Tag Archives: Jews and Belarusians

My Father Wolf Sosensky (3)

part1 part2

After World War I

The aftermath of World War I, and the Russian revolution which followed, created a chaotic political situation in Eastern Europe. The stirrings of Belarusian independence, which began around the turn of the century, and the Russian revolt in 1905, intensified during this period. In 1918 an independent Belarus republic was declared, but it was short lived. The Poles and Russians continued to fight in the area, and Belarusian territory was breached by both armies. Eventually, the territory was split between the two nations. By the end of 1922, the Soviet Union, which evolved out of the Russian Revolution, was formed and a Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic (B.S.S.R.) was established in the Russian controlled territory. Dolginov was located in the Polish sector. Wolf’s take on the postwar situation in Belarus is revealed in the following passage from his writings.

After World War I, Latvia received independence and became a sovereign nation, but the going was hard politically. It’s a well-known fact that “it’s difficult to breathe between two fires”. To exist independently economically, fine!, but prosperity wasn’t certain given Latvia’s precarious situation: Russia on one side and Germany on the other, both sharpening their teeth. They both had one and the same aim: to seize control of the Baltic Sea, to gain possession of the Gulf of Riga, the lovely bathing and resort places, the large, well-established factories, etc. In 1940 Russia ruled over all of Latvia and began to make it a communist possession.

In 1920, Wolf had returned from his wartime captivity and sojourn in Poland. Altogether it took him two years to reach his family in Dolginov. When he arrived he found his town in total destruction. The village had been entirely ravaged and his house almost totally demolished. It was very difficult for Wolf to see such devastation. Wolf and the remaining members of his family managed to rebuild half of their home. The other half was never completed.

In the early 1920’s, Wolf resumed his journalistic activities and began writing articles for the local papers — “Belaruski Zvon” (Belarusian Bell), “Belaruskija Vedamasсi” (Belarusian News), “Nash Sciah” (Our Flag) and others, and he became more socially and politically active in his community. On May 10, 1922, he and a group of men were arrested by the Polish police for cooperation with the Belarusian revolutionary press and participation in the illegal celebration of May Day, the socialist holiday celebrated on the first of May. They were taken to the village of Kostenevichi and then to Molodechno. During incarceration he was tortured quite severely, then released and, with his enduring stamina, managed to recover and make it back to Dolginov.

He joined the Youth Movement for the War Disabled and organized the construction of a hospital for war victims suffering from dysentery and typhus. Those without financial means received treatment for free; wealthier patients paid what they could. The group also helped to open a local pharmacy outlet. Wolf would receive prescriptions from the local physicians and travel by train to Vilna to pick up medicines and bring them back to the pharmacy in Dolginov. The medications were subsidized by charging a fee to attend local shows and plays and from selling flowers.

During one trip to Vilna, he traveled to nearby Mizlav, in order to catch the Vilna train. Upon attempting to purchase a ticket the ticketmaster refused to sell him one. When questioned why, the ticketmaster explained that there was only one train coming though at that time, and it was packed with soldiers who took priority. When Wolf explained the purpose of his trip and showed him the prescriptions, he was sold the ticket “on his own responsibility”.

The train to Vilna was indeed packed solid and he had to squeeze himself into the train car. The moment the doors shut, he found himself in trouble. The Russian soldiers recognized immediately that he was a Jew and started taunting him. One soldier grabbed his fur cap and they decided among themselves that, at the next station, they would throw him off the train. Since Wolf understood their language, he knew what their plans were so he began to sing. And when he was finished, he sat himself down on one of the seats. When the soldiers asked him to continue singing, he refused to do so until his cap was returned. And it was.

As it turned out, his singing helped not only himself but the other Jews on the train who also feared for their lives. During the years that followed, he gained a reputation, and, whenever a Jew from a neighboring hamlet saw him, he would point and say, “Here is the Jew that saved us with his song.”

Wolf married his childhood sweetheart, Rochel Leah, in 1921, and they had 6 children, five boys and one girl, named Henya.

Wolf (on the left) with his family in Dolginov

Unfortunately, Rochel Leah died suddenly, in 1935, leaving him alone to care for his large family. Somehow he managed to do so with help from Rochel Leah’s mother.


Backside of the photo; List of the children: Mordechai Leyb (1930), Avraham (1932), Baruch (1922), Zelik (1934), Henya (1928), Reuven (1923)

In the early 1930’s, Wolf wrote to Yanka Stankevich, a well-known linguist and historian, and suggested an interesting topic for research: Jewish religious songs in the Belarusian language. Stankevich published one of the songs Wolf had sent him, “Batska, Batska”, which became part of Wolf’s hand-written collection, “Belarusian-Jewish Folklore from Dolginov”. This compilation of songs is stored to this day in the Library of the Lithuanian Academy of Sciences.

Wolf left behind a comprehensive listing—in Latin terminology—of various herbs and plants, available at the time, and their medicinal uses. It is not clear when he complied this listing, but it may very well have been during the period when he was involved with the pharmacy.

Community Affairs

In 1927, with the support of friends, Wolf was elected to the Dolginov Municipality (a unit of local self-government, similar to a village council), but after several disputes with the local nobility he gave up his position.

Wolf was an indefatigable fighter for justice and truth and against high taxes. The local residents of Dolginov often approached him for legal advice on various complex and controversial issues. In 1929, he acted as a witness in the case of a peasant revolt against the police.

Clashes between the Poles and Russians continued throughout the 1920s and 30s resulting in the border switching back and forth almost on a daily basis. The residents, especially the Jews, were treated badly by both sides and they suffered greatly from this situation.

Lithuania, with its capital, Vilna, alongside western Belarus were ruled by the Poles, and they imposed hefty taxes on the Jews. Businessmen and merchants banded together to try to protect their interests by opening banking cooperatives. Dolginov picked up on this idea and opened their own cooperatives, similar to merchant unions, and also charitable foundations. Wolf was active in his cooperative for 14 years and reached the level of assistant to the bank president.

In 1933, the directors of the cooperatives decided to construct a building for the Tarbut School which, until that time, had been forced to hold classes in the homes of private citizens. Wolf’s daughter was attending the school, and he was chosen to head the committee to organize and develop the new construction. He worked for the cooperative until the Soviets took over Dolginov.

Despite the many acts of abuse by the Poles against them, the Jews somehow managed to show strength and integrity within their community. At one point, Wolf was accused of being a communist. He spent six months in prison under extremely difficult conditions and was unwell for a year and a half following his release. His condition didn’t slow him down, however. He continued the fight for his community and remained involved in many cultural and social activities.

Raya Sosensky, Israel

(to be continued)

Published 06/27/2021 12:09

My Father Wolf Sosensky (1)

Early Years

Wolf Sosensky was born in the town of Dolginov in the Vileika district of Wilno province in what was then Russian Empire in February 1883. Not much is known about his childhood except that he was one of nine children—eight boys and one girl.

Two of his older brothers were already steeped in Torah and were learning full time in a local cheder. Wolf was a precocious child from the very beginning and the story that has been passed down was that one morning, when he was only three years old, he followed his siblings to their cheder without realizing where they were going. After watching what they were doingsitting and learning TorahWolf decided that there was nothing he wanted to do more than that. The Rebbe, as well as Wolf’s parents, felt that he was too young to start learning in such a formal method, but the Rebbe decided to give the boy a chance.

Not surprisingly, Wolf turned out to be a born ‘learner’ and he spent seven years there studying Torah each day with a well-known melamed (a religious teacher), Yitzchak Wolf (no relation). But when a major fire erupted in the town totally destroying the Sosensky farm and home, the family was left with very few resources. Wolf had to set aside his learning and help support the family.

Wolf’s grandfather had been a tailor and he had quite a few wealthy customers. His father, Abel Sosensky, followed in his footsteps, sewing uniforms for high-ranking Russian soldiers. But despite the many hours he spent trying to make a living, money was always scarce.

At the age of nine, while continuing his Torah education, Wolf was introduced to the sewing trade and worked in his father’s work shop for many years. His expertise in sewing came in handy over the years and helped him to survive.

With his family house rebuilt, and the Renaissance movement at its height, many guests would congregate in the evenings in the Sosensky home, telling stories about the glorious Belarusian past and offering a world view of what was going on at the time. Some of them still recalled the events of the uprising of 1863-1864, an insurrection in Poland against Russia to restore the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

Wolf, as a teenager in the 1890’s, embraced the idea of a Belarusian revival and joined the National Liberation Movement, engaging in numerous educational activities. He also distributed illegal literature against the Russian autocracy to the surrounding villages. Wolf was an avid reader and devoured any book he could find. His father, who was well learned and knew French and German, encouraged him in this endeavor.

He became a member of the Bundthe Jewish Socialist Partyin 1903 and later joined the amateur cultural circle which had operated in Dolginov since 1904. There he and other young men and women met to discuss books they had read and to disseminate knowledge on any number of relevant topics.

Wolf had a wonderful singing voice which offered him solace from his troubles on many occasions. People from his town enjoyed hearing him sing and they invited him to join them at their smachot (happy occasions). He never refused. He would chant, tell stories and light up the crowd.

In the fall of 1906, Wolf traveled to Vilna and took part in the distribution of the first Belarusian newspaper, Nasha Dolia (Our Fate), a publication that was eventually banned by Tsarist authorities.

During the same year, the Student Movement for the Cultural Development of Belarus emerged and it distributed a publication, Nasha Niva (Our Field), which focus was mostly public businesses while promoting Belarusian language and culture. Founded in 1906, it was one of the oldest Belarusian weekly newspapers. During World War I, Nasha Niva was not supportive of Russia’s war effort, and the Tsar’s government closed down the publication. (It remained dormant until 1991 when it was re-established for a newly independent Belarus.)

In 1908, at age 25, Wolf began to write for the paper and he offered his readers vivid descriptions of life in Dolginov during this period. He was well aware of the dangers inherent in distributing the Belarusian newspaper at that time, but, it didn’t deter him. The result was that, in 1909, he spent a month in the Vileyka District Prison.

Throughout these years, he continued his tailoring trade. At one point, he decided to learn additional sewing skills and completed a tailoring class in Germany at a Dresden academy. He also opened a sewing workshop and a tailoring school in his home. Unfortunately, a fire destroyed his house, once again, and with it his dreams vanished.

Wolf was ‘autodidact’ (a person who studies a subject without the benefit of a teacher or formal education), and he taught himself several languages some of which became useful during his lifetime.

He also gave classes at the Tarbut School. The Tarbut Movement was a network of secular, Hebrew-language schools in parts of the former Jewish Pale of Settlement, specifically in Poland, Romania and Lithuania. Its existence was primarily between World Wars I and II.

Raya Sosensky, Israel

(to be continued)

Published 05/21/2021 18:13 

Hi Khosidl and 7.40 goodbye! (part 2)


Where the  ̶D̶r̶e̶a̶m̶  Popularization Can Lead.

(By Nata Holava, Part 2)

 The first part of this longread began with a recent example of “traditional small-town dances of Belarusian Jews”, which, as noted in the article, “were obsessively danced for several hours” by about fifty Gomel dwellers.

I have already found fault with the “Jewishness” of those dances and, to be honest, the whole first quote is nonsense. But the number of people interested in the topic is honorable. They are not afraid to dance it.

I remember very well how two years ago at the end of the party in the Upper Town in Minsk the same musicians, when almost all the dancers left, modestly striked up the Hora Jewish dance (at that time, the only one that succeeded to be promoted into the traditional dance community after the Barysaw party “On a Jewish note”). My partner and I began to dance, and some other dancers joined us in a chain. And then madam Minsk musician, who has learned this very Hora herself, suddenly roared: “Barysaw Jews, take your Jewish dances back to Barysaw and dance them there! Guys, play your own dances! Why are you playing these!” Then she said something about the fact that not all the Jews have been burned in furnaces. And no one was able to say anything. We finished the dance, I thanked this lady for the enchanting demonstration of mind and talent, and we “dumped” Minsk and got back to Barysaw.

We dance the Bulgar in the Upper Town during one of the Belarusian dances, nobody shouts at us, 2019. Photo by N. Batilova.

I wouldn’t remember this incident, since a long time ago we discussed everything with that lady, and everyone forgave everyone. If that situation did not concern our topic directly.

I already recalled the pantomime that happens when someone tries to dance “like a Jew”. I believe you know these movements, and your elbows have already bent, fingers reached out for your waistcoat, and the knees began to spring a little bit. You can also go all together to the center of the circle and lift your hands with your palms up, and then go back and lower them. We know, we have danced it too. And even if, at that moment, the accordionist tears the bellows, playing not the done to death “Seven-forty” freilakhs, but an interesting, incendiary freilakhs (in Belarus it was called a redl). Even if it is not an accordionist, but a violinist, and, according to your and his passports, you are both the “genuine” Jews, it will still not be a Yiddish dance. (Yiddish Dance is probably the most accurate name that I picked up in Weimar.)

Two chic ladies from our Club dance the Couple Bulgar we brought from Weimar. 2019, party near Barysaw, photo by V. Tsvirko.

The Yiddish dance is associated with the speech gesture, and this makes it very different from the Slavic dance. The first thing I heard at the Khosidl workshops in Weimar is that you have to dance your perception of the world and speak up with your body.

You can recognize a Jew by expressive gestures. And dance is a continuation of the conversation. It is impossible to peep and repeat the unique gesture, which is the most important element of this dance, for twenty minutes at the “fair” master class in the crowd, as Madam Popularization offers us. Like any other language, it needs to be learnt from childhood. Or you should look for a community and explore yourself and your gesture there. Words, seemingly, are accessible to everyone equally. But not the accent, the vocabulary, your own thoughts, your temperament and personal experience of interacting with the World. Now I am specifically talking about the mystical Khosidl, in which, as I feel it, the essence of the Yiddish dance tradition is revealed. The Khosidl is a dance of mature people. Not every musician will be able to play it now, and not every dancer will order it from a musician. Because there is a sheerly fair question: what are we going to dance about?

I will add that the Khosidl had different functions and forms, and it was a wedding dance, a “dance of dignity”. It was danced in honor of the bride and a sa matchmakers’ dance. There are references to the Khosidl as the rabbi dance at the end of the Sabbath. More details can be found in the book of my esteemed Dance Master, ethnomusicologist and researcher of the Klezmer tradition Zev Feldman (Walter Zev Feldman, “Klezmer: Music, History, and Memory”).


Alexey Rozov (Moscow), who plays superbly both from the stage and for dancers. Party near Barysaw, 2019, photo by V. Tsvirko.

 Of course, Yiddish Dance comprises chains like a Hora, Zhock, or Bulgar, and funny circular dances where such a deep statement and such an elegant body language are not required. But you cannot hide the manner of movement, facial expressions. And this is what betrays you and your Jewish nature.

Now imagine what it was like to dance “like a Jew” during the twentieth century, when because of this you could say goodbye to your life. Zev Feldman talked about situations where, many years after the Second World War, young people’s hands were beaten by the elderly because they gestured “in a Jewish way”. Well, so in which underground did they have to hide their identity in order to stay alive? And is it possible now to extract all this into the light of God?

And one thing is the Holocaust, the other is our Soviet reality. I felt this when I started explaining to other people about the Yiddish Dance and saw how hard it is to “let one’s body go free”. In what relationship are we with our bodies?

I was born, like most of us here, in Soviet society. In a provincial town environment, where everything was complicated with the body. Mine was forced to be dressed in a school uniform and to walk in a marching column on Soviet holidays. To watch how the bodies like mine perform something in identical costumes on the stage and call it a dance. This dance was somewhere between aerobics of various forms and a military parade. The only place where you could see a free gesture was when fellow adults danced at family feasts after having several drinks. Their movements were free and most real. But this marginal dance has never been explored, and anything like it was associatively ignored. (I do not compare the Khosidl and “drunken” dances, however, both of these phenomena mean for me going beyond the boundaries of the usual existence.) And I still haven’t touched the gender aspects of the cultural background, where a man generally prohibits himself from dancing, as an “unmanly” manifestation. (Here it should be noted that, according to Zev Feldman, male Yiddish Dance never had obvious markers of masculinity, unlike the Slavic ones – “Barynya”, “Kozachok”, “Shamil’s dance …”)

We are in our bodies like in prison. The key that opened its door for me was the Yiddish Dance. Now I’m sure that all my life I have intuitively searched in a dance for exactly this plastic existence for my body – a feeling of unconstrained freedom and dignity. And now, finally, I can afford it. It doesn’t matter whether I lead the chain of Freilekhs, Zhock or Bulgar, will it be a quadrille, or I decide to order a Khosidl (when, finally, Belarusian musicians will be able to play it).

When Aleksey Rozov played a Skochne at a party near Barysaw and invited people to dance, only three ladies dared to go out – maybe that’s what they call the “bold Jews”, 2019.

The skills gained through communicating with the coolest Weimar dance masters and musicians are not related to the “professionalism” of my choreography. On the other hand, the task of “making friends with one’s body” requires a long and thoughtful “homework”. Often associated with reflection, very gloomy thoughts and finding one’s own path. Therefore, it’s impossible to sell in a “quick-and-savory” manner such a trip to another dimension of the soul and body.

But sometimes it’s also impossible to do it slowly.

“Give me the steps and figures, I will learn them! Then I will be able to improvise and weave together my figures to your Khosidl!” – says a dancer in weekly dance classes. Unfortunately, the dance master will not give out ready-made puzzles from which you will put the picture together, they do not exist. There is only your desire to communicate something along with the music. “But I do not want to communicate anything, I want to move and look beautiful at the same time. I do not know what I should do alone!” Because we, with our Slavic identity, interpret functional dance as a priori couple dance. And there is a lot of sex in it. Besides the fact that we are afraid to express ourselves through movement and to be open, we are scared by the possibility of looking unattractive for those who can assess our body… I can’t say that there is no flirting at all in Yiddish dance (even in such a mystical and philosophical one as the Khosidl). But above all, it is the dignity.

Weimar Ball 2019, Jewish wedding. Not sure if it is a mitzvah dance (ritual dance in honor of the bride), but everyone is dancing! And this is the very Khosidl that finally returns to the Jewish community.

Further about klezmers. There can be no dancing without them. And they, too, have now become a fashionable topic. I propose to google, at least in order to begin to distinguish what is klezmer music and who is a klezmer. So far, here in Belarus, no one is. The same question again: when you call a festival (the one that was held in Minsk in the fall) a klezmer festival, do you want to say that there will be klezmers? Or is it still a concert where musicians will professionally and glamorously-perform the music that klezmers once played?

The first function of the Jewish musician was to accompany holidays and ritual moments, which often included dance. Yes, time passed, holidays and customs changed, the role of musicians also changed. The dances disappeared, festive concerts took their place, where the space is divided into a stage and a spectators seating. The visitor is no longer fully involved in the common act, and the musicians have become stage artists and “perform” in front of the public. They must not develop their ability to be in dialogue with the dancers, but performance qualities and technicality, so that the audience would be interested to sit and listen.

A certain local klezmer recently invited me to a party. “No, I said, I won’t dance to your playing.” – “Oh, what a whim. We will learn all that you will tell us to!” It will not work, I said. For years, you have played by note, for the audience, from the stage. But to understand the dancers, it would be useful to dance it yourself, delve into the meaning of these dances. Otherwise, how can you understand how to play it? No, replies our respected klezmer (who has never danced and hardly hung out at weddings next to klezmers from childhood), I do not agree.

Well what shall we do! What, what… Dance with those who can play for dancers. And communicate with musicians who are ready to get off the stage and join us.

Freilekhs. Alexey Rozov plays for dancers at a party near Barysaw after his concert solo program. Together with Zhydovachka. December 2019.

So many difficulties. There are no musicians, and the dancers are rebelling, and popularization is storming, bringing ashore nothing but “seven-forties” instead of amber… And when someone asks: “So, why do you need Yiddish dances? Are there no others?” The fact of the matter is that there are others. But I want these to be as well.

And now the promised fairy tale.

A guy came to a small town to sell plums. He stood at the market square and shouted: “I change plums for garbage! More of your garbage, more plums!”What a fool, said the housewives, and dragged to him garbage in bags, swept it out of the huts and sheds, and even borrowed it from each other. One modest girl brought a tiny bundle, because she couldn’t pick up more in her house. “Sorry,” she said, “I have no more. Can I have at least two plums?” And the guy looked at her, fell in love, put her on his cart and drove to his tower house. This is a so-so metaphor, of course, promoting patriarchal female thriftiness. But my message here is: free plums are just plums, and in order to find something valuable, it happens that you need to sort heaps of garbage.

I hope that the time of aggressive popularization will pass, because any hype seems to be from the evil one. And the eternal Khosidl in its purest form will remain with us.


Lake Sevan, along with the Khosidl, became my second value found last year. 2019, photo by Julia B.

Life-affirming Postscript.

For those who are interested in joining our small, so far, community of Yiddish Dance fans, I summarize my main observations:

1. Jewish and Slavic dances are very different in their essence, manner and performance, despite the similarity of forms, rhythms and melodies. Although, Jewish dances can be finely danced to some Belarusian melodies, and vice versa.

2. Traditionally, Jews did not dance couple dances like polkas and waltzes, this type does not exist in their dance practice and appears in the Jewish environment somewhere during the twentieth century, at different times – depending on the region of Eastern Europe.

3. “Together or solo, Freilekhs or Khosidl” is the main principle of performance of the Yiddish dance. Now we see three main types: collective fun dance (Freilekhs, or Redlin the Belarusian version), set dance or country-dance (Sher, Patch Tanz and others), and solo dance (Khosidl). The Freilekhs is for all people of different ages. The Sher is mainly for young people. And Khosidl can be decently danced at the age past forty or fifty… if you have something to dance about. It may seem that the Jews dance the Khosidl in couples, but no, everyone dances their own dance.

4. I do not know what is more difficult here – to maintain asynchronous movements with total harmony and expressiveness of the dance (which is the specific character of the Yiddish Dance) or to fill each gesture with meaning. I believe these are sides of the same moon and they are being improved in parallel.

5. In short, if you are dancing in a Jewish manner, this is obvious at once, and the gesture that makes it the Yiddish dance is impossible to learn by adopting (copying) the movements of the dance masters. It will turn out to be only a pantomime. Jewish body language comes with personal experience and the study of one’s own body, preferably, in a native environment.

6. To play klezmer tunes for dancers, you need to dance them yourself. Otherwise, how will you play if you don’t understand what “this song” is about? By the way, klezmer is never a song. This is a non-verbal speech, a combination of rhythm, melody and movement. And this is always improvisation.

7. You can support the workshops with Zev Feldman, which we planned with our Barysaw Historical Dance Club for the fall of 2020, here.

8. For those who are attracted by energetic circular dances with typical “Jewish movements” to the fun Jewish songs, there are Israeli dance events. This lot is learned in half an hour and brings joy to masses. And, in principle, as said in a Hasidic parable, whoever danced together, will never kill each other.

Nata Holava, Barysaw

The idea of the text arose thanks to workshops in Weimar, where we were able to get with the support of the MOST Program, research & materials by Zev Feldman © and personal conversations with him.


Translated from the original by Igor Shustin

Corrected by Tanya Karneika

From the site’s founder and administrator:

Do not forget about the importance of supporting the site and especially to the author of the material, Nata Holava (Anna Avota)

Published May 06/2020  15:09

Hi Khosidl and 7.40 goodbye! (part 1)


Where the  ̶D̶r̶e̶a̶m̶  Popularization Can Lead.

(by Nata Holava)

I already wanted to get off from the preparation of this material, since, after looking at my almost ready longread, I burst out sobbing. No text can convey all my feelings as they spark with electricity from the photos and spring with living water from the video streams of Weimar. But then another shtick caught my eye.

Let’s omit details such as traditional Jewish “kokoshniks” from the Gomel region worn by funny aunties, this is a matter of personal taste (maybe not entirely personal, but it would be another longread of sobbing…). Let’s omit dramaturgical miracles like “we were playing Belarusian dances and suddenly decided to switch to Jewish” in an interview, because once we gave ourselves a handle to such miracles…

…in 2017, when a Barisawclub asked Minsk musicians to learn several Jewish dances for a master class, “conditionally” Jewish dances from the traditional Belarusian repertoire were added to them (photo by V.Tsvirko)

And yet, if something is called a “Jewish dance party”, then I want to clarify: comrades, did you mean a party in a Jewish community? Or that people will dance Jewish dances? I beg your pardon, but are you sure that what you are dancing at this party are actually Jewish dances?

I’m not.

Let’s start ab ovo. In the fall of 2019, an article about the performance of a Belarusian ethno-choreographer at a cultural event in Minsk saw the light. The honorable Sir Dancing Master offered a certain Jewish dance from his village, which no longer exists as a folklore pattern, but the “old-timers remember” because they “spied it on local Jews.” At the same time, he demonstrated textbook movements of a stage parody of Jewish folk (Soviet!) choreography. Elderly rural musicians played the 7.40, the dancers repeated the steps, the audience watched, and the national edition highlighted (and added video proofs).

Alena Liaszkiewicz Youtube channel video

 “Maybe you could repost it?” – asked the author of the material.

 Or maybe we won’t try to get from our grandmother’s wardrobe what we have never put there? Because, in the wake of hype regarding the revival of everything Jewish, the Seven-Forty, and the Shabbat Shalom on Sunday, and Israeli cuisine at the Litvak festival (the realities of Belarusian promoters of Jewish heritage) will come into play. Nothing Jewish, as they say, is alien to us. In the same way, “Belarusian vyshyvanka” was being recently sold. Who stamped it first, is the one with the profits.

There is a good fairy tale about it, but I will save it for the finale. And now, let’s talk about dancing.

No, I’m not a professional dancer and not an expert in ethnography, thank God. I am an event organizer and filmmaker. And it’s not so much a folklore pattern in itself that is attractive to me, as a situation in which there an interest of different people in this phenomenon arises and uncontrollable branding and creation of myths begin.

But my personal, deeply internal resonance with this subject excites me even more. As one of my friends recently said, “what is one’s own, resonates”. Let’s take me at the moment when I already began to consciously ask about the Jewish dances Minsk musicians who have been playing at parties for ten years. These are parties where people come not just once (because of master class or animation), but constantly, because it is part of their life and a favorite leisure. The same as disco, just a little older.

Such parties are organized by the Sita Club, in the Upper Town in Minskon Sundays in summer, and in Mikhanovichi (Minsk District)in winter.

Why did I ask them specifically? Because everything Jewish that I managed to find in actual Jewish sources was either catastrophically scenic or Israeli flash mob, based on the new Jewish mass choreography. I mean the Israeli dances and work of Mr. Baruch Agadati (Kaushansky) who created a new dance genre in the nineteen-thirties. Perhaps, only wild Ukrainian and Jewish dances of modern American weddings stand out by their “authenticity” and traditional origin. Google Kolomiyka, Hora, Perenitsa – you will see for yourself.

So, our Belarusian musicians play real! not invented by a stage director! …but village dances. Because these dances were the ones that they collected in expeditions and reconstructed from ethnographic records. But it turns out that no one has explored the city dances, since amateur ethnographic communities, which have recently become very popular, are looking for their Belarusian identity in the village. They do not seek Jewish identity in small towns. But we have neither townships in their true form where one could search, nor carriers of this identity. Therefore, when dances “remembered by old-timers” suddenly appear that strongly resemble the repertoire of a district folk song and dance ensemble, I intuitively want… to cross myself.

Video from the Dance Hayat YouTube channel

Well, so it goes. Our musicians told and showed everything that they knew about Subota, Nazhnichkі, Zhydok and Zhydovachka – Belarusian traditional dances that tell us about the good relations of two neighboring cultures. And then I had to go through… Moscow. Our Belarusian, Vitebsk dance master from a slightly different genre, contemporary dance, introduced me to the dance master Dana Lifanova. And Dana told me about the American researcher Walter Zev Feldman. I invite the respected public to get acquainted with his book Klezmer: Music, History, and Memory (you can by it, for example, on Amazon). This is a scientific and ethnographic book, which, in addition to specifics, historical data, curious details, surgically accurate analysis and references to other sources, helps to imagine the full power and space of the dance and musical tradition that we have lost.

Zev was the leader of the revival of the Klezmer movement in America in the 1970-80s; he is a charismatic dancer, an excellent musician and an incredibly interesting talk partner. Well, yes! Thanks to dozens of years of research, musical environment, expeditions, and dances. His father was also an excellent dancer. And the most curious thing for me is that Zev has Belarusian origins, his mother’s family is from the vicinity of Mogilev. But Zev himself has never been to Belarus.

Zev Feldman, Weimar, 2019

 My Moscow friends said: “Write to him”. I thought: “Yeah, right. Some lady from the city of “B” will write “To America, to Mr. Professor.” Like he cares about the existential torment of this one lady. Nevertheless, a fascinating correspondence began. As it turned out, Belarus is a blank spot of klezmer and Yiddish dances not only for ourselves. In Weimar, for example, no one has ever seen any Belarusians, with the possible exception of Zisl Slepovich (as they call him, “the last Belarusian klezmer”), who went to America ten years ago. And it’s even worse for dancing.

Both Moscow friends and Zev recommended to go to the “Yiddish Summer Weimar” in Germany for information and to feel the atmosphere of a real Yiddish community. According to the stories, that is the most Jewish place in Europe, as far as one can imagine. With (un)klezmer girls from the Zhydovachka kapelye, we wrote an application for the MOST Program and unexpectedly received support… and in August 2019 we came there… where the Dreams lead. If, of course, you know exactly what you really want.

On a break between workshops in Weimar, 2019

Perhaps, now I’ll say the most important thing about Jewish dances and will get scared myself. They cannot be danced outside the Jewish community. Because when you simply repeat the movements after the dance master or other dancers, trying to copy and remember the steps, you get a pantomime. But Jewish dance is never a pantomime. And why am I scared? because no one dances it no win the Jewish Belarusian community. There are communities, there are holidays and weddings, but there is no Yiddish dance tradition. There are no dances that we still had here before the Second World War. And there is nobody with whom to dance them. And the saddest thing is there is no one to play them for the dancers. I’ll even say more, those klezmers that you heard at the “first free klezmerfest” are not really klezmers.

We returned from Weimar in tears, because it was clear that we no longer wanted to go to Zingeray and other mass venues that appeared in Belarus during 2019 (including due to aggressive promotion) and to be animators there. Because for us, as a kapelye, and for me personally, as a dancer, there is no sense in this crazy popularization. Fair crowd, which came to “receive Jewish communion” (to the vogue on which we ourselves accidentally had a hand), does not care a whit about dialogue and depth. People come to the festival and, quite right, they want fast food. Historical, dance, any of it. And in these conditions, only fast food can be given to them. But the Jewish dance, in order to be understood and felt, first of all needs silence, the ability to hear oneself and the musicians, the desire to speak out through the movement of one’s body. Alone or together with people like you.

Khosidl Workshop, Weimar, 2019: Zev Feldman, Alexey Rozov and Alan Bern

We talked in the summer of 2019 with a good friend who could support the dance workshops with Zev Feldman. The conditions were simple: “In Minsk, there will be the Israel Day, and it would be nice if Zev gave his master class in the square”. Not good, gentlemen, not good. I was somehow even ashamed to offer this option to our Dance Master. He did not refuse, he politely replied: “Of course, if possible, I would like to do without “square” master classes …”. Thank God, we rescheduled the workshops to the fall of 2020 and refused the “sponsors’” help.

But there is one more nuance of such support: “Natasha, no one needs someone to be imbued with the Jewish philosophy of dance and go dance at home. This is not interesting for the sponsor”. But I’m not, as for me, interested in multiplying the next in turn choreographic “masterpieces” àla Jewish on the stages of palaces of culture and 7.40  and havanagila chains during city holidays. Here it is, you know, as in the famous meme “quickly, efficiently, cheaply – select two criteria”. For Jewish dance, “quickly, efficiently, en masse”. Select two of them.

I will continue this topic a little later.

In the next part I’ll tell what is wrong with the “klezmers” that many of you have seen here, where to look for the lost Jewish dance gesture, and the tale that I promised you somewhere at the beginning.

Nata Holava, Barysaw

 The idea of the text arose thanks to workshops in Weimar, where we were able to get with the support of the MOST Program, research & materials by Zev Feldman © and personal conversations with him.

Translated from the original by Igor Shustin

Corrected by Tanya Karneika

Published April 04/2020  12:06