In the world of entertainment, there have been many shows and movies about a pair of cops, like “Starsky & Hutch” in 1970s, “Cagney & Lacey” in the 1980s, “Tango & Cash” in the 1990s and “Rizzoli & Isles” in the 2010s. In those action-packed series, the lead characters are constantly on the go, fighting crime from scene to scene in an endless flurry of activity. But if television executives ever decided to make a show about two Jewish cops in constant motion, it likely would be called “Shuckle & Sway.”
"Shuckle & Sway" refers to the active, consistent and somewhat mesmerizing body movement of some Jews while they are praying. The world “shuckle” come from the Yiddish word “shokel,” which means to shake. A person can shuckle and sway backward and forward, side to side or diagonally, sort of like how the queen can move in a game of chess. Speaking of chess, if you relocate to Prague and move in with one of the local chess gurus and then you beat that person in chess by cornering their king, you can thereafter refer to your new Prague-based buddy as your “Czech-mate.”
Shuckling and swaying during prayer is not the only instance during which Jews are on the go. So, the question is: why do Jews seem to be in a state of perpetual motion?
Biblically speaking, it seems Jews were always on the move. It started with Abraham’s journey to Canaan, followed by Joseph’s journey to Egypt. Next came the Exodus from Egypt, which led to 40 years of marching around in the desert. As an aside, four decades of trekking through the desert likely explains why the term “sandals” features the word “sand."
Even when the Jews arrived in the Promised Land, they remained out and about.
For example, in biblical times there were three major holidays – Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot known as the Shalosh Regalim, which means the three pilgrimage festivals. On the Shalosh Regalim, the Jews would journey en masse to the Beit Hamikdash, the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, to offer prayers and sacrifices. For those living far from the Holy Temple, each lengthy pilgrimage was like a mitzvah marathon. In modern times, these holidays still require ample activity, including Passover cleaning, Sukkah building and all-night Shavuot learning. Such activity actually is a welcomed counterbalance to excessive holiday eating. Of course, Jews would eat less if they served less, but that’s not in the Jewish DNA.
Jewish movement also is found during Jewish weddings. While under the chuppah, the bride customarily walks around the groom in circles seven times. Of course, after the wedding, some spouses literally and figuratively run circles around their life partners. During the celebration, the newlyweds and their guests customarily dance the hora, making more circles than a compass-wielding, ring-obsessed geometry student; a manufacturer of basketball rims; or a race-car driver stuck on a cul-de-sac.
The notion of perpetual motion in this world is not unique to Jews. Nature is full of constant movement and even our planet never sits still. The Earth is constantly revolving around the Sun, like a spoke on an endlessly spinning wheel, and it is constantly rotating on its axis, like a dreidel spun by Superman. Miraculously, the Earth’s merry-go-round movement is imperceptible to humankind – at least without the aid of technology – thus preventing constant dizziness and nausea. Otherwise, living on Earth would be like living on planet Tilt-A-Whirl.
Final thought: American novelist Ernest Hemingway famously said: “Never mistake motion for action.” And, when it comes to movies with excessive special effects and thin plots, never mistake action for a motion picture.
Yonatan Levi writes humor columns for the Cleveland Jewish News.