Dance as a Tool of Pleasure and Humiliation in I. J. Singer’s The Brothers Ashkenazi

My talk examines the motif of dance in I. J. Singer's 1936 Yiddish-language family epic Dibrider Ashkenazi (The Brothers Ashkenazi), which chronicles Jewish life in Lodz. In his famous article, “Mayufes: A Window on Polish-Jewish Relations,” Chone Shmeruk recounts how a Polish officer orders the brothers Max and Yakub Ashkenazi to dance a humiliating mayufes, which tragically results in Yakub’s death when he refuses to debase himself by dancing. Shmeruk claims Singer’s rendition is “perhaps the most poignant mayufes of all.” (279) While this scene of forced dancing is the best known dance scene in the novel, I approach this scene in connection with an earlier transgressive mixed-sex wedding dance. I demonstrate how dancing scenes in the novel juxtapose late 19th century dreams of embourgeoisement with the reality of early 20th century antisemitism. As such, the dance floor both challenges and reifies power structures in the novel. What is more, these dancing scenes take place at crucial moments in the plot, emphasizing the moments of rupture and reconciliation between the eponymous brothers and highlighting the physical contrast between the cerebral striver Max and lusty, good-natured Jakub. By examining these seemingly-disparate dancing scenes, it is possible to gain a deeper perspective into the ways acculturation and antisemitism operate on the Polish-Jewish body.

5th Annual International
Polish Jewish Studies Workshop

“Centering the Periphery: Polish Jewish Cultural Production Beyond the Capital”

Rutgers University
the State University of New Jersey

March 5-6, 2018
Rutgers University Inn
178 Ryders Lane
New Brunswick, NJ  08901