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The Angry Dancers

by Doug Lipman

Two men stood at the opening to the makeshift meeting hall, growling at each other. "I won't go in after HIM," said one of them, gesturing at the second.

"I'm only coming to this useless meeting because the rebbitzin asked me personally," said the other, teeth clenched. "But I won't walk on the ground where one of YOU already stepped."

Just then, the rebbitzin herself appeared at the door. "Thank you for coming, Reb Yosef," she said to the first man, who preened a little at this show of favor. Then she faced the second man and said, "Reb Shimon, it would break my husband's heart if you didn't come to hear him talk about the crisis." At this, Reb Shimon smirked at Reb Yosef, straightened his coat, and walked through the door.

Reb Yosef stood fuming. The rebbitzin smiled at him, saying, "You have supported my husband completely in the months since he became rabbi. He knows what a debt he owes to you." Mollified, Reb Yosef entered also, and stood staring at the scene before him.

The grain storehouse had been emptied of its usual barrels. Instead, plank benches were arranged in rows on the dirt floor. The two factions in the town crisis had created an aisle, twice the height of a man, down the center of the room. On each side, an angry cluster of citizens buzzed and grumbled, every so often glaring at their new enemies on the other side. Reb Yosef recognized his "side," and turned toward it.

At the front of the room stood Rabbi Pesach Mendel, so young compared to his predecessor, his hands on an improvised podium made from two upturned crates. He had been trying in vain to get the attention of the crowd. Now he was singing a blessing. At last, reluctantly, the crowd grew silent. But few so much as mouthed the words along with the rabbi.

"My friends," said the rabbi, "I thank you for coming here. Since some of you vowed not to enter the synagogue again until this crisis was resolved, we have been unable to meet as a group to solve this in a sensible manner. We are grown men. We are Jews. We must not let a quarrel - even over something as holy as the previous rabbi's prayer shawl - divide us. There is a simple solution that involves sharing the tallis. Don't forget; the Temple fell because of a petty quarrel. Don't let that happen here!"

From the left side of the room, a voice shouted, "You tell them, Rabbi! Their pettiness started this whole thing!"

The rabbi looked around at the angry faces glaring from the right side of the room. "After all," he continued, a little less certainly, "Moses knew he would not be able to enter the Promised Land, but he gave Joshua his blessing to enjoy its holiness without him."

An old man on the right side of the room raised his fist. "That's right! The tallis belongs to the old rabbi's oldest great-grandchild!" He pointed next to him, to a red-faced infant squirming in a burly man's arms, then continued his hoarse shouting at the other faction. "You should give us your blessing, not your stubborn lies!"

"You heard what the Rabbi said before," yelled someone from the left side of the room. "Stop being so petty and let the true heir have the tallis!" He walked and stood, arms crossed, next to another infant of about the same age.

Angry roars from both sides drowned out the rabbi's attempts to speak. At last, an elderly man from the right-hand group said, "That's enough! We won't be insulted like this. We're leaving!" As one, all the men seated on the right side of the room rose and filed out the door.

As they left, the rabbi looked down at his written speech, shaking his head. When the door slammed shut behind the last of the departing faction, he looked up helplessly, caught his wife's eye, and gave a defeated shrug.

Miriam - affectionately known by everyone as Mimele - smiled calmly at her husband. Then she turned and followed the angry men outside.

"Listen to me," she said to the group milling around outside. "I have a favor to ask of you." They quieted enough to allow her to continue. "Will you do it for me?" she asked.

A young man said, "Rebbitzin, please! We're busy deciding what to do about those stubborn liars."

Mimele smiled again. "Please do me this one favor, first. Sing the old rabbi's nigun - the wordless prayer song he taught you."

The young man said, "Not now! That's a song of holiness. This is a time for action!"

Mimele stopped smiling. She looked at one face after another. "It's time for that song to be sung. Will you sing it?" Their grim faces showed what a struggle it was to defy her - and that they had no intention of giving in.

"Do you really want me," she continued calmly, "to break the rabbinic prohibition by singing here in front of you?"

"No, of course not. But we have plans to make!"

"It is time for that song. If you will not start singing it, I will - even if it means breaking the holy laws." She opened her mouth as if to sing.

"No, Rebbitzin! No!" shouted several of the youths. They looked around at each other. At last, one of them began to sing.

"Good!" said Mimele. Sing it, all of you!" A few began to sing, listlessly. "Sing how you feel about those others! Sing your anger!" One sang with more feeling, then another. Soon, the entire group was roaring the nonsense syllables of the wordless song. Mimele smiled, then went inside, their loud singing behind her.

Inside, the other faction was debating the issue. Several men were shouting at once. There was no chance that the rebbitzin could be heard over their vehemence. She walked up to the man she had greeted earlier, Reb Shimon, and said, "Dance."

He looked up uncomprehendingly. "Please, Reb Shimon," she said. "Stand up and dance."

Reb Shimon, shocked, said, "Dance?" His surprise was loud enough that two others near him turned to listen.

Mimele said, "All of you, please get up and dance. The circle dance you used to do to the old rabbi's nigun."

They stared back at her, open-mouthed. She smiled. "Do you want me to break the rabbinic prohibition by pulling you to your feet so you can dance?"

"No, Rebbitzin. But the meeting...."

"It is time for that dance. If you will not start the dancing, I will - even if it means breaking the holy laws." She reached out as if to grab Reb Shimon's hand.

"No, Rebbitzin! No!" shouted the other two men. With a glance around them, they stood up and began to dance.

The commotion around Mimele drew the attention of others. "For the rebbitzin," said the dancers, as they reached out for the seated men's hands. "Dance!"

As their line gradually included more and more of the men in the room, Mimele said, "Dance! All of you!"

Little by little, the entire room of men reluctantly joined hands and shuffled through the familiar steps. "You need music," said Mimele, who disappeared out the door.

In a moment she reappeared, holding the door open. "Yes, your song is holy. Sing your anger in here, so everyone can hear you." The outside faction filed in, still singing. "Drown out their stamping feet with your voices," said Mimele to the singers. "Dance how you feel," she said to the dancers.

One group sang. The other danced. At first, they tried to drown each other out. But, in time, the hypnotic melody took over, and they fell into the same rhythm. Before long, both factions were both singing and dancing, each circling its own side of the room. Gradually their anger turned to determination, then to concentration, then to contemplation. They danced and sang for hours.

No one noticed who first broke one of the circles of dancers and linked it to the other. By the time their rage was completely spent, they had been dancing and singing in one large circle for quite some time. Somehow, the circle just stopped moving, as a few kept humming - quietly now - the old rabbi's nigun.

The young rabbi , for all his inexperience, rose to the moment. "So it's agreed," he said. "The prayer shawl shall belong to the village. Any one in need of comfort will be allowed to pray in it. We will store it in the synagogue, on holy ground, where everyone can see it."

No one objected. The rabbi did not ask for more than that. "I will see you all tomorrow, for morning prayers," he said.

Later, back in the rabbi's kitchen, Rabbi Pesach Mendel said, "Mimele, how did you know what they needed?"

"Ah, Payshe," she said. "They were blocked from feeling each other's holiness. And this time, the blockage was not in their minds, where your sermon could reach. It was blocked in their throats and their bellies. They needed to dance and sing until their holiness could flow easily through them."

"Ah, Mimele," said her husband. "You will make a great rabbi out of me, yet." He reached out his hand and drew her to her feet.

Late into the night, the rabbi and the rebbitzin sang and danced their holiness, which flowed through them and from them, as the village rested peacefully under the starlit sky.



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This page was last updated on Tuesday, August 5, 2003
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