eras. There are analytic benefits to this method and the chapter on “Dancing Folk: Jewish Memory and Amnesia” in particular can be used for a range of courses that address American Jewish relationships to the Eastern European Jewish past. Certain significant topics, such as the Holocaust, social action or tikkun olam, and relationships to Judaism as a religion, are addressed throughout the volume, although not allotted dedicated thematic chapters. Rossen notes in the introduction that she views the Holocaust as a topic unto itself needing its own study (16). Indeed, despite the range of research on the arts and the Holocaust, there has yet to be a full monograph dedicated to associated choreography.

Rossen’s volume is a significant addition to the literature as it offers the fruits of valuable new research that enhances understandings of the interrelationships between American Jewish and dance history. This important book can be utilized for courses in a range of fields, particularly in the context of Jewish studies, including American Jewish history, Jewish dance history, American Jewish visual arts and cultural history, and Jewish gender history, among others. By providing a complex and multidisciplinary analysis, Rossen’s monograph serves as an important contribution to many fields and enhances the growing intersection of Jewish and dance studies.


See, e.g., Judith Brin Ingber, ed., Seeing Israeli and Jewish Dance (Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 2011); Naomi M. Jackson, Converging Movements: Modern Dance and Jewish Culture at the 92nd Street Y (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2000); Hannah Kosstrin, Honest Bodies: Revolutionary Modernism in the Dances of Anna Sokolow (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017); Janice Ross, Like a Bomb Going Off: Leonid Yakobson and Ballet as Resistance in Soviet Russia (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2015); Henia Rottenberg and Dina Roginsky, eds., Rav-koliot ve-siah mahol be-yisrael [Dance Discourse in Israel] (Tel Aviv: Resling Press, 2009) ( in Hebrew); Nina S. Spiegel, Embodying Hebrew Culture: Aesthetics, Athletics, and Dance in the Jewish Community of Mandate Palestine (Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 2013).


See, e.g., Henry Bial, Acting Jewish: Negotiating Ethnicity on the American Stage and Screen (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2005); J. Hoberman and Jeffrey Shandler, eds., Entertaining America: Jews, Movies, and Broadcasting (New York and Princeton, NJ: Jewish Museum and Princeton University Press, 2003); Ari Y. Kelman, Station Identification: A Cultural History of Yiddish Radio in the United States (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2009); Andrea Most, Making Americans: Jews and the Broadway Musical (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004). Paul Buhle’s three-volume edited work Jews and American Popular Culture does not include a single essay focused on dance. Paul E. Buhle, ed., Jews and American Popular Culture (Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 2007).


For instance, several classic and important texts often used in American dance history courses incorporate works of American Jewish choreographers yet do not address matters related to Jewish identity. See, e.g., Ann Dils and Ann Cooper Albright, eds., Moving History/Dancing Cultures: A Dance History Reader (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2001); Deborah Jowitt, Time and the Dancing Image (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1988); Nancy Reynolds, No Fixed Points: Dance in the Twentieth Century (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003).


“Dancing Jewish,” accessed July 4, 2017, www.oup.com/us/dancingjewish (requires book purchase to access).

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