We did not come from the sea
By Be’eri Zimmerman | 15/10/2009
The resounding silence of the first generation of the kibbutz movement about the world they had left behind, and which was later destroyed, was a fortified wall that was breached only on rare occasions. Be'eri Zimmerman follows the Shereleh, an originally Hassidic wedding dance, A wedding in Kibbutz Dgania
one of the only legitimate
expressions of longing for the Diaspora, where most of the pioneers originated, for the homes that were turned into ashes, for the burning village before it went up in flames
I All the generations until now
“All the generations thus far / Have pinned their hopes upon you” – Thus begins a Hebrew poem by Aaron Zeitlin (1898-1973), the son of Hillel Zeitlin and a citizen of the United States for most of his life, that he addressed to me and others like myself: native-born Israelis. In the style of the prophets, he called the poem The Burden of the Sabra, and through it, aimed a powerful demand at us: to be worthy heirs of our forbears, that we take upon ourselves the yoke of the mystery of Jewish existence, that we serve as a worthy compensation for the millions of our people who were murdered.
Zeitlin was greatly agitated when he wrote soon after the establishment of the state of the imminent danger, as he saw it, posed to the “Sabra” – that the Sabra might forget the historical continuum as he sinks into “the blindness of small happiness.” In the same vein, he also objected – perhaps unjustly – to the use of the term “first generation,” a commonly used expression during the early years of Jewish settlement in Palestine and the early years of the state in Israeli society and especially in the kibbutz movement – where I grew up. Although the expression “first generation of the redemption” was already prevalent in speeches and writings then too, it at least left room for all those other previous generations that were not fortunate enough to be redeemed, whereas the phrase “first generation” went much further – it suggested a completely new beginning, a creation almost ex nihilo, an implied denial of some vital root in “all the generationsthus far.”
True to the discipline of the “first generation,” when we grew up, we became the “second generation,” who in turn raised the “third generation.” This was encouraged by the resounding silence of our parents regarding what had preceded point zero, the great secular Zionist revolution. Migrating birds of fragmented Yiddish phrases flew through the air, but most found no place to rest on our Hebrew shoulders. Few of us, for example, knew what our murdered grandfathers and grandmothers had done for a living, what education they had received, what language they spoke, what books they read, how they lived and where they died. The members of the “first generation” made of themselves a solid, living separation fence, dense with rebellion and guilt, to stand between their parents and us. Their eyes anxiously followed us, the “the Israeli generation,” as they stood with their backs to the sea, to our grandfathers and grandmothers, intent to obstruct and censor everything that they had left back in Europe. As long as we had “our faces to the rising sun,” they kept their backs to the setting sun.
However, something had to be said, especially in the mid-1940s after the horrific news of the extermination of the Jews by the Nazis filtered not only into the news headlines, but also into the secret places of the heart; when it became clear that the Zionist pioneers had lost most of that camp before which they had marched; and that the Diaspora domains they both loathed and longed for had turned to ashes and were gone forever. That is when the first cracks started to appear in the separation fence and a few small hints of that other world began to slip through. One of those hints was the Shereleh.
II The Scissors Dance
Sher in Yiddish means shears or scissors, or to shave. Sher and Shereleh are wedding dances, which literary means the “scissors dance.” Out of a desire to fulfill the commandment of “dancing before the bride” (based on tractate Ketubot, 16b-17a), the mitzva tanse – Yiddish for mitzvah dance – developed during the Middle Ages in Central Europe, migrating eastward. The purpose of the mitzva tanse is to delight the bride and groom and their guests. The shereleh is one of these dances, and it became customary in many Jewish communities, although not necessarily only Hassidic ones. One is easily caught up by the lively, catchy melody in which Jewish melancholy is kept at a relatively low level. This, it appears to me, to be yet another of the reasons for its revival at so many weddings in the kibbutz movement from the early 1950s up until the present, in those few kibbutzim that still hold communal weddings.
Many kibbutzim also applied the name shereleh to plays staged before the guests of a wedding seated at tables in the dining room or on the big lawn before it. The performers were the kibbutz “veterans,” that is, the founders of the kibbutz, the members of the “first generation.” “The Jewish shtetl, that Jewish village of Mendele Mocher Sforim and Sholem Aleichem, with its familiar types, was staged in text, movement and dance,” reported Dalia Shelah in 1961 to the readers of Iggeret, the official newspaper of the United Kibbutz Movement, about a play performed as part of a wedding celebration in Kibbutz Hatzerim by the drama club of Kibbtuz Afikim. To the young reporter, the typical characters of the books of Mendele and Sholom Aleichem, about whom she had heard and read, had come alive on the stage. But the real characters on the platform were the ghosts of the actors' parents, life breathed into them by the living memory borne by their sons and daughters, as they cavorted to the wailing sounds of a clarinet and accordion. “The scene ended with a general wedding dance evoking a distant Jewish atmosphere with all its charm. And from the Diaspora wedding dance,” she summed up her report with an unintended tone of irony, “the guests moved over to the gymnasium to dance modern dances.”
The inevitable transition from the Diaspora shtetl to the gymnasium, from the old time to the new, is of course, a self-evident conclusion. Sometimes, to underscore that point, the wedding performance might include Shaul Tchernichovsky's idyllic epic Elka's Wedding (by Ida Keter-Levin in Kibbutz Ramat Yohanan and Abba Kovner in Kibbutz Ein Hahoresh), but very often the “performance” included just one dance, the Shereleh, which was accompanied by a further hint of the “shtetl wedding” in the image of a clown prancing around with a huge challah bread and a bride dancing the mitzvah tanse with the guests via the mediation of a handkerchief.
The concept of sharing, the modest standard of living and the hard work involved in preparing all the food and cultural fare for weddings led to the holding of multiple weddings in which a number of young couples were married. N. Nahum tells of such a wedding (ten couples!) in the newspaper Mahaneh Nahal (1964): “The organizers of the evening's program did not leave the audience any free time, keeping them constantly occupied,” he rhapsodizes. “As the orchestra switched from a folk melody to Hassidic dances, the kibbutz old timers suddenly mounted the stage and began the Shereleh dance. With rouged cheeks and gay smiles, they appeared wearing Hassidic costumes that they had most likely just removed from a museum.” In other words, that which is no longer part of the living world and has been cast aside like a dead object in the corner of a museum is taken out – for a few moments – to be displayed for all to see. The writer especially notes that the children “clapped their hands with excitement.” I can clearly remember this excitement from my childhood years in the kibbutz where I grew up.
And indeed, Einav Bar-David of the Kibbutzim College of Education, who has researched the dancing at the wedding ceremonies in secular kibbutz society, states that some variation of the Shereleh was danced in all the kibbutzim. The overwhelming prevalence of the dance at secular kibbutz wedding celebrations is especially intriguing in light of the fact that the Scissors Dance's connection to shears has nothing to do with tailors or seamstresses who sewed the wedding clothes, as might be assumed. The scissors referred to in the dance were used to shear the bride's hair before her marriage. Furthermore, the lively tempo and irresistible charm of the Sher or Shereleh dance mask the young bride's anguish at having to relinquish her hair and her past, intermingled with her hopes and fears as she faces the dramatic change of her new life, the most immediate expression of which is the covering of her sheared head.
The violent aspect of the shearing of the bride's hair is usually obscured in debates or memories of the Shereleh dance, and for good reason. Abba Kovner himself does not mention it when in 1954 he summed up the impression that Tchernichovsky's idyll made on the members of his kibbutz. “The genuine accolades that members and many guests heaped upon the drama troupe at the wedding celebration,” writes Kovner, “and especially the pleasure this scene caused the younger generation, from those that were the same age as the bride and groom to the kindergarten children, were greatly encouraging to the performers and gratifying to those that put so much work into the performance, but also proof to the skeptics that no subject is ‘remote' or ‘foreign' if it is presented truthfully and esthetically. And all the more so subjects that draw on the past of the nation, which hold within them treasures of folklore and vitality.” And this is how he sums up the lesson that should be learned: “Because after all, it is not the danger of a ‘return to religion' that we face, as much as the danger that our children view themselves as if they are ‘If the first were human beings' [...] We should consider this matter while the generation that “knew Joseph” is still with us and still able to bequeath and impart the great experiences, without which there can be no continuation of culture” (from Le'akev Et Hakeriah [Preventing the Rift,] ed. Muki Zur, Am Oved, 1998, p. 282).
The manner in which Kovner interprets the expression “If the first were human beings” contains within it implied criticism of the social and cultural reality dictated by the “first generation.” “If the first were angels – then we are humans,” said R. Ze'ira, and if they were human,” he continued, “then we are as donkeys” (in a number of places, here JT Damay, Ch. 1:3). R. Ze'ira, recognizes that he is second in a chain and accepts the authority and primacy of the first generation, whereas the generation of kibbutz children, as Kovner sees it, faces the danger of being completely cut off from everything that preceded it and may declare itself man and call all those that preceded it donkeys. The way to prevent this, states Kovner, is to “bequeath and impart” – before the Pharaoh of ignorance rises to power, as alluded to in the versed quoted by the very un-ignorant Kovner.
The dramatization of Tchernichovsky's Elka's Wedding is then an effort to impart and bequeath, but not only that. As noted, in most kibbutzim the Shereleh became an integral part of the wedding “program,” but not always to the satisfaction of the sentinels of the “separation fence,” the guardians of the walls of the ideal, the targets of Kovner's implied admonition. This view is represented by a member of Kibbutz Sarid, who is quoted in 1958 as follows: “I found no point in the Sherele dance, with its religious and primitive naiveté, which are so inappropriate for us.” Indeed, in the 1950s and 1960s, very many members of the kibbutz movement tended to commit the sin of naiveté as they addressed a deep, vital and primitive need to be sons and daughters that continue a heritage rather than only founding fathers and mothers.
“Melodies you planted in me, my father and mother,” wrote the young Fania Bergstein in the middle of the Second World War in Kibbutz Gvat. David Zahavi of Kibbutz Naan composed the music, and throughout the country, the members of the “first generation” sang this Hebrew song that touched the deepest chords of those “forgotten refrains” that “now rise and swell.” “Now they send out strains in my blood /Their roots intertwine in my veins,” wrote Fania, offering her fellow kibbutnikim an opportunity to make a rare gesture towards the homes where they were raised, which at that very moment were going up in flames, in the conflagration of destruction. And it is no coincidence that the song's tune is reminiscent of the melody of the Scroll of Lamentations, as it is chanted in the synagogue on the Ninth of Av in commemoration of the destruction of the Temple two thousand years ago. It was an unusual Jewish anthem, one through which they could cling to the past and weep, without conceding their identity as members of the “first generation,” of that wall that needed to separate the Diaspora and the “second generation.” After all, the “darkness of the abyss” – which, at the end of this searing ode the poet leaps over in her imagination on her way back to her parents – cannot really be bridged, even after the darkness has lifted and the murder has ended. Only this sorrowful melody remains to give vent to the yearning and guilt.
A similar role was allocated to our Shereleh dance. Throughout the kibbutz movement, especially in those kibbutzim founded by European immigrants, although not exclusively so, every few months or weeks, the members would don the garments of the Diaspora, the Hassidic kapote and shtreimel, glue sidelocks to their cheeks, place their thumbs in their armpits and mount the stage to show their Sabra children, who watched them in amazement, what they had never told them at home: what life was like over there in the homes that were turned to ashes, in the burning shtetl before it went up in flames. With my child's eyes, many years ago in Kibbutz Mishmar Hasharon, I gazed at the huge challah carried to the bride by the dancers, at the clown that played at mocking them and mimicked their movements, at the kerchief that separated the hand of the bride from those that came to dance with her. The clarinet and accordion music flew on high, and with it my excitement along with the rest of the appreciative and responsive audience that cheered every step of the performance on.
“I became a Hasid,” said Rabbi Mendel of Kotzk (according to Buber's Tales of the Hasidim), “because in the town where I lived there was an old man who told stories about zaddikim. He told what he knew and I heard what I needed.” It was similar for me: They danced what they danced and I heard what I needed.
The Shereleh dance or dramatized scenes from Elka's Wedding – agents of the transmission of volatile knowledge about what there was before everything was – were especially salient on the background of the general protocol of the kibbutz wedding, which was entirely aimed at the here, the now and the golden future. The “religious” part of the event (the traditional wedding ceremony performed by a rabbi authorized for this purpose by the Jewish state) was literally shunted to the sidelines, performed at the side of the “big lawn” near the dining hall, sometimes even removed entirely from the premises of the kibbutz and held in the offices of the religious council or the home of the regional rabbi. With that out of the way, the main focus of the evening was held on a large stage in front of a goodly sized audience made up of the majority of the kibbutz members (or kibbutzim – if the bride and groom were members of different kibbutzim) and the family's guests. On the background of the taken-for-granted Judaism of the young couple and their guests (which was represented by the reading of verses from Song of Songs or the performance of supposedly Biblical dances), most of the ceremony was a vehicle for the expression of the local, kibbutz identity. In many cases, a kind of local “marriage contract” – in some cases serious and in others comic – was drawn up especially for the occasion, a special cup or symbolic picture album was passed from the previous young couple to the new one, good wishes were extended and childhood memories recalled, and above all the hope was repeatedly expressed that this marriage would contribute to the strengthening of the kibbutz and the resilience of the movement.
A large public wedding with an active and varied program and numerous participants was a fundamental response to the fears the “first generation” harbored regarding the stability and continuity of the enterprise that they had founded. Who fears another revolution more than a revolutionary? A successful revolutionary is always – but always – a staunch conservative. After all, what point is there to the revolution if we then hand it over to those that pay in the same coin that we minted? That is why the “first generation” stood among the guests, and after it had finished serving and clearing and loading, kissing and hugging, its heart swelled at the sight of the singing and dancing, the girls' flying braids, the boys' muscular arms, and in general the comforting promise that shone from the eyes of the “second generation.” And then they went to the side, to the costume storeroom, and donned the skin of the tiger of their extinct villages, and to the electrifying sound of the accordion and wailing clarinet, mounted the stage to give us a taste of the forbidden fruit of the Diaspora.
Be'eri Zimmerman is a poet, Biblical commentator and a lecturer at Alma College