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The Other Side of Summer Weddings

Rokhl’s Golden City: Mock marriages, drag brides, and the dangers of dancing

Rokhl Kafrissen
June 25, 2021
Original photo: Jill Freedman/Getty Images
Original photo: Jill Freedman/Getty Images
Original photo: Jill Freedman/Getty Images
Original photo: Jill Freedman/Getty Images

Once upon a summertime, we didn’t have streaming video in our pockets or a PS5 controller in our hands or endless Spotify playlists cupped snugly around our ears. Back when it was a lot harder for folks to amuse themselves over long summer days, the mock Jewish wedding was a thing. A wedding, after all, is a highly choreographed piece of theater. It’s got a beginning, middle and end. It’s got dancing. It usually even comes with a catered meal, if not an open bar. And pretty much anyone can take part.

Mock Jewish weddings can still be found at summer camps and on Jewish day school curricula. The mock wedding isn’t something I grew up with, although it makes sense to me as an immersive way of teaching the Jewish life cycle. But while I was researching queer Yiddishkayt in 2019, I started to dig into a much stranger tradition: the mock wedding in drag, once a staple of Catskills entertainment.

Right before Klezkamp brought the klezmer revival to the Catskills in the mid-1980s, Peter Davis was there with his camera, capturing the end of a different era. In his 1983 documentary The Rise & Fall of the Borscht Belt, we get a peek into the kind of entertainment one might’ve expected at the smaller, less expensive hotels, namely the mock drag wedding. I knew Rise & Fall might be an uncomfortable watch. I didn’t think it would border on horror. But the film’s particular aesthetic choices, combined with a poor-quality print, made a lighthearted summer’s day activity appear darkly foreboding, like the prelude to an unspeakable evening of horrors.

The mock drag wedding in the movie combines American Jewish, Christian, and Yiddish elements. At 1:16:40, for example, we see the “groom” being dragged to the khupe, a familiar trope in Yiddish vaudeville and comedy records. Where arranged marriages were the norm, it was not unexpected for the groom (or bride) to go unwillingly.

What’s interesting is how boldly the film spells out its conclusion. Marriage was the site of the reproduction of the Jewish people. And for decades, Catskills hotels were the site of American Jewish matchmaking. With the end of the Jewish Catskills era, we are told, the very continuation of the Jewish people is now in question. The movie closes with the wild, screaming weirdness of the mock wedding, alongside an incongruously serious narrative voice of doom.

But long before the first Jew unpacked a suitcase north of New York City, Jewish weddings were a prime location for the anxiety of continuity and assimilation. Those fears played out in front of guests and religious authorities, especially on the dance floor. And they continue to play out in new permutations, even today. If this long pandemic year opened with a new obsession with the mageyfe khasene (plague wedding), it is gradually coming to a close with the return of the non-mageyfe khasene. But what’s a wedding without dancing?

A recent headline in the U.K.’s Jewish Chronicle read: “US [United Synagogue] welcomes rise in wedding numbers—but still no dancing.” As of June 21, the U.K. government lifted the cap on the number of wedding attendees, but dancing is still forbidden, save for a dance by the bride and groom. “We know weddings are not the same without dancing,” said a United Synagogue executive, but the new regulations are in place to keep everyone safe.

Here, dancing is a threat to public health and hygiene. But the dance floor was long understood as a place where communal boundaries became dangerously blurred. Jews and Christians might meet there, and Jewish men and women could mingle in the kind of proximity strenuously forbidden by religious authorities. The danger posed by the dance floor threatened not the body, but the soul, individual and communal. The wedding dance floor was all the more laden with symbolism, and for Jewish writers of fiction, it was irresistible.

In her fascinating new book, It Could Lead to Dancing: Mixed-Sex Dancing and Jewish Modernity, literary scholar Sonia Gollance examines the portrayal (across multiple languages) of Jews and Jewish dancing, between approximately 1780 and 1940. Dancing happened in public, making it a convenient way to talk about sex without talking about sex. As Gollance writes, “dance scenes helped writers convey the impact of modern life on intimate personal relationships.” The dance floor was a place young people could, for example, meet each other and outwit the efforts of the traditional matchmaker.

Gollance explains that these dance scenes have a function similar to that of Clifford Geertz’s idea of “deep play.” In these scenes, the “community has deep emotional investment because the dynamics of the game mirror existing social tensions.” What happens on the dance floor can thus mirror or amplify that which might otherwise not be given voice. The empty dancefloor in the U.K. is a poignant example by its lack.

In It Could Lead to Dancing, Gollance examines Joseph Opatoshu’s Yiddish novel A roman fun a ferd-ganef (Romance of a Horse Thief). The protagonist, Zanvl, has fallen in love with Rachel, and he wants to leave his life of crime and make a new life with her. But he is torn between Rachel and one of his underworld paramours, Beyle. The three meet at Zanvl’s sister’s wedding. Opatoshu uses popular dance to paint the vivid scene and externalize Zanvl’s inner conflict. The interplay between dancer and spectator has Zanvl “passed” between the two women, and rather than choosing between the two, he is swept away by the fiery, foreign dance, his moral decision swept right out of his hands, just another victim of mixed dancing.

On this dance floor, social norms are turned upside down. Beyle both chooses the song and pays for it. She tells the klezmorim to play the “exotic” pas d’espagne, a dance readers would have understood to embody the act of seduction. Beyle is part of the underworld milieu Zanvl is trying to escape and she can afford to pay. Beyle and Zanvl are then alone on the dance floor because, as Gollance notes, “Wedding musicians were frequently paid per dance by the dancers, rather than the hosts of the event, and only those dancers who paid for a particular dance had the right to participate.” Such an arrangement allows for cinematic moments, like Beyle and Zanvl’s “racy” pas d’espagne. It also gave rise to vulgar expressions, such as “az an oreme kale shtelt zikh tantsn, geyen di klezmer pishn!” (When a poor bride gets up to dance, the musicians go out to piss.) Such a saying points to the tension between the elevated values at the core of Jewish wedding (dancing as a vehicle for fulfilling the mitsve of gladdening the bride) and the coarsest economic realities of shtetl life.

“Dance both adds to a disreputable ambiance and aids in seedy flirtation,” Gollance writes, “although in the case of Opatoshu’s … wedding dance scene, it pushes the plot and character development forward while mirroring, in the very steps and figures, the struggles and interpersonal dynamics of the characters.”

Of course the wedding dance between Zanvl and Beyle, with its bright colors, seductive body movements, and brazen contact between a single man and a married woman, was the heightened reality of a novelist, mixing New World American literary aesthetics and Eastern European fantasies.

In real life, traditional Eastern European Jewish weddings had their own drama. This was of a more subtle, but just as highly choreographed kind. And its narrative was propelled forward by a unique paradox at the heart of the Jewish wedding, as Gollance writes, “the expectation of joy with ritualized sorrow.” That paradox provided a rhythm of its own, one which has been almost, but not entirely, lost in the destruction of Eastern European Yiddish folk life.

In the late 1990s, the members of the band Budowitz embarked on a project to reconstruct and record the ritual portions of a traditional Ashkenazi wedding. They were able to do this with the help of an Eastern European Yiddish wedding musician (with an astonishing musical memory), and enormous amounts of ethnomusicological rigor. The result was the CD Wedding Without a Bride. Don’t be put off by the fear of a gloomy listen. Wedding Without a Bride has some of the hottest tsimbl work you’ll hear anywhere, and even in its saddest moments, it is the complete opposite of some dreary museum piece.

As the liner notes explain: “the alternation between joy and sorrow runs like a thread through the entire ceremony …” The mitsve of mesameyekh zayn khosn-kale (making the bride and groom joyful) was never forgotten among the expressions of sorrow. This alternating pulse is the vital rhythm to the traditional Jewish wedding, one not easily captured in a few dance tunes at a two-hour party.

There were tunes and forms for each part of the wedding: walking to the veiling, the veiling (badekns), singing for the bride, singing for the groom, the march to the canopy, and so on. And of course, there were the badkhn’s exhortations to the bride to cry her eyes out at her fate, before being made glad again by the dancing in her honor.

As the band describes in the liner notes, “we were surprised at how the wedding, from beginning to end, offered a complex and emotionally subtle work as a form of its own, as intricate as any classical symphony.” Wedding Without a Bride suggests to us a new way of thinking about the Jewish wedding, an emotionally and spatially expansive place in time that, in a time of empty dance floors and missing family members, feels more important than ever.

MORE: Even if you’re not going to any weddings this summer, buy Sonia Gollance’s It Could Lead to Dancing and, if you can, get your hands on Wedding Without a Bride.

ALSO: Professor Samuel Kassow will give the Naomi Prawer Kadar Annual Lecture, “Dr. Emanuel Ringelblum: Historian and Fighter.” July 1, 9 a.m. ET. In English, Zoom link here … Paris Yiddish Center (Bibliotheque Medem) is offering scholarships for its 10th Summer Program for Yiddish Language and Literature, Aug. 9-27. Deadline to apply for a scholarship is July 15. Scholarships will cover most of the registration fee and there’s no age limit, though they are mostly intended for university students. See their website for more information … Live music continues to trickle back into the veins of New York City. On Aug. 6, Slavic Soul Party returns to DROM.

Rokhl Kafrissen is a New York-based cultural critic and playwright.