I grew up Jewish, but I did not grow up orthodox Jewish. The temple where I was bar mitzvahed was conservative and very sedate. Its services were about as wild as one might find at a Presbyterian church.
That’s why I almost felt like an anthropologist observing the religious rites of aSouth Seastribe when I recently attended an orthodox Jewish wedding. The ceremony was that of a niece who married a man with deeply traditional commitments. As a result, the celebration that followed their vows might have come straight out of medievalEurope.
I had read about Hasidic Jewish festivities, but never previously witnessed one similar to them. According to the literature, these were wild affairs characterized by ecstatic dancing. Because of their somber dress, orthodox Jews have a reputation for being restrained, yet their weddings were supposedly anything but.
I can now certify that this depiction is accurate. The dancing I witnessed was rowdy, abandoned, and extraordinarily energetic. Those on the dance floor leaped high in the air and whirled around at a dizzying pace for hours on end. Moreover, as promised the men danced with the men and the women danced with the women.
It was also clear that the dancers were very emotionally committed to one another. The looks of pleasure and fondness on their faces were unmistakable. These people constituted a tightly knit community—one to which I did not belong.
This put me in mind of the pariah status that Jews for centuries occupied inEurope. They were despised outcastes who had to rely on one another for survival. Often disparaged as clannish, they had little choice but to maintain close ties to one another. Ceremonies such as the one I observed were a mechanism through which they reaffirmed their allegiance.
Other groups have done the same, sometimes utilizing similar means. The Shakers (a branch of the Quakers) were one such community. Though deemed a curiosity by others, they intentionally occupied large dwellings that separated them from the outside world.
And within these structures, they too engaged in wild dances. Indeed, it was from their enthusiastic gyrations that these otherwise ascetic believers derived their popular name. What is more, they too confined their dancing to the same sex.
Even the Amish, because they are so different from their neighbors, are noted for keeping to their own. They may not be wild dancers, but they are intensely devoted to their communal relationships.
How different this is from most of us. We suburbanites, especially those living in stand-alone dwellings, are much more controlled in our celebrations. We too party, but it is generally with greater decorum. Yes, teenagers go wild when they attend rock concerts, yet they eventually settle down.
Those of us who feel part of the larger community evidently do not have a pressing need to reaffirm our attachments to friends and relatives. With no belligerent outsiders to protect ourselves against, we are content to live and love with far fewer ecstatic displays.
Some may eschew this sort of moderation as boring. I, however, find that it provides the space to pursue both self-fulfillment and private commitments.