Before the two-step, the Dougie and the Harlem Shake, before flash mobs and TikTok challenges and elaborate wedding choreography, human beings have danced.
Cave paintings from 10,000 years ago depict early humans getting jiggy with it. The Hebrew Bible tells us that Miriam, Moses’ sister, led the Israelite women in a joyous dance to celebrate the splitting of the Red Sea.
Judaism has changed quite a bit since Miriam took up her tambourine. We’ve built a rich and diverse culture that incorporates traditions from all over the globe — and that includes our dances, which put a Jewish spin on this ancient form of human expression. Here are five Jewish dances worthy of learning.
The Hora is probably the most widely recognized Jewish dance. This circle dance might start off proper and demure, but within five minutes, everyone is sweaty, at least one person’s foot has been impaled by a high heel, and a bunch of half-drunk men are hoisting you up onto a chair with little regard for your comfort or safety.
But did you know that the most iconic “Jewish dance” isn’t Jewish at all? The word “hora” may rhyme with “Torah,” but its roots are in the Greek “khoros,” a traditional circle dance performed all across the Balkans and southeastern Europe. Until the 20th century, you were more likely to see a hora at a Christian celebration than a bar mitzvah.
Everything changed in 1924 when Romanian-born Jewish dancer Baruch Agadati choreographed a hora for a theater company touring the Jezreel Valley. Yes, that’s right — choreographed. The first Jewish hora wasn’t a spontaneous burst of celebration, but a carefully planned performance!
The dance caught on among early Zionist pioneers, who would end their days of backbreaking agricultural labor with a spontaneous hora around a campfire. These pioneers may as well have invented the saying “work hard, play hard” because their dances went on for hours.
Soon, the infectious joy of the hora spread to Jewish communities around the world, and today, it is essentially synonymous with Jewish celebration.
The mitzvah tantz
This dance hails from 18th-century Ukraine when a new sect took the Jewish world by storm. The Hasidim, or “pious ones,” sought a union with God through meditation, dance, and joy.
In the 19th century, at the movement’s height, it is estimated that almost half of all Eastern European Jews identified as Hasidic. Today, various Hasidic sects continue to use dance as a way to connect joyfully with God.
One particular dance gained special traction among many Hasidic sects. The mitzvah tantz, or mitzvah dance, is a traditional wedding ritual in which prominent men in the community dance before the bride — a nod to the Talmud’s command to “gladden” the bride and groom.
The bride stands perfectly still at the opposite end of the room, holding one end of a long ribbon or belt, while a male relative holds the other end and dances in front of her — usually refraining from eye contact so he can focus on his performance.
The dance is considered a moment of spiritual transcendence when the dancers call down the souls of the couple’s ancestors from the heavens to bless the newlyweds.
In a community that upholds strict boundaries between men and women, the mitzvah tantz is a unique and sometimes controversial encounter. Some sects avoid this tradition, believing it skirts the boundaries of modesty. But for other sects, the mitzvah tantz is a special, spiritually powerful moment in the wedding celebrations.
The Yemenite step
For centuries, the Yemenite Jewish community thrived, churning out Torah scholars and mystics. Their spiritual yearning united Yemenite Jews for Zion, and by 1950, nearly the entire Yemenite Jewish community was living in Israel, transforming Israeli culture. Seriously, what’s an Israeli Shabbat without jachnun or mlawach?
Their dances were no exception. Israeli dancers were fascinated by the Yemenite Jews’ moves, which today feature prominently in many Israeli folk dances.
Perhaps the most well-known of these dances is the Yemenite step, popularly performed at weddings and other momentous occasions. With its simple three-step swaying motions, the dance is captivating and easy to follow.
With only a handful of Jews left in Yemen and more than 400,000 Yemenite Jews in Israel, the dance is alive and well.
Hundreds of Yemenite Israeli Jews, both young and old, gather at annual “Teimaniada” cultural events. The dancers combine contemporary beats with traditional Yemenite songs, dancing the Yemenite step for hours on end!
Brooms appear in many cultures’ wedding traditions, but you probably didn’t know that some Jewish weddings feature a dance with a broom.
The Mezinka is an interesting dance that begins slowly, with the parents of the bride and groom sitting side by side in the middle of the dance floor.
The bride and groom step forward, honoring their parents with flower crowns. As the tempo speeds up, their guests dance around them.
Then, with a broom and dustpan — sometimes elaborately decorated — the parents sweep around the newlyweds, as though they are sweeping them out of the house. The dance is often performed when parents marry off their last unmarried child!
Why is it called the Mezinka? Well, it’s danced to the tune of “Di Mizinke Oysgegebn,” which translates in Yiddish to “the youngest daughter is given away.”
Now, before you get the wrong idea — Jewish parents aren’t exactly eager to sweep their kids out of the house. But some say the dance reflects a historical reality.
In 19th-century Eastern Europe where the dance likely originated, marrying off daughters was difficult and expensive since the bride’s father had to provide a dowry. Marrying off the last daughter was a cause for celebration — not just for the new bride but for the entire family.
With their last child married off, the parents become the queen and king, the matriarch and patriarch of future generations, and they are honored with flower crowns. The Mezinka is a beautiful, lively dance, marking what, for many parents, represents a bittersweet transition.
Israeli folk dances
Dance is a way to connect the past to the present, drawing on centuries of history and culture. But what happens when a nation is reborn, uniting a vast and far-flung diaspora for the first time in 2,000 years? How do you merge distinct identities into a unified national culture?
When it came to dances of the diaspora, Israeli choreographers were up to the challenge. They pieced together Hasidic, Balkan, Russian, Arab, and Yemenite elements, and added their own unique Zionist flavors.
Many of the dances centered on classic Zionist ideals — returning home to their ancestral land, reviving the spirit of the days of old, and expressing a deep love and connection to the land of Israel.
One of the first dances that caught on, “Mayim, Mayim,” celebrated the discovery of water at the kibbutz of Na’an after a seven-year search.
Another, “Zemer Atik,” incorporated dance moves drawn from Eastern European Jewish culture, which early Israelis often dismissed as old-fashioned and outdated.
Today, Israeli folk dance remains a way for Jews around the world to connect to Jewish and Israeli pride. As the Jewish state has modernized and changed, so have its dances, reflecting the country’s rich multicultural identity.
For centuries, Jews have come together in celebration, each community dancing to its own tune. In Israel, those tunes have begun to meld. From the endless, ecstatic circles at Jewish weddings or bar mitzvahs, a feeling of shared destiny and community has emerged.