Reb Arye Leib of Shpola (1724-1811) – known as the “Shpoler Zeide,” the grandfather from Shpola – was a famous dancer. Everyone knew that on Friday night when all were assembled in the synagogue to receive Sabbath with joy and song, the Shpoler Zeide would dance and clap with speed, skill, and extraordinary excitement. When he was quizzed about his dancing dexterity, the Shpoler Zeide explained with a grin: “Elijah the Prophet taught me well!”
One of the great twentieth century storytellers, Rabbi Yehuda Yudel Rosenberg (1859-1935), recounted the Shpoler Zeide’s story of his odyssey to dancing prowess:
I once heard that in a small village, a Jew who had not paid his franchise dues, was imprisoned by the magnate who owned the village. While the magnate himself was not a particularly wicked person, his manager was vehemently anti-Semitic and had convinced his boss to arrest the Jew.
The Jew was imprisoned in a pit and once a week they would lower bread and water down to him. There he was to languish until the magnate’s next party when he would be taken out of the pit and forced to dance in front of the guests.
This dance was not merely a form of public ridicule for the prisoner, it was also a judicial duel. The Jew was forced to dance-off against someone else. Not only was the Jew weakened from his time in the dungeon, he was dressed in a bear suit, with a metal chain around his neck and his competitor acted as the bear trainer.
A particular type of dance was chosen, and the rules were announced moments before the dance-off was to begin. There were three possible outcomes: If the “bear” matched his trainer such that the audience was bemused, then the Jew would be free to return home; If the “bear” out-danced his trainer, he would be permitted to attack the trainer as a real bear might attack cattle; If the “bear” did not out-dance his trainer and did not even entertain the audience, then the trainer would lead the bear to dance with the dogs.
The Shpoler Zeide did not leave his readers to guess what it meant to “dance” with dogs: The courtyards of such magnates were filled with vicious dogs and if a Jew was thrown before them they would tear him to pieces and devour his flesh.
Of course, the competition was stacked against the Jew: He not had a proper meal in days, he was forced to wear a cumbersome bear suit, and he had no training in the art of dancing.
The Shpoler Zeide continued: I was visited by Elijah who instructed me to go to a certain village and hire myself out as a teacher. I was to gather information so that I would be able to save the Jew from the canines of the canines by swapping places with him. But I asked Elijah: “I don’t know how to dance at all! If they tell me to dance a Kozachok and I offer some other dance, it will not end well.”
Elijah saw that my concern was valid and he decided to teach me how to dance. He taught me one dance step at a time until I was an adroit dancer just like the nobles.
In the meantime, I continued my teaching responsibilities and my investigations. I found a way to enter the prison area, and I realised that it was possible to enter the dungeon but that it was very difficult to get out.
Once the dance-off was scheduled, I snuck into the prison area armed with a rope, some wood, metal pegs, and a hammer. I stole through the garden and lowered myself into the dungeon with the help of my tools.
The poor Jew in the pit was frightened. “Fear not!” I said to him, “For I have come to save you from death.” I explained to him what was scheduled to happen to him next night. I revived his spirits with a swig of liquor that I had brought with me and I comforted him by assuring him that the Almighty would save him.
We swapped clothes – I took his dirty, ragged coat and he took my coat. I told him that when they open the iron door of the dungeon and call his name, he should hide and I would go in his stead to the dance-off. With no one else in the dungeon, they would surely not lock the door and he could use my provisions to escape.
When they came to fetch the prisoner, I crawled out so they would not recognise me. I groaned and spluttered to show that I could not walk properly. They laughed heartily and threw the bear suit on me. I realised that my opponent was to be the very manager who had imprisoned the poor Jew, who hoped to finish off what he had started.
I was brought in amidst jeering, and the rules of the trial-by-dance were announced. The musicians began to play a Kozachok, the trainer danced and then signalled to me that it was my turn. Sure enough, I out-danced the trainer who was shocked. The musicians then played a Mazurka, and once again I bested the trainer. The trainer was tipsy and when we circled he fell down. I pounced on top of him.
Mayhem broke loose: I was pummelling him, he was screaming, the onlookers were encouraging me as per the rules of the duel. Two people ran over to me and begged for his life, promising me that I could go. I relented and fled the scene, still dressed in the bear suit.
“You see,” concluded the Shpoler Zeide, “now you know why I dance so well: Because I had a good teacher!”
One of the Shpoler Zeide’s colleagues, Rabbi Avraham (1741-1776) – known as ‘The Angel’ for his ascetic practices – responded: “If so, your dancing is better than my prayers.”
The Maggid of Melbourne is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassa. He is a teaching fellow at Tel Aviv University’s Faculty of Law. His column appears in The Jerusalem Post Magazine. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.