I actually must thank Sam-the-Bar-Mitzvah-video dancer and his family for their voyeuristic and strategically-posted video of the burlesque dance routine that’s been making blogosphere news. They have certainly given us Rabbis fodder for our high holiday sermons.
But while many of us are busily typing up diatribes against the excess, the lavishness, the expense and the lack of Jewish focus, and while we are all right in our musings about so many of the wrong messages Sam’s scantily-dressed dancers gave off, I hope we don’t miss seeing it through one more lens: the feminist one.
Imagine you are one of the 12- or 13-year old girls watching the performance, whether live or on the video. What do you see?
You see a riff on all those music videos with hot girls shaking everything they’ve got around a male lead singer (this time a Bar Mitzvah boy). You see a 13-year-old boy hungrily adored by female dancers the age of older sisters, or worse yet, mothers. You see that “women” — in the form of the Ritual Rockettes — want that boy. You see that one guy can satisfy 20 girls. And that they all desire back. You see a boy being welcomed into a gaggle of females vying for his attention. They wait for him and on him. And you no doubt imagine yourself, the skinny, awkward, gawky tween, hoping to be one of those women soon — hoping to have a man to allure the way those women are not-so-subtly alluring and admiring Sam.
Sam’s a great dancer, that’s for sure. A talented performer, too. Interestingly enough, he — the male “lead” — was fully dressed. He could have chosen to come out in a leopard G-string or a buckskin loincloth. But the almost pornographic image of him being dressed, surrounded by half-naked women seemingly ready to disrobe and mount him, is reminiscent of that old porn classic “Behind the Green Door.”
The fact that this sexy dance was posted on YouTube for all to see and share makes it a kind of Jewish pornography. That’s the “feh” factor for me.
We watch the video and wonder: What’s the Jewish message? But we need to be equally diligent about asking: What’s the sexual message?
Now, I know Orthodox Rabbis are having a field day with this one, too. You see what happens when we let girls wear whatever they want? When society’s loose moral values (everything from gay rights to no prayer in public schools) seep into our Jewish community? What Sam’s sexually titillating video raises for me is the need for a liberal definition of tzniut — modesty — that includes both men and women “walking humbly before G-d.” That includes dancing humbly, too.
I’m prepared on this one to be seen as one of those feminists who has no sense of humor. I don’t care as much that Sam danced as how he danced. I’m channelling Michal who scolded King David in Second Samuel Chapter 6 Verse 20 for pretty much the same thing Sam was doing: leaping and rocking with the girls: “How the king of Israel has distinguished himself today, going around half-naked in full view of the slave girls of his servants as any vulgar fellow would!”
The feminist ideals through which my generation tried to raise our daughters were shimmied into nonexistence during that dance. What distressed me the most was recognizing that all our hard work of the 1970s and ‘80s is still being rejected by not only the girls we raised as feminists but also by my own generation—the moms who seemed to equally enjoy the show The old messages we all grew up with once again took center stage, literally: Women are eye-candy. We are superfluous. We are not the main attraction. We do not exist by and for ourselves alone. We are forever waiting for our Prince Charmings.
Ladies, we still have work to do.
Rabbi Elyse Goldstein is the author of “ReVisions: Seeing Torah through a Feminist Lens” and editor of The Women’s Torah Commentary, The Women’s Haftarah Commentary, and New Jewish Feminism (Jewish Lights.) She is Rabbi of City Shul in Toronto.