Sophie Maslow and the Chanukah Festivals for Israel

The following is a guest post by Hallie Chametzky. Dance Archivist Libby Smigel introduces Hallie:

Hallie Chametzky completed her summer Junior Fellowship with the Music Division in early August. Working with the papers of choreographer and Martha Graham Dance Company member Sophie Maslow, she discovered a wealth of documentation on a significant performance event, the annual Chanukah Festivals for Israel. In this guest blog posting, Hallie offers some research and reflections on the Festivals, in the hope that scholars might be enticed to visit the Library to consult the evidence of this cultural-political event. Following the Junior Fellowship, Hallie Chametzky returned to Virginia Commonwealth University where she is completing her dance degree and honors program.

The Madison Square Garden Marquee juxtaposes two culturally significant events. Photo by International News, circa 1950s. Box 2/Folder 10, Sophie Maslow Papers, Music Division, Library of Congress.

For almost twenty years, Madison Square Garden served as host to an extravagant, star-studded annual event that brought tens of thousands of people out of their homes and into the winter night to witness displays of music, dance, and celebrity guest stars. The Chanukah Festivals for Israel ran from the early 1950s until the early 1970s. Purchase of Israel Bonds granted admission to the festival, which featured Zionist (pro-Israel), or often simply Jewish, ideals and stories portrayed through the performing arts.

Fifteen of these festivals featured choreography by Sophie Maslow, a Russian-American Jewish choreographer whose work often dealt with Jewish themes. In her papers held in the Music Division, I got a sense of the scale of the festivals through the large quantities of photographs, programs, musical scores, and librettos in the collection. All of this material made me wonder: why have I never heard of the Chanukah Festivals, and what can be learned from studying them?

Chanukah Festival for Israel program, 1961-1962. Box 11/Folder 8, Sophie Maslow Papers, Music Division, Library of Congress

Newspaper clipping of Sophie Maslow Dance Company members costumed for the 1965 Chanukah Festival. Newspaper unknown. Box 12/Folder 15, Sophie Maslow Papers, Music Division, Library of Congress

 

Throughout her tenure as choreographer for the events, Maslow purportedly choreographed more than fifty works, including Bintel Brief, a piece using the famous Yiddish-language advice column of the Jewish newspaper The Forward, and Neither Rest nor Harbor, a drama inspired by S. Ansky’s play The Dybbuk. In the 1967 Chanukah Festival, Carmen de Lavallade, a black American dance icon, appeared in Maslow’s piece titled Babi Yar, a remembrance of thousands of Jews killed in a German campaign against the Soviet Union in Ukraine. Other special guests in 1967 included musicians Theodore Bikel and Sol Kaplan. Newspaper articles from other years list prominent celebrities of stage and screen: movie and television stars Henry Fonda, Cary Grant, Rod Steiger, Edward G. Robinson, and Ed Sullivan, dancer Pearl Lang, and musicians Hannah Ahroni, Itzhak Perlman, and the New York Philharmonic, to name a few.

 

Rehearsal of Sophie Maslow Dance Company for the 1955 Chanukah Festival.
Box 2/Folder 2, Sophie Maslow Papers, Music Division, Library of Congress

 

Though Maslow’s dances were entirely Jewish in theme, they were rarely, if ever, explicitly Zionist. Indeed, she never identified as Zionist, and she ran in progressive, left-wing circles where the topic of Israel was contentious. While her participation in the Chanukah Festivals for Israel may seem paradoxical, Maslow firmly believed in sharing dance as widely as possible. At the Chanukah Festivals, Maslow found an audience much larger than those at typical concert-dance venues. The audience was also less dance savvy, allowing Maslow to actualize her philosophy of dance for and about all people, not just the elite.

Though the festivals famously brought huge crowds and featured major figures in arts and entertainment, as well as major figures in the Jewish-American community, the events are little-known today. Why the festivals ended and why they seem to have avoided public memory is a mystery now. A quick Google search of the words “Chanukah Festival” and “Madison Square Garden” presents a few newspaper articles from the period, a couple of pieces of scholarship, and very little relevant information otherwise. While there is some scholarly research on the festivals, I remain perplexed by the relative lack of material. With audiences regularly as large as 20,000 people, and each guest required to purchase Israel Bonds, the festivals ultimately raised millions of dollars every year in economic support of Israel. Clearly, the festivals were not inconsequential in cultural, economic, and political impact.

The founding of Israel in 1948 was contentious, and the state’s history since has not been without conflict. The festivals raise important questions and considerations about the role of entertainment and celebrity in socio-political issues. Did guests come primarily to support Israel, or was their priority to see spectacular performances, and buying Israel bonds a necessary entry price? Given that Sophie Maslow was not a devout Zionist, how did the other performers identify politically? The Sophie Maslow Dance Company and various guest dancers who performed Maslow’s choreography were from diverse racial, cultural, ethnic, and religious backgrounds—certainly not all were Jewish. How did the festivals contribute to the bond between the United States and Israel? Did the festivals contribute to the commercialization of Chanukah? Through the Chanukah Festivals, the secular, sacred, political, and cultural collided on a large scale for many years, and I leave the Sophie Maslow Papers with few answers and many questions.

Historians and scholars of the Middle East and Israel-U.S. relations may be interested in the Chanukah Festivals, as well as performing arts historians who wish to understand the role of music, dance, and theatre in American Zionism. The documentation of the festivals among the Sophie Maslow Papers may be of great interest to anyone curious about the myriad ways entertainment can be used as an economic and political act. Ultimately, the collection provides invaluable primary source materials about a semi-forgotten piece of history, opening exciting doors for future curious minds to enter.

One Comment

  1. Dr. Rebecca Rossen
    December 3, 2018 at 1:58 pm

    Hello-
    I’m delighted to see a young scholar engaged in this material and in archival research, and you raise excellent questions. I am the author of a book called Dancing Jewish: Jewish Identity in American Modern and Postmodern Dance (Oxford University Press, 2014) in which I address Maslow’s work and the Chanukah festivals extensively (and offer some answers to the questions you pose). In addition to archival materials, I conducted interviews with a number of Maslow’s dancers (among them Deborah Jowitt) and Maslow’s daughter, Abby Blatt, who attended the festival as a child and performed in them as a young dancer (she may, in fact, be pictured in that 1965 clipping).

    I’m so happy to see that more of Maslow’s archive has made its way to the Library of Congress, and think that there is much more to say in regards to the role of music and theater in these festivals. If readers of this blog post are interested in significant dance scholarship on the topic (or are interested in Jewishness in American dance more broadly), I would love to recommend Dancing Jewish as a source.

    Sincerely, Dr. Rebecca Rossen, Associate Professor
    University of Texas at Austin

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