Sep. 10th, 2017

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Consider this the start of me posting about the fandoms in Warning: Might Lead to Mixed Dancing. My nominations for Yuletide are fandoms I watched for the vid. They are awesome fandoms with amazing characters and relatively few people know about them.

1. Hasodot (The Secrets) | הסודות

This is an Israeli movie from about a decade ago, directed by Avi Nesher. The Hebrew title HaSodot, which literally means The Secrets, has an implication that the English title doesn't that the titular secrets involve the deep mysteries of the Bible): This movie floored me. I was nervous going in because I've learned the hard way from this project that movies involving gay Jews don't tend to work out well. (A corollary of the fact that movies involving gays don't tend to work out well, and movies involving Jews don't tend to work out well.) It did end in a het wedding, but I thought it did a much better job than, say, Kissing Jessica Stein, of understanding not only the bittersweetness of this, but the way its association of heterosexuality with happy endings makes it complicit in heterosexism. It also did not kill any of its queer characters (and this is a movie where people die! This is a movie about the consequences of messing with Kabbalah!), and its final shot was of the central queer couple happily dancing together at the het wedding. I think by the nature of the yeshiva-bound love triangle, the romance remixes and reinterprets Yentl's love triangle,- Michal torn between a conventional Torah marriage to Yanki ( who she clearly loves- the movie doesn't work the way it does if he's just a man she's forced to marry ) or a union with Naomi that would defy convention but would constitute a marriage To Torah and the joy of textual study, is a lovely requeering of an already queer text.

But more than the romance, what charmed me about this movie was the way it dealt with Kabbalah. I've never seen a movie that got the details and the feel so right. It made Kabbalah feel real and powerful and dangerous and meaningful while still maintaining a completely naturalistic environment. Naomi, in Kabbalist mode, has a stunning, arrogant command, and the rituals we see both resemble in frenzy and particulars the actual rituals of the 16th century students of the Ari and feel potent and transformative. The idea of a woman performing them and in the process transforming the meaning of the rituals is effective and powerful- I loved the scene where they sneak into the Ari's mikvah at night for a ritual immersion and in the process of doing something incredibly taboo rediscover the Bible's own sense that a woman's identity starts with her awareness of and pride in her body's physicality.

The only movie I've ever seen that handles Jewish folklore with this kind of depth of feeling is A Serious Man, and then only in the opening scene. This movie is suffused with an incredible sense of Jewish mysticism as a lived-in, comprehensible experience, not something esoteric or mysterious. As a mostly rationalist Jew, this is not my Judaism, but it's a recognizable, real Judaism nonetheless.

2. A Serious Man

The Coen Brothers' greatest movie in my superbiased opinion. Much to my disappointment, careful re-review of A Serious Man did not turn up any Jews dancing. This is the movie I most wanted to include in the vid and couldn't, because it's my favorite movie about Jews.

A Serious Man is so full of meaningful doubt, of trying to live a faithful life in a seemingly faithless world. It's great. It's also defined by a stunning realism. So many of the characters feel like people I know, they're annoying or loveable in exactly the way real people are. When I forced my father to watch it, he said afterward "I KNOW Sy Ableman. No I know TWENTY Sy Ablemans." They got the fabrics in the synagogue right. They got the look of the lawns right.

I nominated the three Rabbis that Larry Gopnik consults for advice on the meaning of life, in succession, after his wife leaves him. I love the surreal hierarchy of this subnarrative, how each succeeding Rabbi appears more serious but does not offer more serious advice. It's a brilliant parody of conventional Jewish folk narrative, a Jewish shaggy dog joke spun out with unexpected seriousness.


3. La'avor et Hakir (The Wedding Plan) | לעבור את הקיר

A sort of silly Israeli romcom made last year by the Breslov-Hasidic filmmaker Rama Burshtein. I imported a DVD copy from the UK when I needed it for the vid (the UK title is Through the Wall, a more literal translation of the Hebrew), a few months before it came out in the US, and then got to act all hipster when it hit the US and a bunch of my friends got excited about it and I was like "Hah! I was into that movie months ago.". #loser

Burshtein's films (this is her second) feel like they are made primarily for an audience of Breslov women and then secondarily in an ambassadorial capacity to the outside world. There's very much a sense I get that the perspective being pushed is unusual and particular and the idea of what constitutes a happy ending is shaped by Breslov attitudes rather than the ideals of a general viewing audience. The Wedding Plan is much more comic and much lighter than Fill the Void, her first film, but no less serious. It has a lovely romcom premise that a woman whose engagement is broken off decides to keep all of her wedding-related bookings and go through with the wedding, provided she can find a new husband in the next three months. And then it uses this premise to explore questions of theodicy, as well as look at coping with loneliness and one's sense of place within the community, and gentle moral teachings about how to respect other people. There's a hilarious sequence of bad dates as Michal tries to find her new 'the one'... the reasons why they are bad dates are striking. The guy who refuses to look at women he's dating until he marries so he can honestly tell his wife that she's the most beautiful woman he's ever seen is perhaps the most crystalline example of an adaptation of male chauvinism to the particular contours of the modern Hasidic world.
seekingferret: Word balloon says "So I said to the guy: you never read the book yet you go online and talk about it as if--" (Default)
I've realized that though it might take me months to write up full fandom notes for Warning: Might Lead to Mixed Dancing, I can start unpacking it in smaller pieces. So I've written some thoughts on the title. It's over 3000 words on its own. I may have mentioned that I have a few things to say about this vid. ;)

It looks like I started using the title in January, about three months after I started vidding. Before that, the working title was simply the title of the song "Et Rekod", which is Hebrew for "A Time to Dance." I think probably the new title occurred to me because I was talking about a specific section of the vid which starts at 3:02 and which in the final draft consists of a series of scenes of gender segregated dancing in which the barriers become increasingly evident until they are ultimately breached (in early drafts, this section was simply the scene in Fiddler on the Roof where Perchik and Hodel instigate mixed dancing at Tzeitl's wedding). In early conversation I thought of this sequence from the vid as the "might lead to mixed dancing" section, and I think it eventually occurred to me that the label in some ways applied more broadly.

The phrase "Might lead to mixed dancing" is a liberal Orthodox Jewish meme with a variety of subtly different meanings in different contexts. It is a sarcastic criticism of chumras- added stringencies in the practice of Jewish law, not required by the letter of the law, but which start to take on some of the weight of Jewish law when a whole community adopts them. The ostensible purpose of a chumra is to establish good habits for the consistent practice of the required law. As a tame example, many Jews write 'G-d', when the English word 'God' is not actually a holy name required to be so euphemized, because if you were careless in writing the name in English, you might lose the habit and forgetfully be careless when writing an actually holy name of God in Hebrew.

Some chumras are ridiculous, though. They require a significant sacrifice on the part of the practitioner and the sin they're trying to help avoid is minor or only tangentially connected. Saying that the thing a chumra bans might lead to mixed dancing is the liberal Orthodox Jew's damnation that the chumra is driven by moral panic rather than piety.

Why does mixed dancing hold this status? Because mixed dancing has a fraught, difficult recent history in American Orthodox Judaism. The ban on mixed dancing in Judaism goes back to medieval Europe and somewhat more ambiguously to the Talmud. The reason for the ban on mixed dancing was fear it was immodest and might lead to further illicit sexual contact between the genders.

My parents' shul is a Young Israel, a movement of Modern Orthodox synagogues founded in the 1920s to try to create a space where young American Jews could feel comfortable practicing in the traditional rite, to keep them from being drawn to a secular life, or worse, Reform or Conservative Judaism. ;) Its main concession to modernity was that in opposition to this traditional Jewish law, it sanctioned mixed gender dances, with the goal of promoting traditional intramarriage through more intimate contact between young Jewish men and women. This approach became so common in American Orthodoxy that a lot of American Jews didn't realize mixed gender dancing was against longstanding Jewish law.

It wasn't until the post-war era that centrist Orthodoxy began to challenge the practice of sanctioned mixed dances. A massive battle of words broke out. A great summary of the history of the fight by historian Zev Eleff is here. The tl;dr is that today, it's unthinkable to imagine mixed dancing in a Young Israel synagogue, and a lot of people aren't even aware of the history, as part of a general rightward shift in Modern Orthodoxy, but the liberal faction that lost but stayed in Orthodoxy remains unhappy about the new status quo.

Thus jokes about the horror of mixed dancing. There is a famously filthy joke, the Jewish equivalent of the Aristocrats, whose punchline is "Might Lead to Mixed Dancing". There is a much shared, viral chart about the meme. At the core of these jokes there is a sense that there is something hypocritical about the attention placed on mixed dancing when we know there are young Jews who are secretly dating non-Jews, or secretly having premarital sex, while living public lives where mixed dancing at a wedding is unthinkable. There's something screwed up about the attitude about sex implied by this contradiction, some idea that sex is a thing we can wish away by not talking about it, that if men and women don't interact with each other, nothing undesired can happen. There's also a general frustration with the way Orthodoxy has taken a rightward turn in the past several decades and overturned longstanding practice that, while it may not have technically aligned with medieval Jewish law, was the commonly accepted practice of the Orthodox Jewish world.

But I want to go further than this. If my vid is advancing an argument about mixed dancing, it is this:

1. Dancing is an essentially Jewish act. In particular, dancing shamelessly, without regard to technique, to celebrate life and family and community, is an essentially Jewish act. It's so fundamentally Jewish that it was the immediate and unrestrained response of the Israelites when God split the sea. It was David's response to the dedication of God's sanctuary in Jerusalem. I sought to particularly highlight this sort of dancing in the vid, dancing whose sheer exuberance makes up for its awkwardness and lack of rhythm. Often in the original source these dance moments were played for slapstick comedy- I use them instead to represent un-selfconscious joyousness.

2. Because dancing is a time when Jewish communities come together, dancing is inherently connected to the experience of enjoying the diversity and complexity of Jewish identities. I wanted secular Jews dancing with religious Jews, Misnagdim dancing with Chasidim, straight Jews dancing together, gay Jews dancing together, straight Jews dancing with gay Jews, Jews dancing with non-Jews, male Jews dancing with female Jews dancing with trans* Jews, old Jews dancing with young Jews, white Jews dancing with black Jews dancing with Asian Jews, in as many combinations and configurations and shapes as possible. I wanted to complicate stereotypes. Judaism represents this incomprehensible world-wide community united by nothing except our mutual willingness to proclaim, sometimes reluctantly, that we are all Jewish. Jewish dancing occasions like weddings and Bar Mitzvahs are a time when we make that proclamation as a community, when we say that the divisions among us are less important than the bonds between us.

3. Gender segregated dancing still carries with it the charge of relationships. The same gender relationships I feature dancing together in the vid include lovers, friends, mothers with daughters, fathers with sons, sisters, brothers, rivals. Looking at these couples context-free in the vid, can you tell which are the siblings dancing together, which are romantically involved, which are the close platonic best friends, which are the gay guy hitting on the straight guy or the bi girl hitting on the straight extraterrestrial (<3 Susan Ivanova forever)? Especially as our awareness of the presence of gay members of our Jewish communities increases, the idea that gender segregation is meaningfully safeguarding the dignity of our relationships seems increasingly false.

4. Gender segregated dancing always exists with an awareness of mixed dancing as this possibility on the other side of the barrier. Peeking over the mechitza is an obligate component of segregated dancing, not a violation of its principles, and there is some sense in which gender segregated dancers, celebrating the same occasion from across opposite sides of a wall, are united in one interconnected meta-mixed dance. When I was working through the 3:02 section of the vid with my beta [personal profile] sanguinity, I discussed the idea that I was trying to create a sort of geography of the mechitza by using a variety of clips looking from one side to the other. I'm not entirely sure how clear that actually worked out, but it's an important idea in how I conceptualized this section. Gender segregated dancing is never just the two sides of a wall.

5. Thus mixed dancing is an apotheosis of the universal celebration of Jewish identity, in all its diverse forms, and segregated dancing is actually just a limited subset of mixed dancing, posing all of the same challenges and offering all of the same opportunities for joy. In a draft of the vid never intended to be released, I juxtaposed the fictional, segregated wedding dancing section of the vid against a video of segregated wedding dancing at my sister's wedding: Me joyously dancing with my brother, my new brother in law, my father, my uncles and cousins and friends, with my sister and her female friends and family just behind us on the other side of the wall. Shortly after that video was filmed, we moved the mechitza out of the way and our whole family danced together. It was all of a piece, parts of the same celebration.

And in fact, I would say that 'mixed dancing' in the vid hopefully grows to mean more than mixed-gender dancing, but in the swirl of different fandoms mixing together, it means a great coming together of different kinds of Jews and Judaisms.



Another context to 'Might Lead to Mixed Dancing" I should acknowledge is the vid premiering at Vividcon's Club Vivid dance party. Which is its own kind of heterogeneous dancing experience, and I was aware as I was making the vid that the specifically Jewish parts of this vid would only speak to some fraction of the audience at the convention, and that I would need to make the vid able to offer something to the people who weren't there for the Jewish content. They are not the primary target audience for the vid, though. To some extent "Warning: Might Lead to Mixed Dancing", flashing in yellow over an image of Reb Saunders dancing in The Chosen, is a warning to the non-Jews that part of this vid will be inaccessible to them. But what is there for them, I think, is the fun of recognizing favorite characters as they get their two seconds of recognition, the curiosity of wondering about the interesting clips whose fandoms they don't know, and the fun of the dancing vid choreography. (My two primary betas are both not Jewish, so I've known for a long time that even if they didn't understand all of the Jewish meaning of the vid, there was a lot for them to enjoy anyway.)

Several years ago, I had a conversation with [personal profile] troisroyaumes that's stuck with me as a vidding inspiration. "At one point, I started wanting to make a parody vid, featuring some popular U.S. TV series, set very carefully and precisely to non-English song lyrics that half the audience would not understand." To a much greater degree, that program was what I accomplished with Ma'agalim, the West Wing vid I premiered at Club Vivid last year. "Ma'agalim" uses Hebrew wordplay and makes specific visual callouts to the Hebrew lyrics a central part of its storytelling. Shwekey's "Et Rekod" has a much simpler, more straightforward lyric and understanding it is not requisite to appreciating the vid. I feel like making the more aggressively incomprehensible vid last year for Club Vivid paved the way for making this vid. And I also think understanding the lyrics of "Et Rekod" and the way they reinterpret Ecclesiastes does add something to understanding the vid, and I made this vid knowing that its first audience would largely not have that understanding. I hope that may be a challenge to the vidders at Vividcon to think about their works in a wider, more global way. To remember that not everyone will understand the cultural context of their vid. Or not.

But also, what premiering the vid at Club Vivid meant is that I was premiering it AT a mixed gender dance. The warning is thus inherently ironic, the vid cannot lead to mixed dancing because mixed dancing is already happening (both in the sense of males dancing with females and in the sense of Jews dancing with non-Jews). That's something that gives me some degree of pause. All of this critique of segregated dancing in the Jewish community is a commentary by an Orthodox Jew who lives in a community where mixed dancing is not always welcome. At Club Vivid, that critique in inappropriate for the venue. Was serving this vid up, with its critiques of some aspects of Jewish community front and center, to a community primarily composed of non-Jews, the appropriate introduction? I'm not sure. But a lot of the Jews who were there came up to me after the vid premiered to thank me for making it. It said something important, at least, to the Jews who WERE at Vividcon.

I'm very careful in the fannish parts of me that I present to the Jewish community, among other reasons because not everyone will respond favorably to learning that I've written (relatively non-explicit) slash fiction, but also because some in the Jewish community think that Fandom is a distraction from Torah. And I'm careful about the Jewish parts of me I present in fandom, because as an Orthodox Jew in fandom I'm rare and my actions may be interpreted as representing my community. I've tried, in my two trips to Vividcon, to make it a place where Jewish identity and Fannish identity can harmoniously exist, hosting Shabbos fan dinners and premiering vids about Jewish characters and generally being visibly a Jewish Fan, with my shiny silver Con kippah and various fannish shirts all trying to bridge those two sides of myself, two sides of myself that don't necessarily exist in harmony at all times. I like to imagine that for the four minutes or so while the vid was playing at the con, I was publicly and visibly a Jewish Fan in all that implies, and I was representing that identity to the whole VVC community. And that that was another kind of mixed dancing the vid accomplishes. Maybe that's not true, but it felt that way anyway.



Let's take a closer look at the section that begins at 3:02. We start with a bride being raised on a chair at her wedding reception. it's clearly an Orthodox wedding, as she is surrounded exclusively by women and there is a mechitza barrier clearly shown on the right. Cut to a groom being raised on a chair in parallel, surrounded by men in the black suits and black hats and beards of a Hasidic sect. Cut to the two of them raised in the air holding a kerchief over the mechitza to establish a connection over the wall without actually touching, with the camera panning from him to her. All of this is from the opening of a House episode in which the bride is about to display the symptoms of some terrible and mysterious illness and collapse from the chair. House subsequently will spend the episode hectoring her to try to convince her that her religion is nonsense while searching for a diagnosis and treatment. The opening shots establish the separation of the genders, but also through the kerchief and the photography establish that the separation creates a relationship between the two sides, a literal physical geographic connection.

Cut to women energetically dancing in a circle. Cut to two women in white dresses swinging each other around in the middle of a circle of women. Cut to two Modern Orthodox men dancing together with other men dancing in the background. Cut to a group of Charedi men dancing in a circle. These scenes are respectively from Srugim, Hasodot, Srugim, and Hasodot, two Israeli media dealing with the difficulties of life in the Orthodox world. These two scenes both have hidden complexities in the dancing: In the wedding in Srugim, Yifat is a niddah- she has started menstruating. Technically, she should have reported this to her Rabbi and made several compromises in the wedding ritual to accommodate for it, but she has chosen to conceal it from everyone but her chasan in order to fully enjoy the wedding. In Hasodot, the two women dancing in white dresses are former lovers acting publicly as if they are just friends who happen to be dancing together in a gender segregated dancing circle. These shots ignore the existence of the other side of the mechitzah, but serve both to show the unambiguous joy of dancing in segregated settings juxtaposed against the things it forces people to leave unspoken. There is a bargain being made, and the joy comes at a cost to honesty.

Cut to two women peeking at men dancing on the other side of a mechitzah from Fill the Void. Cut to two young boys peeking at women dancing on the other side of a mechitzah from House. Cut to Reuven peeking at women dancing on the other side of the mechitzah in The Chosen. Cut to an overhead pan from the men dancing on one side of the mechitzah to the women dancing on the other side of the mechitzah in House. Peeking is a commonplace, looked down upon but practiced by both sides, who wonder what it would be like on the other side. Again, there is a geography and a connection. When we see men dancing together, it's not just about them, it's also about the women on the other side of the wall. When we see women dancing together, it's also about the men on the other side of the wall. There is a permeability to these walls, people can peek through them, peek over them, peek around them. The walls are just a construct, not an unbreachable barrier.

Cut to Perchik cutting the string separating the men and women in Fiddler on the Roof. The permeability of the wall reaches a breaking point.

Cut to the bride and groom from The Duchess and the Dirtwater Fox, slowly approaching each other, reaching out, and eventually touching. The barrier has been breached, to the joy and relief of everyone. Mixed dancing has been achieved, the status of full Jewish connection.



Anyway, I still have a hell of a lot to say about this vid and will do so in further posts.

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