Recent Ruminations

ABOUT THE AUTUMN SUKKOT HOLIDAY'S Dance called Simhat Beit Hashoevah or the ancient Most Joyous Jumping and Drawing of the Water Dance:

I wish you a happy Sukkot, a Hag Sameah, when we are required to rejoice and be happy, never mind the current state of affairs.

In studying ancient Jewish dance, as my gift to you in this new year, I want to share something I've learned about dance at Sukkot. It is commanded to be joyous and it is described in Tractate Sukkot that the High Priest danced the most joyous dance there ever has been. I'd like to share what I've learned about this dance on the first day of Sukkot, and also about the night before that most joyous dance that was ever danced. There was a prelude, including another extraordinary performance. (The following includes some of my own interpretation based on my studies with Rabbi Zev Harari).

For the Harvest Festival of Sukkot, the Israelites had walked and hiked up the mountains to the Temple on Mt. Moriah from all over the land. Each person was commanded to participate in the Three Pilgrimage Festivals (which each had dance components...). For Sukkot, those who reached the Temple, gathered together in the Women's Court below the 17 steps leading to the Holy of Holies (which held the fragments of the Ten Commandments carried for forty years in the desert. Now they were home in the Temple).

Everyone waited up all night, waiting for the others to arrive, standing all together in the women's court. That courtyard was huge and it was lit with bonfires so big, it was said that the court was as light as day. Suddenly attention was turned to watch the landing on the top of the staircase.

Why? What did everyone watch? It was many things, but one was a Dance Contest between the Highest Judges of the land, all those who were the wise of the Sanhedran. What was it the judges of the Israelite's Supreme Court were doing? They were juggling flaming torches and dancing, entertaining, while everyone waited for the rest of the nation to hike up the mountains from all over the land.

When dawn came there would be the climax, the dance of all dances to behold. We're told the Israelites watched the most joyous dance that ever was danced. To prepare them at sunrise, the High Priest led a huge parade of all who had gathered, going back down below the Temple, onward, outside the gates of Jerusalem.

Then, when the gathered were outside, the High Priest turned and everyone turned; they were looking back at the Temple aglow with the new morning sun, reflecting on the copper that decorated the outside of the Temple. The rays of the morning sun were magnified and everything seemed aflame, but it was God to be glorified, not the sun or the effects of that needed warmth.So the High Priest turned everyone to face a different direction. He turned their attention to his personal Halleluyah.

First he poured a libation onto the ground from water he carried in a copper vessel from the Temple. The water joined with the live stream of water running outside the city walls. Then, he began his jumping dance. He jumped over the water, he danced and cavorted and jumped more and more. It is written you have never seen a more joyous dance.

Alas, I have not been part of that Sukkot crowd. I can only imagine what was the most joyous dance ever danced.

I can't help wondering what were the High Priest's steps? Maybe each High Priest, whoever in that position, knew the original steps and improvised when it was his turn. To be a High Priest, was to be as charismatic a performer as anyone ever was.

I wonder about the accompaniment to his dance? Maybe there was glorious song since all the Israelites had sung in the night--I was told by Shalom Hermon years ago about the Psalms of Ascension (Shalom, the Israeli creator of such wonderful dances in Haifa that they became favorite folk dances). He told me everyone knew King David's psalms and the special 17 known as the Psalms of Ascension were sung antiphonally with the officiants as they went up each of the 17 steps towards the Holy of Holies, to the landing.

The Israelites surely had a special glorious song as the High Priest danced that most joyous dance ever danced. Maybe there was drumming, too, and like the Levites of the Temple, maybe harpists on David's lyre, maybe the Shofar was blown again?

I wonder how all could have seen that glorious dance? Was the High Priest up on a knoll? Maybe everyone in the crowd was moved to dance, to participate so they could truly experience the joy? Sometimes I have been blessed to experience an essentially amazing, creatively joyous time when dancing, and I recall what a deep blessing, what a mystical experience it was. And sometimes I, too, have been moved, truly touched when watching powerful movers-- experiencing honest, mystical uniting moments.

Just know that we are to stop our sadness from Yom Kippur, stop our mourning and our difficulties brought up while fasting. Now we leave behind our accounting of mistakes and sins and missteps of the old year. Now it is a new time, and we are commanded to be joyful.

May I suggest creating a most joyous dance in the coming days, in honor of that dawning moment of Sukkot, led by the High Priest?

A Message from Judith Brin Ingber

As I write to you, we have no performances to go to, no way to gather together in studios for rehearsals for new work or to continue our practice in class in the ways we knew before the COVID-19 virus. I feel like we are on some terrible tour, with an untoward landscape both familiar but foreign, no tour guide to explain anything, not even how long this tour lasts?

What must have been an equally terrifying time were the years leading up to WWII and during the war, but artists continued creating. The following is my ode to them.

"The Guernica" was an inspiration to Sara Levi-Tana who spoke to me about Picasso’s painting and gave me a canvass reproduction she had gotten in Spain. Picasso's anti-war painting shows his outrage against the Nazi bombardment and destruction of the Spanish town. Because of the world’s silence about Guernica, the Nazis learned there would be no outcry against their genocidal killings. See Picasso’s Guernica Sara-- founder, director and resident choreographer of Inbal Dance Theatre, Israel's first modern dance company—choreographed “Musia’s Legs” set in the Nazi camp Auschwitz.

I had the privilege of watching Kurt Jooss restage his anti-war piece The Green Table for the Batsheva Co., in the ‘70s showing the futility of indifferent diplomats around their green table, intersecting with images of war and The Angel of Death's horrific effects.

The Green Table

The choreographer/ teacher Gertrud Kraus was such an inspiration for me in Tel Aviv seen here in her duet "Death and the Maiden." She originally choreographed it in Vienna before her escape from the Nazis. The photo is from Giora Manor's book The Life and Dance of Gertrud Kraus.

Gertrud Kraus - Death and the Maiden

I remember seeing the inspirational dancer Bonnie Mathis in Antony Tudor's Dark Elegies presented by Ballet Theatre. Tudor depicted an entire community in mourning, accompanied by Gustav Mahler's "Songs on the Death of Children”.

Close to my heart is all I learned about artists working and inspiring imprisoned children to rehearse and perform in Theresienstadt, the Nazi ghetto camp outside Prague. Broucci (Fireflies) was created by the choreographer Kamila Rosenbaumova with music by Karl Schvenk, costumes/set by Friedl Dicker-Brandeis and direction by Vava Shonova. Despite the children falling ill, or worse, or deported to Auschwitz, those remaining loved depicting the story of fireflies flying out over the flowers after winter. Broucci was performed over 35 performances. 

Like the children in Broucci this bleakness where we find ourselves will be followed by a new spring. Perhaps my beloved dance world, its dancers, choreographers and teachers including me, will learn to work entirely differently but creativity will abound.

I invite you to explore more information on my site about Broucci (Fireflies) from the recent Dance Today #36; about Batsheva (see my comments about their newest work in Dance Today #37) or about Sara Levi-Tanai (in the book by Henia Rottenberg and Dena Roginsky).