Dancing From the Shtetl to the Stage

Ronen Izhaki and Daniella Bloch’s Haredi ensembles are performing their unique brands of Haredi dance at the ‘Between Heaven and Earth’ festival this week.

Shir Hacham
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Shir Hacham

At first glance, religion and dance may seem to have little in common. One is physical, the other spiritual. But Ronen Izhaki and Daniella Bloch see it differently. As leaders of Haredi dance ensembles – both of which are performing at the "Between Heaven and Earth" festival for contemporary Jewish dance this week – they want to blend the worlds of Judaism and dance, which they note share a focus on tradition, discipline and accepting commands.

"The Suzanne Dellal Center is the Pantheon, "Batsheva" is the Western Wall and Jerusalem is simply Haredi-Land," says Izhaki.

"Dance is a religion,” says Bloch. "I'm a great believer in technique and discipline.”

Izhaki, a choreographer and dance teacher, founded the all-male Ka'et Ensemble in collaboration with first year of students from the Kol Atzmotai Tomarna dance school in Jerusalem, which he also founded and manages. Bloch founded the all-female Nehara dance ensemble this year. Both ensembles include only religious dancers and perform before mixed audiences.

While there are other similar ensembles in Israel – like Noga, which teaches dance to ultra-Orthodox women out of the Orot Teacher’s College in Elkana, Samaria – they don’t seek to fully participate in the world of contemporary dance. For example, Noga doesn’t perform in front of men.

Certain obvious conflicts exist between Haredi and dance cultures. Some in the Haredi community claim dancing diverts attention from Torah study, while some dancers see Haredi dancing as amateurish. Even Haredi dancers are sometimes unsure about the compatibility of their faith and their passion.

The three-day long “Between Heaven and Earth” festival, which Izhaki helped found, started on Tuesday, October 30, at the Gerard Behar Centre in Jerusalem. One evening will be completely dedicated to dance pieces performed by men.

Bloch says she is worried about preserving the modesty of her four female dancers, and has been spending hours working on and thinking about their costumes. Izhaki has many stories to tell about the challenges of finding kosher food for his dancers and scheduling shows around religious obligations. Recently, his ensemble had to cancel a performance at the "No Ballet" festival in Germany, because it had been scheduled for the Sabbath.

Ka'et is based in Jerusalem and is mainly made up of rabbis and teachers in their 30s. Its founding principles are based on the vision of Rabbi Kook, the father of religious Zionism. Nehara, on the other hand, is based in Tel Aviv and is made up of religious women in their 20s who have studied classical dance. It focuses more on the purity of classical dance techniques.

Most of the men – yeshiva graduates, rabbis and parents who work in religious education, teaching and other conventional professions – say they have an urge to worship God through their bodies. The women, on the other hand, studied classical dance techniques from young ages. So while the men wildly express Judaism through dance, the women demurely express dance through Judaism.

Izhaki and Bloch agree that the dance troupes enhance their connections to both Judaism and dance. Izhaki and his dancers (who call him "dad") aspire to realize Rabbi Kook's vision of the Diaspora Jew standing tall in the Holy Land, while Bloch mainly tries to help women excel in their art.

For some Haredim, the idea of a religious female dance troupe performing in front of men is scandalous ("I'm ready for a war," Bloch says). But it's actually the men's dancing that's looks more controversial, especially in their debut performance "Highway Number 1.” They allow their shirts to ride up as they dance, rocking backwards and forwards with a strong pelvic motion.

In contrast, the Nehara dancers move in a classic, stylized manner. In their debut piece, which will be shown at the festival, they deconstruct feminine gestures such as gathering up their hair. In a way, both troupes reflect the sexuality of the religious world – the passionate man and the woman engaged in tangible practicalities.

Izhaki and Bloch both describe feeling torn between artistic obligations and halachic laws. But they see the gap between the two disciplines as existing to challenge them, and agree that art is the ultimate expression of the religious world.

They see themselves as part of an opening that is occurring in the Haredi community.

“The opening of the doors and windows of the places of Torah study to the winds of change" is how Izhaki describes what’s happening.

"The messiah will arrive from Tel Aviv," says Bloch, explaining that the city’s art scene in the city is what began to open up the closed gates surrounding Judaism –drawing thousands of religious people to it.

Haaretz: What worldview can accommodate you?

"It would have to be one of religious Zionism," says Izhaki. "But they had a glitch in the system in the middle of the last century. They boycotted Rabbi Kook's teachings. We're not talking about the body as a symbol. We're not censoring, cutting or removing anything, but treating it as something tangible, not as a pound of flesh."

Is Ka'et trying to redeem the people of Israel?

"Ka'et members are trying to live as Jewish men, with a connection to the body," says Izhaki, "In halakhic Judaism the body is a burden – it supports the brain, like a stand holds a microphone. If an Eastern European Jew could rid himself of his body, he would happily do so. But Rabbi Kook says that the moment there is a connection between the pelvis and the head through the spine then the Jew really is suspended between heaven and earth."

So the Jew dances Gaga [the dance style pioneered by Israeli Ohad Naharin].

"That is completely true. I have no doubt that if it were possible for Rabbi Kook to take a Gaga class he would have loved it," says Izhaki. "Until this day it wasn't possible for men who observed halakha to participate in dance lessons, because there were no male-only classes. Now there is Ka'et."

About the men in his ensemble, Izhaki says, "At first it was difficult for them. To go out on a date, for example, and to say 'I am a Jewish man who dances.' A religious man dances only at weddings or in the forest. There wasn't a structure that could support them."

Izhaki first came across male-only dance at the Acre Festival in the early 2000s.

“I went into a studio and felt an initial aversion to it," he says. "I was in my 20s, and the religious community was a political issue for me. They danced wearing long underwear, they didn’t have any idea what dance really was. But then I started to feel an electric current running through the room. It came from the movements of prayer, which have a lot of freedom in the pelvic area and obvious erotic connotations. I immediately lowered my defenses, and started to work with them because I had to make a living.”

And are you still just in it to make a living?

“I’m learning from them how to worship God. Inside, I am a religious person. We apply the teachings of Rabbi Kook in the Land of Israel, and for them, as rabbis and educators, there is an immediate sense of respect for any person who possesses knowledge. Rabbi Kook tossed aside the differences between the body and the spirit, and the Ka’et ensemble makes the body universal,” says Izhaki

But the ensemble couldn’t exist anywhere outside of Israel.

“True. But the Torah is not universal – it is a letter addressed to the land of Israel,”says Izhaki.

Ka'et is run according to a cooperative economic model, where its members decide whether to invest the profits from their show into production or to draw their wages from it. By appealing to the religious pubic, Izhaki says the ensemble has increased the numbers of Israelis who watch contemporary dance by 1,000 people – or 20 percent.

But it’s not all smooth sailing for the Ka’et ensemble. There is a dispute between Izhaki and his dancers about the extent of their ambition to enter the world of fashionable contemporary dance. The dancers are satisfied by their work in the community and in their own educated world, and the hierarchy between the Torah and dance is clear to them.

Dancer rabbi Yehuda Miller says, “There is another member of the audience – God. This is a very critical member.”

On the other hand, Izhaki says, “It’s very important to me that there is a dialogue with contemporary dance. I’d like us to be sexy like every other dance company.”

What place does Torah have in the studio?

Dancer Eyal Ogen says, "There are times when I’m working in His name, and then there’s the studio. I won’t say that God isn’t here, but that I'm here, like every secular dancer is another member of the ensemble."

Rabbi Hananya Schwartz objects, telling Ogen, “You are very different from secular dancers.”

But Ogen insists, “I don’t need there to be a conceptual dictatorship. I don’t ask in every place if God’s work can enter it.”

Schwartz says, “Ronen [Izhaki]'s dream is to meet [nationalist-Zionist] Rabbi Tau, to explain to him Rabbi Kook’s perception of the body and to invite him to a show. But I don’t have an agenda. I not trying to reform the religious world, I’m not saying they're unenlightened, that they should stop fearing the Torah isn’t being adhered to and start shaking their pelvis in the streets."

Bloch sees her work as much more of a political statement, since it involves creating an enclave of professional female dancers in the heart of a masculine world.

“The term religious female dancer doesn’t work for people,” she says. “My dancers also don’t like this term, they want to be serious dancers and religious women, period.”

Bloch has worked for familiar Israeli dance companies and choreographers. She danced for the Bat-Dor Dance Company from 1997 until 2002, and then for the New York based Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company. She returned to Israel to work with the choreographers Ido Tadmor and Sally Ann Friedland. She is trying to obtain funding through connections she has in the U.S. and says one day she will probably need to open a non-profit organization, because “even the choreographer’s association can’t contain my agenda.”

She says, "It is almost impossible for religious dancers to exist in the world of dance today. I founded Nehara to provide a solution without compromising the professional aspect. A young religious female dancer who wants to have a career in the field can’t, and it shouldn’t be this way.”

You help address the religious world's deficit of dancers and audience. Where does this put you in relation to the world of contemporary dance?

“The idea is to bring the world of Judaism to both audiences and to perform tributes on stage that a religious person can identify with,” says Bloch.

Like Izhaki, when you talk about the ensemble you are always getting caught up with definitions. Isn’t that tiring?

“This is the reality. The idea is to be a bridge. The immediate goal is indeed the religious community, because there is a gap in culture of dance there. The secular public receives added value that other dancers in the field can’t give," says Bloch. "It’s a two-way street.”

'Dance is a religion,' says Bloch. 'I'm a great believer in technique and discipline.'Credit: Daniel Tchetchik
The Haredi men of the Ka'et Ensemble seek to express their religion through dance.Credit: Benjamin Shay



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