My Father, the Jewish Square Dancer
My father was an orthodox Jew who was shipped off from his hometown in Poland to spend the war in Siberia in a forced labor camp. He survived the holocaust because, at age five, Stalin’s forces got him first, imprisoning him along with his mother and two sisters and many thousands of Poles, as “socially dangerous and anti-Soviet elements.” The brutal childhood that ensued partly explains why the father I knew—a short, pale New Yorker with a strong Yiddish accent—seemed to be physically incapable of smiling.
He was definitely not smiling when he told me one day, when I still in graduate school and shortly before he died, about the revelation he had not long after he arrived in New York hardly knowing a word of English. He had visited the Henry Street Settlement, in Lower Manhattan, where waves of new immigrants before him had been going to participate in “Americanization” programs. There, he was introduced to the activity that would influence how he spent his days for the rest of his life. With the gravity that he gave to everything, he told me in his Old World way, “I knew immediately I had a talent for square dancing.”
The moment he discovered square dancing at Henry Street, my father found an identity in America that would ultimately overtake his commitment to orthodox Judaism. And, in some deep and weird sense, his realization that day in lower Manhattan planted the seed that would eventually bare fruit in my own vision of art and culture.
For a long time, I thought square dancing was the most normal activity in the world for a family in Queens. My father met my mother, the daughter of Russian immigrants, while square dancing and the two of them danced with rigor and focus about four nights a week for as long as I can remember. When I was nine and my sister was eleven, we took evening square dance lessons with Brooklyn “caller” Al Moses at the AleMo Squares dance club. That was after studying Hebrew half the day and English half the day at the Solomon Schechter School. We were the youngest couple at the AleMo Squares, by thirty, possibly forty, years, and, like most of the other dancers, we danced in matching outfits, which my mother made for us by hand—guys’ vests and ties matching ladies’ circle skirts.
We agreed to wear the floral outfit for my square dance bar-mitzvah party. With all of my friends, we danced in the basement common room of a red brick apartment building near our house—the same place that my sister had her square dance bat-mitzvah.
When my sister and I were very young, my father would go to his orthodox synagogue regularly and never drive or work on the Sabbath. But as my parents’ worked their way up the ranks of the New York square dance establishment, my father visited his synagogue less and less frequently. When we were in junior high school, they bought a small trailer that they kept at a square dance campground, where they danced three times a day on the Sabbath. They still kept a kosher kitchen in their trailer and would haul up to rural Pennsylvania freezer chests filled with brisket and noodle pudding.
Despite all my father’s attempt to acculturate us to square dancing, unfortunately, it didn’t stick for my sister and me. By about age sixteen, my sister had turned on it and, humiliated by the whole endeavor, never looked back. if she hadn’t quit, I might have actually kept going but, without a partner, it didn’t seem to make sense.
Though I once fervently believed in square dancing, with some distance, I too started to realize that it made my family a little more strange than the families of most of my friends at school. When I grew into my teens, I came to see the “I’d Rather be Square Dancing” bumper sticker on the back of our family car as the glaring sign that we were different. By the time I was in college, I wanted as much distance as possible.
Now, thirty years after I quit square dancing, I realize that there is something in my father’s embrace of square dancing that says something essential about art. And, more fundamentally, it touches upon the artistic dimension of modern life.
Despite all of his Old World affectation, my father was quintessentially modern. He was born into an orthodox tradition but the war and the labor camp broke the seal on that hermetic world. Wrenched away from traditional culture, he lost the option of believing that there is one thing that determines everything and, with that loss, he switched from being a receiver of other people’s orthodoxies into a maker of his own personal approach to living. Without the certainty of how to act, he became a creative actor. And, instead of acting to recover a lost tradition or assimilating to American life along conventional lines, he set a new path for himself.
As an immigrant, my father never asked “How do Americans live?” but “What can I do here now?” Eluding conventions, he approached closer to the world at-hand and explored possibilities that were open to him that had not yet been defined.
That openness to exploration is the essence of an artistic approach to the world, which, at its core, is also the ability to grasp the world like a new immigrant. It is the ability to elude orthodoxy, which is the enemy of a modern approach to life, and discover new possibilities where the old rules don’t apply and new ones have not yet been formed. My father was not, in fact, an artist. He was an artistic – the quintessential figure of modern life.
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