Embody­ing Hebrew Cul­ture: Aes­thet­ics, Ath­let­ics, and Dance in the Jew­ish Com­mu­ni­ty of Man­date Palestine

  • Review
By – May 13, 2013

From the title one might think that this is a his­to­ry of phys­i­cal edu­ca­tion class­es. And in a cer­tain way, that would be correct.

This insight­ful study shows how, in the course of just a few years, dis­parate peo­ple were mold­ed into a soci­ety. The premise of the book is that the direc­tion that Israeli soci­ety took was method­i­cal­ly planned and then ap­plied through the use of phys­i­cal culture.

The edu­ca­tion­al and polit­i­cal lead­ers of the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty dur­ing the British man­date, espe­cial­ly toward the end of that peri­od, were intent on mold­ing peo­ple and mold­ing a cul­ture. Their task was to replace old Euro­pean Jew­ish cul­ture with some­thing new, strong, bold, and unique­ly Mid­dle East­ern. They need­ed to cre­ate romance and beau­ty in a fledg­ling coun­try com­pro­mised of peo­ple from var­i­ous parts of the world.

To that end, they insti­tut­ed local and nation­al cel­e­bra­tions and performances.

There is no bet­ter exam­ple of the suc­cess these lead­ers achieved than the rise of Israeli dance. The mix of tra­di­tions that is the essence of Israeli dance is a blend of the past and the present that drew on both Euro­pean dance steps and Ara­bic dance steps. 

It didn’t stop there. The new­ly cre­at­ed Purim car­ni­vals — crown­ing a Queen Esther in pageants akin to the Miss USA or Miss Uni­verse pageant — was anoth­er vehi­cle con­ceived with the idea of nor­mal­iz­ing the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty. And noth­ing was more sig­nif­i­cant than insti­tut­ing a Jew­ish Olympics. They called it the Mac­cabi­ah games and Jew­ish ath­letes came from around the world to compete.

These ath­let­ic games, dance events, and beau­ty pageants used Jew­ish themes to inform the Jew­ish soci­ety. It was a blend­ing of the Jew­ish past with the Jew­ish present and it craft­ed a Jew­ish future.

Relat­ed Content:

In Search of the Ori­gins of Israeli Culture

by Nina S. Spiegel

In the win­ter of my junior year as an under­graduate at Brown Uni­ver­si­ty, I sched­uled a seem­ing­ly ordi­nary meet­ing dur­ing office hours with one of my men­tors, the emi­nent soci­ol­o­gist, Pro­fes­sor Calvin Goldscheider. 

At the time, I was pur­su­ing a dou­ble major in Juda­ic Stud­ies and Reli­gious Stud­ies with inter­ests in Israel, reli­gion, and cul­ture. I was also chore­o­graph­ing and per­form­ing in a stu­dent-run dance troupe that fea­tured a diverse array of dance styles and stu­dent cre­ations. After wait­ing in the typ­i­cal­ly long lines dur­ing Pro­fes­sor Goldscheider’s pop­u­lar office hours, a live­ly con­ver­sa­tion soon began. He had recent­ly attend­ed one of my dance troupe’s per­for­mances and when we start­ed speak­ing about my aca­d­e­m­ic direc­tions, he strong­ly encour­aged me to draw on my pas­sion for dance.

I left Pro­fes­sor Goldscheider’s office that cold win­tery day won­der­ing what it might look like to bring togeth­er these dif­fer­ent areas, fields that seemed so sep­a­rate to me at the time. 

This con­ver­sa­tion sparked my imag­i­na­tion in pro­found ways and, unbe­knownst to me back then, set me on the path to writ­ing this book. That sum­mer, I trav­eled to Israel on a Dorot Fel­low­ship to inves­ti­gate the devel­op­ment of Israeli folk dance. My research began at one of the flag­ship events: the annu­al Karmiel Dance Fes­ti­val, a three-day fes­ti­val devot­ed pri­mar­i­ly to folk dance that also includes con­cert dance. Karmiel, a small devel­op­ment town in the north of Israel, becomes inun­dat­ed with vis­i­tors from all over the world who flock to watch the perfor­mances, dance, and even social­ize. Danc­ing takes place each day for the full twen­ty four hours and incor­po­rates many lay­ers of Israeli soci­ety: young and old, rich and poor, Ashke­nazi and Sephar­di, Arab and Jew.

I had nev­er before seen or expe­ri­enced any­thing like this fes­ti­val and the event made a last­ing impres­sion on me. Dancers rang­ing from age five to nine­ty-five per­formed and danced at all hours of the day and night, injured sol­diers per­formed in wheel­chairs, chil­dren with spe­cial needs par­tic­i­pat­ed in ded­i­cat­ed dance per­for­mances and com­pe­ti­tions, promi­nent singers and con­cert dance troupes per­formed. Many of the events took place out­side, on stages or on the ten­nis courts. I was struck by these cross sec­tions of Israeli soci­ety, by the deep love of dance, and the ener­gy, enthu­si­asm, and cre­ativ­i­ty. Dance held a lev­el of impor­tance that I had nev­er before seen grow­ing up in Los Angeles. 

After the Karmiel Fes­ti­val, I con­tin­ued my research that sum­mer col­lect­ing doc­u­ments at the Dance Library in Tel Aviv and con­duct­ing inter­views with a range of Israelis — from avid dai­ly folk dancers, to direc­tors of well-known dance com­pa­nies, to the direc­tor of the arts and cul­ture depart­ment at the Min­istry of Edu­ca­tion and Culture. 

I was hooked. I was so fas­ci­nat­ed by the sto­ries I uncov­ered that sum­mer that I want­ed to know more: how and why did dance, and phys­i­cal activ­i­ty in gen­er­al, become so impor­tant in Israel? 

As I began to search for answers dur­ing my grad­u­ate years at Stan­ford Uni­ver­si­ty, I was tak­en into the 1920s through the 1940s, the peri­od of the British Man­date in Pales­tine. I was drawn to the cre­ativ­i­ty and ener­gy of the era. Var­i­ous mem­bers of the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty at the time took it upon them­selves to invent, view­ing the city, the street, and the field as open stu­dios in which to develop. 

This imag­i­na­tion and inge­nu­ity great­ly intrigued me and I want­ed to uncov­er the answers to these ques­tions: how was this impor­tance of phys­i­cal­i­ty incor­po­rat­ed into the new cul­ture? And, how was a nation­al cul­ture created? 

It is often thought that cul­ture evolves nat­u­ral­ly over time, but my research shows that Israeli cul­ture devel­oped con­scious­ly and delib­er­ate­ly, in a short peri­od of time, and con­sol­i­dat­ed in the 1920s through the 1940s. I dis­cov­ered that build­ing a phys­i­cal cul­ture was a cen­tral goal and was one of the impor­tant inno­va­tions of this Jew­ish nation­al project. They placed an empha­sis on build­ing a new strong Jew, with the idea from Euro­pean nation­al­ism that a healthy body was linked to a healthy nation. Every­where I turned, I saw phys­i­cal­i­ty high­light­ed: in films, posters, doc­u­ments, pho­tographs. It was clear­ly a sig­nif­i­cant com­po­nent of this bur­geon­ing soci­ety. Yet, the exist­ing research at the time was over­look­ing not only these activ­i­ties and pur­suits, but also their import. 

When I began this book, there was very lit­tle work being done on Israeli cul­ture out­side of Hebrew lit­er­a­ture, and I at first planned to shine light on these cre­ative activ­i­ties and to give voice to these pre­vi­ous­ly untold stories.

And, as I began to delve through the mate­ri­als I col­lect­ed, some­thing unex­pect­ed hap­pened. This hap­pens to be one of the trea­sures of research that I so great­ly enjoy! I start­ed to see the same debates and issues tak­ing place over these very dif­fer­ent events. They argued ev­erything from ques­tions like what should they call their Purim car­ni­vals or the Jew­ish Olympics, to larg­er ques­tions like: is this the right path for build­ing a nation­al cul­ture? And should it be mov­ing in a dif­fer­ent direction?

Out of these debates a whole new lay­er of this book project emerged. As I thought about these pat­terns, I real­ized they were devel­op­ing a cul­tur­al aes­thet­ic, and in the book I define four of these pat­terns that I argue are still preva­lent in Israel today. I show that these aes­thet­ics pro­vide keys to under­stand­ing con­tem­po­rary Israeli life. 

The ideas that began dur­ing a professor’s office hours at Brown are now a book — a book that tells new sto­ries of how Israeli cul­ture devel­oped and pro­vides a frame­work for under­stand­ing how it came to be what it is today.

Mic­ah D. Halpern is a colum­nist and a social and polit­i­cal com­men­ta­tor. He is the author of What You Need To Know About: Ter­ror, and main­tains The Mic­ah Report at www​.mic​ah​halpern​.com.

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