The last time Dr. Sonia Gollance saw her great-great-uncle, who had raised her grandmother and was like a great-grandfather to her, he told her: Learn Yiddish.
She was 14 and wanted to learn 20 languages when she grew up.
Her linguistic ambitions later narrowed. But she took his charge seriously; first studying German in high school because that was the closest language to Yiddish she could find on the curriculum at Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan; then studying Yiddish at the National Yiddish Book Center and the University of Chicago.
At the University of Chicago, she got a $2,000 grant to produce Yiddish cultural programming. She invited Steven Weintraub, a choreographer and performer of Yiddish dance, to campus to run a dance workshop with a local klezmer band.
“I had done dancing all of my life, starting with ballet when I was about 2, so the idea of learning Yiddish folk dance made a lot of sense for me.,” she said.
After college, a Fulbright grant took her to Germany, where she studied how Yiddish is taught in a Germanic language setting. (A key finding: “The emphasis was on older 18th century German written texts, whereas in the U.S. the focus is more on 19th and 20th century literature.”) Then she earned a Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania. As she continued her studies, she also continued her involvement in Yiddish dance.
“In grad school it became more obvious to me that the dancing was not just something I was doing as a hobby,” she said. “It was helping me learn more about the performance culture.”
She discovered that reading accounts of social dancing in Yiddish and German literature by and about Jews was a way to understand the changes happening in Jewish society “between the Enlightenment and the Holocaust, from 1780 to 1939.
“There were a lot of changes in this period: urbanization, changing ideas about the roles of women, changes in how people approached courtship and marriage.
“They were moving from a traditional environment, where men and women often lived separate lives, to a situation where you had men and women studying in universities together, going to cafes together, attending salons together.
“And the most beloved of these activities, whether by members of the economic and cultural elite or by those living in the countryside, was dancing.”
So while she originally had thought to research changes in courtship broadly, her final dissertation focused in specifically on dancing. Her book based on that research, “It Could Lead to Dancing: Mixed-Sex Dancing and Jewish Modernity,” was just published by Stanford University Press. (You can hear her talk about it next Sunday in a Zoom talk sponsored by Congregation Rinat Yisrael in Teaneck; see box for details.)
The most famous scene of mixed-sex dancing in Jewish culture is that between Perchik and Hodel in the musical “Fiddler on the Roof.” But that was “a Broadway innovation,” Dr. Gollance said. In Sholom Aleichem’s Tevye the Dairyman stories, which the musical was based on, “there isn’t any dancing.” The scene was invented by choreographer Jerome Robbins when he realized that a quick dance could tell the story of Perchik’s radicalism better than a four-minute song that had been written for that purpose. The song was cut.
Weddings were only one of the venues where dancing took place. In her book, Dr. Gollance devotes separate chapters to taverns, ball rooms, weddings, and dance halls.
“Jews in Central and Eastern Europe were often involved in tavern keeping,” she said. “There was dancing that would go on there. Even if Jews weren’t participating in the dancing, you have Jewish tavern keepers who are trying to raise children when literally in their house there are people who are getting drunk and carousing. These children might have more contact with their non-Jewish, Polish peasant neighbors than with any Jewish community. The texts about tavern dancing show a lot of concern about Jewish education and concerns about children who grow up in these rural communities.”
Literary portrayals of balls, by contrast, reflect the concerns of, and about, an upwardly mobile elite.
“Urban Jews were both attending balls that were largely not Jewish and hosting balls of their own, and repeating some of the same sorts of social exclusion they might have encountered at non-Jewish balls,” Dr. Gollance said. “Those questions of exclusion were often about class, about wearing the finest clothing and angling for the best possible marriage partner. They were places where all sorts of activities could be done, with the assumption that everyone who was there belonged there because they reached a high enough level.
“Weddings are a very common site for writers to think about dancing. Not only are you bringing together the couple from each side of the family, it’s also the main place where religious authorities are likely to come in contact with transgressive dancing. When mixed dancing happens at weddings, it’s often shut down very quickly. It’s a place where a lot of tension about the role of communal leaders appears, and it leads to intergenerational conflict. At weddings you have people from different generations, and people from cities coming home to their towns and showing off what they learned in the city.”
Sholom Aleichem’s portrayals of Russian Jewish life often are seen as prototypical Yiddish literature. But in the wake of the mass migration of millions of Eastern European Jews to America beginning in 1881, New York City became one of the largest centers of Jewish life in the world, and Yiddish writers such as Joseph Opatoshu, who immigrated from Poland when he was 21, chronicled the life of its Jews.
And the young Jews of New York City could also be found in dance halls.
“The chapter on dance halls deals with issues related to immigration and Americanization and how the new courtship norms relate to American capitalism,” Dr. Gollance said. “At the dance halls, men would often do what was known as ‘treating’ women — they’d buy things for their dance partners. This was something quite useful to women, because they often made a lot less than these men. These dancers were new immigrants, who might have come without a family support network.
“If a man is treating a woman to something, often there is a question if she is expected in some way to repay him. Is he just treating her so they can have a good time? Or is there a link between the dance halls and prostitution? Social reformers were very concerned about that,” she continued.
Because Dr. Gollance’s work explores portrayals of Jewish life in both German and Yiddish literature, it highlights the difference between those two sources of information.
The German texts were written earlier, generally in the 19th century, reflecting the early acculturation of German Jews, she said. “Most of the Yiddish texts I write about are from the late 19th century to the early-to-mid 20th century. A lot of them were written in the United States, even if they were describing life in Europe.
“Some of the forms of transgression that are shown on the dance floor are different. There’s a bit more emphasis on Jews and Christians dancing with each other in the German language texts.”
On the other hand, “In the Yiddish texts, class comes up a lot,” she said.
For her upcoming Zoom talk, Dr. Gollance promises some “fun literary examples” as she talks about “the taboo of mixed sex dancing, and how it relates to discussions and debates about Jewish modernity and how communities were grappling with the changes.”
Who: Dr. Sonia Gollance, author of “It Could Lead to Dancing: Mixed-Sex Dancing and Jewish Modernity.”
What: Talk, “Mixed Dancing and Jewish Modernity”
When: Sunday, July 11, 8 p.m.
Where: Zoom call sponsored by Teaneck’s Congregation Rinat Yisrael. Details at rinat.org.