They were not in the least nostalgic. They told her it would be of no interest to anybody, and urged her to stop. Both her mother and her aunt. And anyway, most of the historical documentation had been unceremoniously thrown away. But dance expert Gaby Aldor stood her ground, determined to complete the comprehensive study. It took about two decades, during which she also toiled on countless other projects, but now it has indeed been finished: a book recounting the history of her family, the pioneering dynasty that built the foundations of artistic dance in Israel.
Three women and one man stand at the center of Aldor's book, "And How Does a Camel Dance?" (in Hebrew ), just out from Resling publishing and forthcoming in Austria as well: Margalit (Grete ) Ornstein, Aldor's grandmother, who opened the first dance studio in Tel Aviv in 1922 and was active for years as a teacher and choreographer; her husband, Jacob (Jacques ), a Zionist idealist, architect and engineer, who left his mark on several of the most striking buildings in Tel Aviv and paved roads through the city; and their twin daughters - Aldor's aunt Yehudit (Diti ) and mother Shoshana (Susi ), who were a renowned dance duo in the 1930s and legendary teachers in Israel until late in their lives.
Aldor, a dance scholar and critic, theater director and actress, had trouble initially deciding what the book would look like.
"That is the most important question when you write a book like this," she says in a recent interview. "Who is the speaker? Is it Gaby Aldor the dance critic? Is it the granddaughter? I have memories that haven't been erased an inch, as happens with childhood memories. I remember to this moment the smell of my grandfather's vest. But then I began to write, to really write, and I transformed it from historical research into something far more experiential and personal."
Alongside a hefty number of letters, excerpts from personal diaries, and press quotes, Aldor incorporated texts of her own that depict events with a sort of vigorous lyricism. Many segments are based on her own memories, she stresses. Elsewhere, she concedes that she "spread out" a bit in her storytelling, but emphasizes that everything contains factual elements. One of her models was Nurit Gertz's book about her husband, writer and journalist Amos Kenan, "Unrepentant," which she terms a masterpiece.
Aldor begins the Ornsteins' journey in 1911, with the birth of Yehudit and Shoshana in Innsbruck, Austria, where Jacob landed his first commission as an engineer. It was a snowy December night, the couple arrived at the clinic on skis after seven months of pregnancy, and the double delivery took the parents by surprise. Three years later World War I broke out, and Jacob was drafted into the army as an officer. Margalit moved with the girls to Vienna, to the home of their grandparents, who owned a fancy optics store that catered to the court of Emperor Franz Joseph. When the twins turned 6, their younger brother David was born.
The war ended, Aldor writes, "and Grandfather, who may have won the Imperial Iron Cross but did not get the rank of company commander that he was entitled to because he was Jewish, sits in the Oppenheimer home, at Margalit's parents, and is filled with longing for Herzl, whom he had once met at a practice session of the Hakoach Blau-Weiss team, packs up his things and travels by train to Italy and boards a ship and arrives in the Land of Israel."
A year later, in 1921, Margalit and the children joined him, after Jacob pressed his wife to come, writing, "Come, this is paradise." Jacob was happy, Margalit less so. "There are too many people who push in between us and everything is sticky and hot, so very hot," she wrote upon arriving.
Shortly after they settled in Jaffa, the Arab riots erupted there. Aldor describes how the armed rioters who carried out the massacre at Beit Hehalutz tried to storm the gate of the Kedem Hotel, where the family was encamped at the time. "But then something happened that utterly changed the course of events that day," she writes, adding that an improvised bomb that Jacob had made out of a can "fell into the middle of the crowd, wounding several people and creating a lot of smoke."
In 1922, both girls had a high fever, and the doctor determined they had influenza. But Margalit, who had been monitoring the shifts in their temperature, explained to the doctor that it was in fact typhus. Within two days Margalit was also infected, and all three were hospitalized for four months.
But these harsh realities did not dictate their life, and Jacob encouraged the female members of his family to invest in what really mattered: dance and music. The girls were sent to study music at Mrs. Miriam Levit's conservatory, at the corner of Rothschild Boulevard and Allenby Street (Shoshana played the piano; Yehudit the violin ); Margalit, who studied rhythmic gymnastics in Austria, began giving movement classes there. Thus the first dance studio in Tel Aviv came into being.
"I have 57 students already," Margalit wrote in her diary in 1922. "Jacques is proud and happy." In 1925, when he suggested that she attend a teachers course in Vienna, she noted: "It is impossible to leave the conservatory now when at long last my students, who are a little stupid, are beginning to grasp that the head does not fall if moved, and that the back is the basis for all posture, and that loosening the shoulders is more important than holding them like the Kaiser's soldiers."
Later on, the studio moved to a building that Jacob built at 42 Ahad Ha'am Street, where the family lived in a modest apartment for many years. They adhered to a strict vegan diet. On the floor above they ran their famous studio, where the regular dance classes took place. But the real attraction was reserved for the rooftop, where classes were frequently held and where the Ornstein twins loved to dance in the fresh air. Nearly all of the dances that appear in the book, via the wonderful photographs of Alfons Himmelreich and Helmar Lersky, were documented as being performed on that rooftop.
The dance exercises that were taught in the studio, based at times on imagery borrowed from nature, are decribed in the book through excerpts from Margalit's blue notebooks, which Aldor tracked down.
Margalit, who had studied in her youth with dancer-choreographer Gertrud Bodenwieser in Vienna, was strongly influenced by the expressionist Freitanz (Free Dance ) style that developed in those days in Austria and Germany. She also visited and studied in Europe quite a bit over the years, and learned from the masters of that era, including Kurt Jooss, Rudolf von Laban and Rosalia Chladek. She imported their ideas to Israel, educated an entire generation in movement, and generated a revolution in the local dance world. Among her students was also Moshe Feldenkrais, the physicist who pioneered the eponymous method of self-rehabilitation and awareness.
Besides teaching, Margalit also worked as a choreographer. She put on shows with her students, created numerous dances for the twins, and was active in the theater world. She was among the founders of the Land of Israel Theater , where she created choreography for a number of plays, including "The Dybbuk." She also collaborated with the pre-state opera company, Ha'Matateh theater and Moshe Halevy's Ohel theater, where she choreographed a series of productions, among them "The Stories of I.L. Peretz," "The Fishermen" and "Yermiyahu."
Gaby Aldor says that Margalit was a major discovery - not only because of the choreographic talent she displayed, which particularly stands out in the photographs, but also because of her impressive writing. For example, Margalit wrote about her husband in her journal: "We don't speak much but there is a great understanding between Jacques and myself. I think about the buildings that he builds, as though they were dancing, and the structure of my dances is like a modern building, with a foundation, and balance, and air, and rhythm, and without adornments. When I look at the dances of my studio, the structure is so clear - there is tension and there is harmony, there is contrast, both in the form and in the content.
"You can 'dance' the Recanati house at the end of Mazeh Street ... What rhythm these verandas have, like a spherical motion with arms held in a circle, one after another as in a round that you sing, or a solo dance ... My dear Jacques, sometimes when we walk together to the seashore and I see his physique, the powerful legs and arms, I understand that he stands inside my dances like a support column, and my strength comes from him."
The twins were educated at the studio and took part in the dances Margalit put on with her students. At a certain point they began to perform as a duo in works choreographed for them by their mother, including "Jephthah's Daughter," "Cain and Abel," "Sea Waves," "The Rivals" and "The Flags." In one of her letters dating from 1929, Yehudit wrote: "There are already big and very prominent posters on the streets about the Writers' Association ball. Our name, 'the Ornstein Sisters,' is very prominent, and along with Bialik, Tchernichovsky and Bergman it is not a bad advertisement."
Here is what Himmelreich, the photographer who documented the sisters frequently, wrote in 1935, as mentioned in Aldor's book: "The two Ornsteins belong to the few blessed dancers who truly dance, whose dance is indeed a dance. Dance that speaks to everyone, sweeping, shocking and is not 'a peek under the skirt' or a long yawn. Here dance people, whole people, and not just a body and legs." They soon became part of Tel Aviv's bohemian scene.
About one of her visits to the Tarshish coffee shop, Shoshana wrote in her journal: "I saw that [poet Avraham] Shlonsky was there and I went up to him, he is very fond of me and says in a loud voice 'Oh, here is our dancer Shoshana,' and grabs my cheek, which I don't like at all but that's how it is with the Russians. His beautiful wife with the golden hair, who was with us in the valley on the Ohel tour, wasn't there, and he invited me to sit with them at the table.
"There was [director and filmmaker Baruch] Agadati, who always winks at me like that with the eyes, he hasn't created anything truly important in dance, even though he preceded us and his movements are lovely, and he also arranged the Adloyada [Purim] balls beautifully, where we did the dances. But he is very self-absorbed and has the latest clothes that he wears proudly ... It was noisy and I didn't hear so well what everyone was saying, but the air was filled with words and laughter and it was as if no bad things existed in the world."
The twins traveled frequently to Europe, mainly to Vienna, Berlin and Paris, where they became acquainted with the latest developments in dance and culture, in general. According to Aldor, they attended shows, listened to lectures (by Karl Kraus and von Laban, for example ), studied in various contexts (with Max Terpis, Harald Kreutzberg, Gertrud Bodenwieser, Mary Wigman, and Chladek, among others ) and performed for the Jewish community. Through the numerous letters the Ornstein sisters wrote, Aldor learned about the elements that influenced them on these trips.
In describing one of the sisters' visits to Berlin, in 1931, Aldor writes: "What a distance between this city, which reinvents dance, and the new Tel Aviv, which salvages this new dance from narcissistic degeneration ... We grew up to believe that the new dance in Israel was a faded copy of German splendor, but that is not the truth. And Shoshana writes again and again: 'They have good technique but they don't express anything.'"
Says Aldor: "It was incredible to discover the sisters' critical viewpoint. We all look up to Europeans so much, but suddenly they said, 'No, they weren't that great.'"
When the two weren't performing, they taught at the Ornstein studio in Tel Aviv, and at a certain stage opened branches in Haifa and Jerusalem as well. Over the years, along with their teaching, they danced in a variety of frameworks, put on a variety of shows, choreographed for theaters, and were in charge of the Shavuot and Purim festivities in Tel Aviv and Haifa. Yehudit, who had the richer professional record, also turned her hand to writing: She worked as a dance critic at the newspapers Lamerhav, Davar and Haaretz, and published several poetry books.
"Conflict is really their essence," Aldor writes, "and even in dances whose content does not deal explicitly with rivalry, there is choreographic tension, as though each side were pulling in a different direction within the whole." Aldor reveals in the book that on the back of a photograph of the work entitled "The Rivals," Shoshana wrote: "Two women love each other, but also hate."
In 1991, when there was a revival of "The Rivals" at the Suzanne Dellal Center for Dance and Theater (the sole reconstruction to date of one of their works), renowned dancer-choreographer Dvora Bertonov recalled that Margalit was good at keeping the peace between the girls, who were very different from each other. "Susi with her innocence and generosity and kindness, and Yehudit who took all of the negative feelings. She couldn't be enthusiastic about anything. She was stubborn, something that could have been helpful to her, but usually stood in her way. And it wasn't like that with Susi - she was like butter, able to do it this way or that way, and that is how an actor or dancer should be. And Margalit was above it all, her speech was always adagio," said Bertonov.
"You have a very good character," Yehudit wrote in her youth to one of her lovers, Micha Berkuz, in a passage quoted in Aldor's book. "With me it's just the opposite, my character is very bad. There is only one good thing about it, that I can feel the bad well and thereby managed to educate myself a long time ago ... I have always suffered (it is like that to this day) from the recognition of all that is despicable in my nature and I have found in myself many disgusting and very difficult things until I suffocated them, but not entirely yet, I still have a lot of work ahead of me."
She went on to compare Berkuz to a room full of beautiful furniture that one just needs to know how to arrange, whereas "I am a room full of useless furniture, not beautiful or matching, and I must take them all out and only then bring in new and lovely furniture."
In another letter, she wrote about her moodiness: "It goes, comes and goes again, like the rise and fall of the sea waves, so it is with my inner balance. Once up in the sky, and the next day in the most terrible valley."
One of the Ornstein sisters' students told Aldor: "Yehudit's classes were structured, schematic at times. Shoshana's classes were full of invention and the joy of creation. With both of them the classes had a technical base, in the familiar progression from easy to more difficult, from warm-ups at the bar to movement phrases in the space of the hall, but apparently the difference was one of temperament, of worldview, more than of conscious vision."
In one of the more surprising moments, Aldor describes vividly how legendary dancer-choreographer Jooss offered her mother work as his assistant when she studied with him in Zurich. But Shoshana, who by then had two daughters, was forced to decline. Aldor, who heard this story firsthand from her mother, says that for Shoshana, the children came first.
"My mother loved us," she explains. "I never understand women who leave their kids for a career. The number of times that I've left my daughter with a babysitter when I went to perform at the theater weighs like layers on my heart."
The two sisters worked their magic on men, and Aldor particularly focuses in her book on the relationships of Yehudit, who wed three times. With her second husband, Shlomo Ben David, Yehudit had two children: the dancer and poet Naomi Ben David, and the artist Arnon Ben David (who revealed a large part of the family story in an exhibition he mounted in 1996 at the Helena Rubinstein Pavilion for Contemporary Art in Tel Aviv ). After Ben David died, the 72-year-old Yehudit reunited with her first love, Sam Pevsner, who had been her violin teacher when she was 12 and he 21. They married and she went to live with him in the United States, where he had settled after leaving Palestine. Shoshana was married only once, to Hans Aldor, with whom she had two daughters: Gaby Aldor and Elda Gertner.
"He adored my mother and loved her," Aldor says of her father, "but the dance world was foreign to him; he thought dance was nonsense." Aldor adds that she personally was greatly influenced by her mother (she even served from a young age as her assistant in the studio ), but her father tried to keep her away from the stage and guide her toward more "rational" domains.
"I think the book is the consummation of the two differing attractions in my youth and my whole life really," she says, "between 'Father' - knowledge that has an intellectual basis, and 'Mother' - the muse, creation. Naturally this is an afterthought."
Aldor ends the family story in the 1930s: "These are the interesting years," she observes. "Also in terms of the world, history, Zionism, the beginning of the cultural development in the country, the years of innovation and searching."
There was no grandiose and glorious failure in what followed, Aldor explains, only routine that was less interesting. Factual information about the sisters' later professional path is incorporated briefly in the book's appendices.
"When father Jacques passed away in 1954," she writes, "Diti shut herself up in her room. At the Ornstein home they did not believe in death ceremonies, in mourning, in funerals and burials. We know that Margalit did not attend Jacques' burial." At the end of the book she also describes how David, the younger brother, who became a senior police officer, took his own life when he was close to 90, after he began feeling dependent on those around him.
Aldor briefly mentions the deaths of the three women she writes about, without citing the dates: "Yehudit died in her sleep at a hostel in the Bronx while her son Arnon kept watch from afar. Shoshana died in my arms and the arms of my sister Elda and all of the granddaughters who leaned their crying heads on her body. Death grabbed hold of her feet as though it knew the weak point and it colored her body blue until it completed its task and extinguished her eyes."
How would you define the contribution of these three women to Israeli dance?
Aldor: "I think that they built some sort of groundwork that connects rationality and wisdom - like methods of von Laban, of very high physical awareness, of what later went into Feldenkrais - with the capacity for inspiration. It shows up in all the exercises in Margalit's blue notebooks and I think that it's terrific - that it is really a kind of groundwork that characterizes Israeli dance too.
"They had loads of students," she adds. "In that era everyone studied with them. Naturally they also worshipped [modern Israeli dance pioneer] Gertrud Kraus, because it was fascinating there, but you didn't come away from her with foundations. From Margalit, Yehudit and Shoshana you came out with very clear foundations - rhythmic ones, too. At the age of 5, I knew how to conduct a different [rhythm] with each hand, I knew how to beat out four quarter notes with one hand and five with the other. It's wonderful coordination. I wish they would teach kids that way today; perhaps they would have less attention deficit."
Does it happen to you today that you watch Israeli dance and spot their influence?
"Too much time has gone by ... But there is something in the spirit of Israeli dance, in that it does not give itself over absolutely to expression, people don't go to pieces on stage, and if they do then it's not so pleasant to witness."
The book's title does not come up in the reading. Where is it from?
"It's a quote from a conversation between Dvora Bertonov and Grandma Margalit. Dvora loved Margalit deeply; she called her 'a great woman' and loved talking with her. They were very friendly and appreciated each other. And at a certain stage, when they were speaking about how to do Israeli dance, Margalit asked: 'But how does a camel dance?' - because camels roamed about in front of the Gymnasia, the photographs are well known - 'How does it dance? How do we make it local?' So I took that because I think that it fairly sums it up. It's also a slightly funny title."
Do you have any concerns regarding the personal exposure of family members in the book?
Aldor hesitates. "I am a little concerned, but I don't have all that much to conceal and nor do I have much time to conceal it," she laughs. Incidentally, when asked her age, Aldor is only prepared to say that she was born in the 1940s. "If I used to be more fearful, today I am not. I am also not revealing such enormous secrets. A little self-exposure. There is also no one left to be offended. I obtained permission from my cousins."
In the field of dance you are used to being the one who writes the criticism. Now you have become its subject.
"As a theater creator I've received horrendous reviews and I've received wonderful reviews, I've gotten it all. I treat this in a natural way: It delights when it's good, it's a little insulting when it is especially nasty."
This is the most extensive work Aldor has published to date; as someone who has been writing poetry for years but dares to publish only rarely, she admits that she is extremely sensitive when it comes to her writing.
"Of all the professions I have worked in - and I remind you that I posed in the nude for the film by Judd [Yehuda Ne'eman's "The Dress" from 1970] - writing is the most revealing," she says. "Even when it's poetry and nobody really knows what you're writing about."