Mixed-sex dancing is frequently identified with transgressive sexual behavior, yet in Jewish culture it is also identified with the changes wrought by modernity. Where Jewish men and women once lived very separate lives, in the period between 1780 and 1940 they tested out their newfound freedoms in heterosocial leisure culture sites, the most thrilling of which was the dance floor. In this space, dance partners explored their physical compatibility without the involvement of their families or a matchmaker. The popularity of mixed-sex dancing transcended language, class, and national boundaries. In literary texts, the dance floor is a heady, passionate space in which emotions are excited, and characters imagine that ordinary social rules no longer apply.
The prohibition on men and women dancing together was derived from biblical precedent and Jewish laws regulating sexual behavior. While even traditional communities had varied interpretations of what mixed-sex dancing entailed, in literature such boundaries were frequently transgressed. Where rabbinic condemnations of mixed-sex dancing before 1780 emphasize the connection between dancing and forbidden sexual behavior, later and more literary texts use dance to discuss influences from outside of the Jewish community. Writers utilized dance as a metaphor for Jewish modernity, which communicates their concerns with society while entertaining their readers. German Jewish and Yiddish literature targeted readerships that often differed in terms of class background and knowledge of Jewish tradition, yet they shared a fascination with literary dance scenes.
Dance classes were a key site for negotiating Jewish gender roles. Beyond simply training young people in proper physical deportment, dance lessons also guided them through gender, social, and class expectations, including those related to more tender emotions. Traditionally pious Jews learned to dance so that they could participate properly in weddings and other festive community celebrations. Acculturated and upwardly mobile Jews took advantage of the opportunity dance lessons offered to mingle with socially advantageous contacts. In this sense, dance lessons rehearsed the importance of balls for courtship. Even before they began seeking out marriage partners, young people learned how to behave on the dance floor and practiced appropriate behavior with their dancing partners. While Yiddish texts question whether dance lessons are compatible with proper sexual morality, German texts are concerned with the possibility of embarrassing oneself in a dance class.
For centuries, most ordinary central and eastern European Jews lived in towns and villages, often running taverns at the local nobleman's behest. There were few Jewish families in these rural communities, which often made it difficult to properly educate Jewish children. While the tavern was a space that ensured the family's livelihood, it also confronted the tavernkeeper's children with the temptation of peasant dancing. Indeed, taverns facilitated multiple forms of boundary-crossing. Rural Jewish families struggled, at least in literature, with passing on Jewish knowledge and customs to children who may have found the pastimes of their neighbors more compelling. Leopold Kompert's Die Kinder des Randars (The Randar's Children, 1848) and Leon Kobrin's Yankl Boyle (1899) depict the ways the children of tavernkeepers struggled to reconcile their Jewish and rural identities.
Participation in social dancing was an important marker in the Jewish process of embourgeoisement. European Jewish literary texts portray the ballroom as site for testing Jewish admission to elite pastimes and present the ball as a window into Jewish cultural aspirations. The question of whether both Jews and Christians are included in these social spaces is an important issue in many of these texts, revealing the way the dance floor shows gendered pathways to acculturation. Authors frequently underscore this theme by using the dance floor in the service of (unsuccessful) marriage plots. This chapter explores two types of ballroom space: elite non-Jewish balls to which only very select Jews were invited (such as in Karl Emil Franzos's Judith Trachtenberg, 1891) and Jewish balls that might also include non-Jewish guests (such as in Clementine Krämer's Der Weg des jungen Hermann Kahn, The Path of Young Hermann Kahn, 1918).
Weddings were a prime location for dancing in traditional Jewish culture, especially since Jews were religiously obligated to rejoice with a bride and dance before her. As a result, dancing was a frequent occasion for literary dance scenes and a common place for young people from different backgrounds to meet one another. Urban and rural guests intermingled, and even beggars were invited to wealthy weddings. At the same time, the ritual framework of a wedding and the presence of community elders meant that traditional Jewish community norms were more quickly enforced at weddings than in other dance spaces, as seen in Leopold von Sacher-Masoch's Der Judenraphael (The Raphael of the Jews, 1882) and Joseph Opatoshu's A roman fun a ferd-ganef (Romance of a Horse Thief, 1912). At weddings in general and arranged marriages in particular, communal authorities demonstrated their control over intimate relationships and festive dancing.
Dances were an extremely popular entertainment for immigrants to New York around 1900, including eastern European Jews. Whether in commercial dance halls or neighborhood associations, dancing academies or saloons, writers identified dance spaces with youthful revelry and American capitalism. Yet this pursuit of fun and independence was a complicated endeavor, since leisure culture cost money at a time when working-class immigrants struggled to save their meager resources. Although dances promised romance and flirtation, they often also served as a reminder of the way American capitalist impulses complicated Jewish courtship and marriage patterns. Both Abraham Cahan (Yekl: A Tale of the New York Ghetto, 1896) and Kadya Molodovsky (From Lublin to New York: Diary of Rivke Zilberg, 1942) depict American dance culture ambivalently, whether reflecting on the great wave of eastern European Jewish immigration to the United States from 1881–1924 or American Jewish responses to the Holocaust.
The epilogue connects tropes of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries of Jews, dance, and modernization with late twentieth- and twenty-first-century representations. Popular works such as Fiddler on the Roof (1964), Dirty Dancing (1987), Rebecca Goldstein's Mazel (1995), Kerry Greenwood's Raisins and Almonds: A Phryne Fisher Mystery (1997), Helene Wecker's The Golem and the Jinni (2013), and Naomi Novik's Spinning Silver (2018) reveal the continued efficacy of the mixed-sex dancing trope in fictional representations of Yiddish-speaking Jews. These works are often less didactic than nineteenth-century predecessors; they envision more opportunities for female agency and frequently end happily. Not only is the dance floor a flexible space, the dance trope is a flexible metaphor for the concerns of Jewish communities in the face of cultural transitions. In other words, the trope of Jewish mixed-sex dancing charts the particularities of the Jewish "dance" with modern culture.