BASED ON Deborah Feldman’s 2012 memoir about her choice to leave the Satmar Hasidic community of her birth, the Netflix miniseries Unorthodox draws sharp contrasts between the protagonist Esty Shapiro’s old life in Brooklyn and the new freedoms she experiences in Berlin. The third episode focuses on Esty’s sexual difficulties with her husband, Yanky, and her discovery of sexual freedom through a night of liberated dancing with her new friend, Robert. There is a world of difference between the chaste ritual dance performed by Esty and Yanky at their wedding and the earthy scene between Esty and Robert in a Berlin club. The latter encounter is presented as an important, positive step in Esty’s escape from Orthodoxy.
Unorthodox is not unique in suggesting that pious women need to leave a traditional Jewish world in order to find men who can give them pleasure on the dance floor — and, by extension, in bed. Although traditional Jewish law forbids men and women from dancing together, transgressive dancing has long been a source of fascination in life and literature. For centuries, rabbis issued prohibitions on mixed-sex dancing, and Jewish communities found ways around these restrictions time and again. By juxtaposing the scenes of sexual dysfunction involving Yanky with the interlude in the club with Robert, Unorthodox repeats several tropes that appeared in literary texts from the 19th and early 20th centuries, in works by authors as varied in language and theme as Kadya Molodowsky, Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Anzia Yezierska, and Israel Zangwill. These works deployed the motif of scandalous dancing as a way of addressing the dramatic social changes Jews experienced in the modern era — especially since, for many writers, dancing was the most physically intimate act they were willing to describe in print.
After the Enlightenment, religious communities were inescapably changed by the growth of secularism. Jewish communities in particular grappled with acculturation, religious reform, and political emancipation. Even within a communal context, interpretations of Jewish law did not necessarily carry the same force as in previous generations, and it was necessary for authorities to appeal to such concerns as Jewish continuity, antisemitism, and bourgeois propriety. Writers of Jewish popular fiction, whether they were religiously inclined or staunchly secular, portrayed mixed-sex dancing as a threat to the social order.
Not all mixed-sex dancing was equally subject to criticism, however. Dances in bourgeois German-Jewish social clubs or among Yiddish-speaking immigrants on New York’s Lower East Side may have appeared simply as a sign of the changing times, a social practice that was popular enough to overcome any potential religious censure. Although these types of dances represented a new form of courtship, one that fostered love matches rather than arranged marriages, they did not necessarily challenge the composition of the matches themselves, since participants in these social events were generally of the same class, educational background, or religious affiliation. As Mordechai Breuer notes in his 1992 book Modernity Within Tradition: The Social History of Orthodox Jewry in Imperial Germany, “it was not unusual for some of the ladies and gentlemen invited to an Orthodox wedding to participate in mixed dancing, while the rabbis present, and other, more strictly traditional guests would remain seated and, as far as possible, ignore what was going on in the ballroom.” The true controversy occurred, in life and certainly in literature, when individuals danced with, flirted with, and maybe even married those whom their families and communities would not have considered appropriate mates. As such, literary depictions of mixed-sex dancing typically involve multiple forms of social mixing: not only do they feature dance partners of different genders, they also involve transgressions of religious, class, or ethnic boundaries.
It is no coincidence that such anxiety about mixed-sex dancing coincided with the period of Jewish acculturation and emancipation, since social dancing was arguably the most popular (and intimate) mixed-sex leisure activity. It was, moreover, an important way for young people to display their obedience to the rules of fashion and etiquette while seeking out a marriage partner. Mixed-sex dancing was, in short, a key way for both sexes to show their commitment to modern social norms, and to display this commitment within the context of courtship. The stakes were potentially quite high, for the community, the family, and the individual.
While the dance floor was one proving ground among several available to Jewish men, it played a unique role for Jewish women in the context of courtship and marriage. Although scholars have shown that Jewish women had several options for social mobility in the 19th century, marriage remained the preferred strategy in literary representations by Jewish and Christian authors alike. To put it crudely, acculturated men could demand respect and display masculinity through professional success or physical prowess in the military, gymnasium, dueling club, or dance floor, while women used their bodies to entice a suitable man to marry them and enhance their status. It is through such a choice, to the extent a Jewish daughter had one, that female characters could change their prospects, and in the process bring the forces of modernization and secularization into the home. A woman’s ability to choose her own marriage partner was an important theme for writers who sought to depict, and decry, the constrained social position of Jewish women in traditional communities.
Although many of the Jewish writers who used transgressive dancing as a metaphor for modernity were acculturated and more or less secular, the dance floor could also be a place of temptation in Orthodox fiction. One of the most interesting examples of a literary text that describes the allure of dancing for a sheltered young woman is German Orthodox Rabbi Marcus Lehmann’s 1868 novella Elvire, serialized in Der Israelit (The Israelite), the Orthodox journal he edited. Elvire is a didactic work that is narrated by a fictional rabbi who warns against intermarriage, romance reading, and mixed-sex dancing — with just enough titillation to keep readers interested. Lehmann explicitly discusses the role of dance in Jewish debates about German culture, connecting the dance floor with contemporary political concerns, particularly those related to liberalism and emancipation. He frequently interrupts the narrative with accounts of the rise and fall of the 1848 revolutions, events that provide an important backdrop for the motivations of his characters. Lehmann sets the conflict between German culture and Jewish traditions in sharp relief when the family of a Jewish banker, Adolph Metz, receives an invitation to a noble ball. Adolph views the ball as an opportunity to integrate into German society, since for the first time members of the bourgeoisie, including Jews, are invited. Adolph allows his naïve hopes for social acceptance to blind him to the threat posed by ballroom dancing.
Adolph’s rabbi friend does not share his excitement about the ball, pointing out that mixed-sex dancing violates Jewish law and discouraging Adolph from attending. Even if the banker feels he must go, the rabbi warns him not to bring his impressionable young daughter, Elvire. Yet unlike historical rabbinic prohibitions going back centuries, the story does not simply warn against transgressive dancing. Instead, Lehmann stages a debate between his characters about whether Jews should be allowed to participate in mixed-sex dancing. Adolph responds to the rabbi with an argument that might have been compelling for the German-Jewish bourgeoisie, noting that both the Bible and the Talmud mention dancing on joyous occasions. The rabbi quickly refutes him by pointing out that there is no biblical precedent for men and women dancing together and asserting that mixed-sex dancing at a ball is clearly forbidden. He challenges the notions of those who, like the Jewish reformers, might choose to selectively interpret biblical texts to allow all kinds of dancing.
Lehmann frames the debate around the question of acculturation, a sign of how even warnings against mixed-sex dancing changed in the modern era. Adolph accuses the rabbi of sounding antiquated, whereas the rabbi claims that the Book of Esther provides a warning against the dangers of Jews attending non-Jewish court functions, claiming that all the misfortunes the Jews suffer in that account are a direct result of their participation in a Persian court feast. The rabbi seems most concerned with the possibility of intermarriage, and his arguments would not necessarily prevent Jews from dancing with each other at their own social clubs. Yet Adolph is not convinced by the rabbi’s justification that the near genocide of Jews in the Book of Esther was caused by their carousing with the Persians. He cannot bear to deprive his daughter of the pleasures of the ball.
Ultimately, events transpire as the rabbi suggests. Elvire’s beauty and simple yet tasteful attire attract the attention of Dr. Wetting, a Christian lawyer who claims to be a proponent of emancipation. He was once a frequent guest at the Metz home until he paid entirely too much attention to 15-year-old Elvire and was banned. In the environment of the ballroom, filled with music and the smell of expensive perfume, Wetting is able to gaze at Elvire, pay her compliments, and dance with her. Although Elvire feels flustered by Wetting’s seductive words and wants to go home, she is trapped at the ball (and in Wetting’s dangerous company) because her parents are too distracted to notice: Adolph plays cards with the local prince while Frau Metz chats with a countess. Her parents, in short, are so busy cavorting with the Christian nobility that they forget to look after their daughter’s welfare. Although Elvire is initially shy, Wetting slowly reveals to her, over the course of several dances, that he would like to marry her in a civil ceremony. When the ball ends, Wetting escorts Elvire to her carriage, and she suggests he discuss the marriage proposal with her father. Crucially, it is the space of the ballroom, with its social sanction and opportunity for intermingling of the sexes over a period of several hours, that enables the fateful courtship to occur. Elvire is only thrust back into Wetting’s vicinity because her parents did not adhere to the advice of their rabbi.
Writers often negotiated the thorny process of Jewish cultural engagement by putting Jews on the dance floor and then describing what happens when they encounter an unsuitable dance partner. Yet the tales of these Jewish dancers often end tragically, precisely because the authors could not envision a successful resolution. Jewish women were particularly vulnerable to ill-fated love affairs, since an advantageous marriage was their main form of social mobility — in the literary imagination, if not necessarily in reality. The fatal mismatch between the utopian fantasy suggested by the dance floor and the reality of a society unprepared to deal with a controversial match meant that Jewish dancers could not find a proper place for themselves. As a result, the delights of the dance floor often led to tragic consequences.
While Orthodox writers such as Lehmann used transgressive dancing to warn against behavior that violated traditional Jewish law, his more secular or non-Jewish contemporaries deployed dance scenes for local color, or to attack the perceived rigidity of traditional Jewish communities, or as a way of criticizing antisemitism. Yet in the late 20th and 21st centuries, female protagonists enjoy much more space to explore their sexuality on the dance floor. As exemplified by Unorthodox, contemporary novels, television shows, and films use the motif of Jewish mixed-sex dancing to allow female characters to explore their sexuality. For instance, Rachel Benjamin, the protagonist of Pearl Abraham’s 1995 novel The Romance Reader, fantasizes about dancing with a non-Jewish man as a form of escape from her strictly regulated Hasidic community. Rachel’s dreams of dancing foreshadow her departure from the Hasidic world, marking a sharp contrast with her stilted ritual dance with her husband on her wedding day. As in Unorthodox, Rachel’s future is uncertain, yet her rebellion is also depicted as necessary for her development.
In comparison with 19th- and early 20th-century fiction, contemporary works are less interested in policing the boundaries of Jewish communities or punishing characters for violating communal norms. Although Unorthodox demonstrates that restrictions on women can still be used to make a polemical point, contemporary authors are generally able to envision more opportunities for their heroines to assert their desires and sexuality, both on and off the dance floor.
Featured image: “Detail of Porcelain with Dancing Figures – Jewish Museum of Odessa – Odessa – Ukraine” by Adam Jones is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0. Image has been cropped.