Mitzvah Tantz (Yiddish) is the Hassidic custom where men dance before the bride on the wedding night, to honour her and to rejoice in the couple's union. Usually the bride stands perfectly still at one end of the room, holding a long ribbon or gartel (man's belt) while the one dancing before her holds the other end. Hassidism is a Jewish Ultra-Orthodox movement which forbids personal contact between men and women. It places the woman under many restrictions, including the obligation to dress modestly and (for a married woman) to wear a head covering or a wig to hide her own hair, and in some Hassidic traditions to shave her head completely.

 

According to custom only close relatives participate in the Mitzvah Tantz and it is usually one of the leading rabbis – her father, grandfather or uncle – who dances with the bride. For the bride it is a moment of true introspection and spiritual transcendence and according to custom, if she is lucky, her ancestors descend from the heavens to grace the congregation with their spiritual presence and extend their blessings to the young couple. However, it is also the first time in her life that the young Hassidic woman is confronted with an audience of men, for women are forbidden to join the male congregation even in prayer.  She is brought into the men's section with no mechitza (partition) separating them and becomes the object of an ancient practice that may go on all night until dawn.  

 

Mitzvah Tantz 2005 is a dialogue through dance between two women from separate worlds. It juxtaposes oriental dance and Hassidic tradition to convey a coming of age; a cathartic moment, when womanhood reaches such powerful introspection that it verges on religious ecstasy. In the oriental tradition, female dancers are accustomed to performing in front of an audience of men while wearing scant clothing and in many eastern countries it has developed into an art form. Belly-dancing requires the dancer to be at complete ease in order for the pelvis to be unlocked and seemingly independent of the rest of the body. A master belly-dancer is measured by her ability to capture her audience without straying off the lines of a single floor tile.

 

Mitzvah Tantz was filmed over the course of a year and records the artist's attempt to master the art of belly-dancing. But rather than displaying the finished result, it traces the learning process, the failed attempts and the sensation of learning to walk all over again. It is a woman's dialogue with her own body and her coming to terms with the objectifying male gaze; dancer and bride alike are brought in front of a male congregation, exposed, naked, and tense in anticipation of the moment they will unveil themselves for the first time.

"Returning to the theme of the Jewish woman, Israeli Noam Edry's short film of a Chassidic wedding, Mitzvah Tanz is imaginative and fascinating. As the modest bride, totally veiled and swathed, sways to the rhythm of the men in fur hats and gaiters, Noam herself performs a subtle, seductive belly dance, as a comment on female submission and self-consciousness. There is something moving about the sensitive dance of both women which I found quite riveting. In a way it shares the rhythmic fatalism of Ravel's Bolero."

 

Gloria Tessler, The AJR (Association of Jewish Refugees) Journal, London

 

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