writers on dancing

Letter from New York

Music and Dance of the Jewish Wedding
Day of the Imprisoned Writer

Only in New York: Between November and January, the 92nd Street Y Tisch Center for the Arts is performing three programs devoted to the music and dancing of Jewish wedding ceremonies in various parts of the globe. The “Ashkenazi Wedding” program—featuring practices common in Russia, Eastern Europe, and, after World War II, a number of Zip codes in New York City, Westchester, and Philadelphia—took place this past Wednesday. Still to come: “Bukharan Wedding” (December 8th) and “Moroccan Henna & Wedding” (February 3rd).

Alas, my inkstained-wretch’s hope in attending the “Ashkenazi Wedding” program, i.e., that a wedding feast would be served, went unfulfilled during the two-hour show, leading me to run out to the local Pioneer market at intermission for a hard roll and a bit of cheese. Still, the elegant program of Klezmer music (by the band Khevrisa, which specializes in the rhythmically vivid and melismatic 19th- and 20th-century music of ensembles from Poland, Hungary, and Ottoman Moldavia) and theatricalized dances (for members of the band plus musical-comedy actress Joanne Borts and Ashkenazic folkdance specialist Hélène Domergue-Zilberberg) managed to satisfy many other hopes that I didn’t even know I had.

One of these newly-discovered hopes the program met was to hear Walter Zev Feldman, Khevrisa’s cofounder, play an instrument called a cimbalom, the Klezmer dulcimer—a xylophone look-alike from which mallets produce light, dry chiming tones. Another unexpected hope fulfilled was to listen to fiddler and dance specialist Michael Alpert, acting as the “badkhn” or “wedding-jester,” deliver introductions in a suave, melodious Yiddish and cavort with a twinkle in his eye, a spring in his instep, and fountains of youth in his knees, evident whenever he dropped into the grands pliés associated with the more athletic Ashkenazic men’s dances. And another was to hear Kurt Bjorling, a clarinetist late of the Klezmatics, channel the spirit of Benny Goodman in an ear-popping solo of golden sound. Yet another was to hear the Klezmer fiddle virtuoso and Khevrisa cofounder Steven Greenman tease from his instrument songs without words that wept their forebodings of bridal suffering in honey-drenched slides. (The extensive and fascinating program notes by Mr. Feldman suggest that Ashkenazi wedding tradition largely evolved from those of Gentile culture and that it incorporates a softened version of the tragic laments that dance fans know from the Stravinsky-Nijinska “Les Noces,” with its bride mourning her removal from the home of her parents, where she was a princess, to the home of her in-laws, where she grows up to become Cinderella by the hearth.)

Still yet another hope-I-never-knew-I-had that the evening satisfied was to see a “Dance of Anger” for a pair of dolled-up, tight-lipped mothers-in-law (played by Ms. Borts and Ms. Domergue-Zilberberg) who, while keeping strict time in a miniature contradanse, managed to insult one another with a small yet effective repertory of cold shoulders, hatchet profiles, and a baker’s dozen of hand gestures that translate more or less as, “Who the Hell do you think you are?” Happily, the “Dance of Anger” was immediately followed by a “Dance of Peace,” during which the in-laws patch up their differences without having to touch up their make-up. Another sleepy-eyed guest (embodied by dancer Steven Lee Weintraub, now associated with the Hubbard Street Dance Company) performed a bottle dance, with a bottle about 20 inches in height balanced in the deeply indented crown of his hat. When he managed to sink to the floor and stretch out on his back while keeping the bottle in position, I thought, “Nu, it’s not so bad that you can’t afford a ticket to see Harvey Fierstein as Tevye in ‘Fiddler on the Roof.’ Here’s the real McCoynik.” Klezmer bassist and cimbalist Stuart Brotman and Klezmer violinist Deborah Strauss also contributed expertise.

Among the elements that made this evening enchanting—apart from the brilliance of the musicians—was the care taken with the programming. The first half, entirely musical, was a little concert with a ceremonial dimension, as if it were taking place under the wedding canopy. The second half, marked by dancing, had moved events decidedly to the reception hall, where emotions were uncorked and served up with kreplach. The set consisted of a long table with a white tablecloth, on which had been placed a challah, candles, and a few other festive items. No bride or groom was embodied: they had to be imagined, like God. The audience, which filled the orchestra-level seating of the Theresa L. Kaufman Concert Hall, auditioned very nicely in the imagining department: every soul there was accepted to play the role of the audience.


By the count of International PEN, some 200 writers and journalists around the world are being imprisoned, tortured, and—possibly, by the time you read this—murdered, entirely for the crime of having published or made known their opinions, or for having been affiliated with those who did. Between January and June of this year, the organization’s Writers in Prison Committee has monitored over 740 attacks upon writers and journalists in 99 countries, including 11 murders. In the words of International PEN, “these are in direct violation of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights that protects the rights not to be subject to arbitrary detention and guarantees the rights to freedom of expression and association.”

Since 1980, International PEN has set aside November 15th as the “Day of the Imprisoned Writer.” On this day, descriptions of some highlighted cases will be posted at PEN’s Web site for those who might wish to write a letter of appeal to relevant authorities in the countries where writers languish behind bars. Sad to say, the group includes 13 individuals from Days of the Imprisoned Writer in previous years—among them, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, of Myanmar, a past recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, who enters her 16th year of detention, most of it in solitary confinement, and Siamak Pouzand, of Iran, a writer and film critic of an advanced age who is serving a prison sentence of 11 years on charges of “undermining state security through his links with monarchists and counter-revolutionaries.” Other cases concern individuals in Bangladesh, Turkmenistan, Maldives, Ivory Coast, Mexico, Vietnam, China, Belarus, and Cuba.

–Mindy Aloff

Originally published:
Volume 2, Number 42
November 15, 2004

Copyright © 2004 by Mndy Aloff



What's On This Week
Index of Reviews
Index of Writers

Back Issues
About Us

Sister Sites:
Ballet Alert! Online
Ballet Talk
Ballet Blogs



Mindy Aloff
Dale Brauner
Mary Cargill
Nancy Dalva
Gia Kourlas
Gay Morris
Susan Reiter
Alexandra Tomalonis(Editor)
Meital Waibsnaider
Leigh Witchel
David Vaughan


This site is the online supplement to DanceView, a quarterly review of dance published since 1979.

DanceView is available by subscription ONLY. Don't miss it. It's a good read.  Black and white, 48 pages, no ads. Subscribe today!
last updated on October 4, 2004