Thursday, April 08, 2010

Name this feature

Here we go with another new and exciting feature at What I plan to do is scour the archives of major newspapers and magazines for interesting, amusing or historically significant articles and reprint them here. The first one: Is Dancing Kosher? Jews Struggle to Define Orthodoxy appear below.

Time between now and when Yeshiva World steals this idea: What? They haven't stolen it already?

Meanwhile, I need a good name for this feature. Your thoughts welcome.


November 28, 1990
Is Dancing Kosher? Jews Struggle to Define Orthodoxy

The waters of the Hudson River gently lapped at the bow of the cruise ship sailing under the flag of the Glatt Yacht as it slowly pulled from the noisy shoreline of Manhattan. A couple celebrating a special anniversary got up to dance as the pianist played Billy Joel's "Just the Way You Are."

Suddenly a rabbi appeared on the dance floor, tapped the man on the shoulder and asked the couple to stop dancing. When they ignored him, he walked over to the pianist and ordered him to stop. The boat was eerily silent until the couple sat down; only then did the music resume.

This uncomfortable scene is repeated with regularity on the Glatt Yacht, which calls itself "New York's first kosher dinner cruise." The 120-seat boat, operated by a private entrepreneur, leaves for brunch or dinner cruises on Sundays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays from Pier 62 amid the bigger boats of World Yacht Cruises. Traditionalist vs. Modern

The standoff over dancing, those involved say, is a symbol of a larger struggle over who will define the nature of Orthodox Judaism. On one side there are the traditionalist Orthodox who say that the kosher rules usually applied to food should also extend to other behavior like dancing, which they consider immodest.

On the other side are the modern Orthodox who draw distinctions between the different facets of their lives. They may observe the kosher food laws but consider dancing appropriate.

"I am an Orthodox Jew and my rabbi says there is nothing wrong with dancing at a social function," said one man who was visibly upset after he and his wife were stopped from dancing recently aboard the yacht.

"This is not a shul," he added, using the Yiddish word for synagogue. "In a religious ceremony I understand it may not be appropriate, but this is a social function." The man said he was from Brooklyn and worked as an importer, but declined to give his name.

Within the 600,000-member Orthodox community in the United States, traditionalists have increasingly tried to separate the sexes, both inside and outside the synagogue, and impose stricter standards in diet and behavior.

A generation ago, Orthodoxy was considered the most fragile of the Jewish movements. Experts predicted that its numbers would decline and that to survive, it would have to abandon some of its ancient traditions and acculturate. Instead, the numbers of Orthodox adherents have grown under what Steven Bayme of the American Jewish Committee in New York calls "right-wing triumphalism."

"The survival and resurgence of Orthodoxy are enormously positive developments in terms of Jewish continuity," said Mr. Bayme, director of the Jewish Communal Affairs Department at the committee. "But the price we're paying is a growing sense of intolerance and an increased emphasis on material rather than spiritual values."

Samuel C. Heilman, a sociologist at Queens College who has written widely about the Orthodox, said that although the modern Orthodox have resisted the fundamentalist tendencies, it is usually the ultra-Orthodox elements who prevail, just as they have prevailed on the dance floor of Glatt Yacht.

"The fact of the matter is that because the modern Orthodox are not professional Jews, but professionals of other sorts, like doctors and lawyers, they have left the professional roles -- of teachers and rabbis -- in the hands of the right wing," he said. "If the modern Orthodox want to win back the right to define what Judaism is they will have to donate their children to be tomorrow's Jewish professionals. Otherwise they will continue to be held hostage by the rabbis of the right wing." Some Cuddle; Others Whisper

Glatt kosher, which originally referred to the extent to which the ritual slaughterer investigated the lungs of the animal, has come to mean kosher supervision of the highest religious quality. Glatt literally means smooth, and certifying rabbis would examine the lungs to make sure they were free from lesions that would indicate a sick or injured animal that did not meeting the highest kosher standards. While eating such meat was once considered a higher form of observance, it has become the norm; many Orthodox will only eat glatt kosher.

On the Glatt Yacht recently there were Hasidic Jews on dates who whispered to each other across the table but did not hold hands, as well as young men who cuddled with their girlfriends on the deck as the boat sailed past the Statue of Liberty. Some men wore yarmulkes; others did not.

One patron who was asked to stop dancing, David Rudnick of Mount Vernon, N.Y., was angry. "The rabbi should be in the kitchen; he doesn't belong here," said Mr. Rudnick, who is a member of a Conservative congregation in Mount Vernon. "How far do you go? What will they do next? Force me to wear a yarmulke?"

Mr. Rudnick was on board as part of a party of six celebrating the birthday of his mother, Augusta, who also got up to dance with her husband. "We've been married 47 years," she said incredulously, "and we can't dance?" 'They Entice You'

A lawyer, Steven M. Bernstein, who belongs to an Orthodox congregation on Long Island, has threatened to sue Glatt Yacht for the embarrassment he and his wife endured when they were told to stop dancing in August. "There is music; there is a dance floor," he said. "They entice you into this thing and then they embarrass you."

One of the two kosher supervisors on board, Rabbi Yechiel David Michelson, said that the kosher endorsing agency he worked for, Kof-K Kosher Supervison, "would hit the ceiling" if there was dancing on board. If it were to be allowed, he said, it would appear "like we are condoning mixed dancing."

Caught in the middle is Bruce Kessler, the 30-year-old president of Glatt Yacht. Mr. Kessler, the son of a kosher caterer, began working several years ago as a waiter and busboy aboard a World Yacht vessel. He rose to the position of cruise manager and, he said, "dreamed of taking kosher upscale."

Six months ago he opened Glatt Yacht, which leases vessels from World Yacht Cruises. Mr. Kessler said he knew it would be a challenge to have a kosher kitchen and prepare all the meals on board, but he did not anticipate the dancing problem until the first confrontation between a supervising rabbi and a dancing patron. Since that time, at the insistence of Kof-K, the no-dancing rule has been written into his contract with the endorsing agency.

Mr. Kessler said that he would prefer to allow dancing on the boat "to make all Jewish people comfortable," but he also wants the most reputable kosher supervision. All of the best-known endorsing agencies, Mr. Kessler said, are now insisting on a no-dancing clause.

If he were to take a less reputable endorsing agency, he said, his kosher standard would be questioned by elements of the Orthodox community. "I'm caught between a rock and a hard place," he said.

A similar conflict over dancing occurred earlier this year in Israel where the Chief Rabbinate, an agency of the Israeli Government, threatened to take the kosher certification from restaurants that permitted belly dancers to perform. But in May, Israel's Supreme Court ruled that kosher certification must be issued only on the basis of the preparation and serving of food, and not on entertainment.

In the United States, where kosher certification is voluntary, the ruling of the high court obviously does not apply, but some American rabbis acknowledge that they were emboldened by the Israeli Rabbinate's effort to seek a similar standard here. 'It Must Meet All Regulations'

An example of right-wing power in the United States came earlier this month in San Francisco when, for the first time, the supervising rabbis at the annual meeting of the Council of Jewish Federations insisted that microphones be shut off during the Sabbath meals. The demand, which delayed the start of the Friday night meal for about 15 minutes, was a hard one for the largely non-Orthodox council executives to accept; 20 years ago, the food served at the meetings was not even kosher. The endorsing agency, the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, has adopted many of the same standards as Kof-K, which supervises the Glatt Yacht.

At the headquarters of Kof-K in Teaneck, N.J., a top administrator, Rabbi David Senter, said, "When we certify an establishment as kosher, it must meet all regulations of Jewish law, including the entertainment."

Dancing might offend those who oppose it, he said. "If people start to get up and dance on the Glatt Yacht, Orthodox Jews are not going to feel comfortable," he said.

But Rabbi Senter drew a distinction between places like restaurants and the Glatt Yacht, and private parties like weddings or bar mitzvahs. He said his agency will endorse the food at private parties where there is social dancing because "it is common knowledge" that the kosher-endorsing agency provides only the food and does not supervise other aspects of the affair.

Rabbi Senter acknowledged that "in the past" many Orthodox congregations had allowed social dancing at synagogue events. He said it had been sanctioned by a generation of refugees trying to adapt to America. "Maybe the previous generation adapted too well," he said.

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