Date of Award

2017

Degree Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Graduate Group

Germanic Languages and Literature

First Advisor

Catriona MacLeod

Second Advisor

Kathryn Hellerstein

Abstract

This dissertation analyzes representations of the controversial Jewish cultural practice of mixed-sex dancing in German and Yiddish literature from 1843 to 1942. Dance scenes are a pivotal moment for plot and character development that resist and reaffirm social hierarchies, due to the paradoxical role of dance for upwardly mobile Jews. My corpus consists largely of regional fiction that targeted urban readerships in Berlin, New York, and Vienna. I find parallels between the formulaic plot structures and the dance choreography, a narrative strategy that engrosses readers, at the same time that it entraps characters in a tragic fate. Transgressive dance scenes are an important form of social criticism, since they provide an entertaining way for authors to depict the way that boundary-crossing romance threatens the social order. In this way, dance scenes depict the way that men and women negotiate the process of acculturation according to gender and class identity.

For centuries rabbinic authorities focused on the connection between improper dancing and sexual transgression, yet, starting around 1800, community leaders and writers of fiction express a greater concern with interconfessional and cross-class mingling on the mixed-sex dance floor. Nineteenth century German writers deploy the character types of the physically awkward Jewish man and the beautiful Jewish woman to decry their limited options for social improvement and mobility. When these characters enter into a romance on the dance floor, they typically encounter a bitter fate, since there was no solution to their impossible social predicament. Turn-of-the-century American Yiddish writers experimented with American-style physicality and the atmosphere of dance halls, even in works set in European villages; their works reflect the way immigration disrupted Jewish community structures. Writing for a Jewish audience, they had greater freedom to depict morally-ambiguous Jewish characters, including physically robust male antiheroes and their seductive female dance partners. By the early twentieth century, women writers (in both Yiddish and German) are less reliant upon stereotypical character types and formulaic marriage plots. Their female protagonists challenge the connection between dancing and courtship, since they use the dance floor as an opportunity to express themselves.

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