Life Changes

The man recently arrested for allegedly keeping women and children in bondage and sexually abusing them was once a well-known dancer and life partner of an important French choreographer, until he fell under the spell of a charismatic rabbi.

In one of the houses on a lane in the affluent, picturesque Jerusalem neighborhood of Yemin Moshe, N., a woman of 82, sits alone behind iron bars that protect a heavy black, wooden door. Her son, D., is a couple of kilometers away, in the police detention facility in the Russian Compound. Earlier this month, he was charged in Jerusalem District Court on suspicion of leading a cult that kept women and children in conditions of bondage, and of perpetrating brutal acts of sex and violence.

New details about D. and his family, published here for the first time (within the limits imposed by the gag order in the case), paint a picture of a complex, unusual life, very distant from the image aroused by the allegations against him: The man now accused of exercising absolute control over his wives and children was born to secular artists whose meeting with a charismatic Hasidic rabbi turned their world upside down. The person charged with "imposing a cruel punitive regime on those who lived with him" is himself a brilliant artist whose meeting with another Hasidic rabbi jolted his world. So powerful was the jolt that he gave up a successful international career as a dancer and decided to become the rabbi's successor.

D. former dancer

"I am very proud of him," says his mother, who does not believe the suspicions against her son. "He is an important person, deep and talented."

Those who know D. will not dispute the latter statement. Even today, after the serious charges have been published, people who have met him remain enthralled with the powerful impression he made on them - an impression linked to the creative and charismatic aspects of his personality.

"He is a true artist," a relative of one of his wives said this week, referring to the way he had enticed six women to live with him. However, according to the indictment, D. utilized his charisma and his capabilities to manipulate others in a tragic way.

Artistic heritage

Forty-five years ago, D. and his little sister played in the same narrow Jerusalem lane where a group of tourists walked during a visit there last Thursday. Their father, N.'s husband, who is six years her senior, is hospitalized. Ambulatory difficulties confine his wife to her one-story home.

N., who is descended from a well-known family of rabbis, was born in Bulgaria and immigrated to Israel in 1948. B., her husband, whose brother is one of the best-known of the founders of Ein Hod, the artists' village in Galilee, was born in Russia and arrived in Palestine at a young age in the 1920s. The parents followed a secular way of life and engaged in art. They were painters, illustrators and actors, and at a later stage also directed and produced a number of films, including films on the Land of Israel and the history of the Yishuv, the pre-state Jewish community in Palestine.

After Israel's establishment, the couple divided their time between Israel and France, where D. was born in 1955. The family returned to Israel in the mid-1960s for a long period. At first they lived in Tel Aviv, then in Hutzot Hayotser, an artists' colony across from the Old City of Jerusalem; after the 1967 Six-Day War they moved into a stone house in the Yemin Moshe neighborhood, which until the war was a poor section of the city because of its location at the edge of no-man's-land. It was in this period that they met Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, the famous Hasidic rabbi, who passed on his religious legacy through music and stories, and was also popular in nonreligious circles.

"They did not become religious, but they accepted the kabbalistic [mystical] elements that he disseminated," says an old friend of the family. "Maybe it was then that the mysterious spark entered the family's life."

Decades after her first meeting with Carlebach, the emotion in N.'s voice is still palpable when she talks about the "dancing rabbi."

"There is such a thing as seeing something beautiful and you are simply happy," she says in a phone call about the encounter with Carlebach - and adds, in words that perfectly describe the influence her son exerted on his own followers, "You sometimes meet people who possess a special power."

So potent was Carlebach's influence on the family that after meeting him they changed their surname to one based on the initials of a well-known saying of the medieval Jewish philosopher and physician Maimonides.

The artistic bent passed from the parents to the children. D. and his sister took lessons in modern ballet and were found to be extraordinarily gifted. The family decided to enroll D. in the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance. However, at the time the academy did not accept males in its dance program. That was why they decided to move back to Europe, his mother explains. D. was accepted in the Brussels-based Ballet of the 20th Century under the direction of Maurice Bejart, one of the best-known and most influential choreographers of the last century.

French couple

It was in Brussels that D. met F., who was then 22 - a dancer and choreographer who would become his companion and first wife. F., who is one of the most important choreographers in France, did not reply to recent phone calls from Haaretz. However, in 1987 she spoke at length about her life with D. in an interview with the French journalist and dance critic Burt Supree. "I think I was happy. In a certain sense, I realized the dream I had as a little girl," she said about joining Bejart's troupe.

The dream turned out to be short-lived: After four years with the company, the couple quarreled with Bejart and left. According to the interview, they wanted to work in a smaller company, in which they could wield greater personal influence. To fulfill that vision, they aspired to burst barriers in Europe - "to see what else there was in the world," F. said in the interview. The couple's goal was New York, but their limited resources only got them as far as Paris. However, they did not find what they were looking for there, either. They went to Switzerland, where they won a competition as choreographers, and returned to Paris, where in 1978 they competed in the Bagnolet dance competition, which they won as well.

"We had almost forgotten we were French," F. related, "but the Ministry of Culture saw that two French people won the competition and decided to give us a little money. We couldn't believe it."

The two, by then the parents of a son, rented a small, old theater in Paris and established their own ballet company. They worked with three or four other dancers, and started to perform. "We worked like crazy for three years," F. said. "We did not have money for things like technicians, so we were the technicians, the stagehands, the choreographers, everything. It was extremely satisfying."

In 1981, D. and F. produced a work based on a Samuel Beckett text which remains one of F.'s best-known works to this day. "We worked in one studio from 2 until 4 P.M., then we left and took the Metro and worked from 5 to 7 P.M. in another studio. It was horrible," F. said about the creative process. (F.'s company performed this work at the Israel Festival in 1989, drawing excellent reviews. ) The next work they produced, in 1982, was performed on a larger stage. Two years later, they separated and F. changed the name of the company. C., the couple's son, maintained ties with his father for years. According to a friend of F.'s, a few years ago C. visited Israel and decided to stay on. He started the process of becoming religious and joined D.'s group. However, the friend says, F. came to Israel and persuaded her son to return with her to France. C., who did not return calls from Haaretz, is a theater actor in France and occasionally appears with his mother's dance company.

Close to the rabbi

D.'s career as a dancer and choreographer ended after he and F. split up, when concurrently with the breakup, he and his sister started to become religiously observant. The big change in his life occurred after he met the Bratslav Hasid, Rabbi Yisroel Dov Ber Odesser, known as "Saba" (Grandfather ) to his followers, in France. It is said that in 1922, Odesser found a yellowing scrap of paper in a prayer book with the inscription "Na Nach Nachm Nachman Me'Uman," referring to Rabbi Nachman from Uman (1772-1810 ), the founder of the Bratslav Hasidic movement. According to the story, Odesser was convinced that Rabbi Nachman himself had placed the note in the book, even though he had died more than a century before. Odesser kept the whole matter secret for decades, not revealing it until he was 80. The revelation attracted many people to Odesser, who believed that spreading this message among the Jewish people would hasten their redemption. The dissemination of the slogan is also at the center of the activity of the Na Nachs, who now called Odesser "ba'al hapitka" ("the one with the note" ).

In the late 1980s, Odesser, already a very old man, went abroad to raise funds and recruit supporters. In an article published in Haaretz Magazine in June 2008, which first exposed the existence of D.'s cult, the rabbi's follower and confidant, Maurice Shoshan, described how the rabbi's path intersected with D.'s.

"In Paris, he made a very big impression," Shoshan said. "D. was a student in a kollel [a yeshiva for married men] in Paris and was close to another Bratslav rabbi, but when he heard Rabbi Yisroel speak, he became very strongly attached to him." The encounter with "Saba" convinced D. and his good friend, Shimon Grosskot, to immigrate to Israel. They were not alone. "At first, dozens of families made aliyah and brought their friends with them, so a few hundred people ended up coming here because of him," Shoshan said.

Grosskot came in 1991, D. the following year; they were housed in the immigrant absorption center in Mevasseret Zion, outside Jerusalem. The aged Odesser stayed in the homes of his followers, including that of D., who took care of him and thirstily drank in his every word. These days, his followers continue to disseminate the slogan "Na Nach Nachm Nachman Me'Uman," which can be seen scrawled on walls all over Israel.

I asked D.'s mother two weeks ago whether she felt a sense of regret when her son left the world of dance for this very different way of life. N. replied that she did not.

"A person has to do the things he wants and loves," she said. "If he is truly interested in something, where is the missed opportunity in it? We live such a short time that I think it is a pity not to follow our feelings, according to what we love at that moment."

Do you believe in "the note"?

N.: "Truthfully, no. There are many people who believe in tzadikkim [righteous people]. I am not inclined to such things, but everyone is free to choose."

Law unto himself

In the years after Odesser's death, believers, mostly women, began to gather around D. Ultimately, the family, which had been attracted to charismatic rabbis over the years, produced a leader of its own. Even D.'s mother appears to have been enthralled by him, in a certain sense. "When he starts talking about something it is so special. People love to hear it and love his sensitivity," she says longingly. More than 10 years ago, D. settled in a large, isolated house at the entrance to Jerusalem. Over time, a number of women moved in and bore D.'s children.

According to the recent indictment, six women and 15 children lived in the house. The investigative report that appeared in Haaretz Magazine three years ago found that some of the women and children were sent into the streets to beg in order to finance the group's activity. Following the publication of the report and similar items on television, the police launched an investigation, but found no evidence of criminal activity.

A breakthrough occurred a few months ago, when H., a young woman of about 20 who had joined the group two years earlier, decided to leave. She told her story to the Israel Center for Cult Victims and afterward to the police.

"In some cases he would order one woman to hit another woman, and there was frequent use of electric prods and wooden poles," H. told the authorities in testimony that was published in the daily Yedioth Ahronoth. "In some cases the children witnessed these acts," she added, describing details of sexual abuse.

D. and two other men suspected of assisting him in managing the cult, were arrested just over a month ago. According to the indictment, D. saw himself as Odesser's successor and believed that the end justified any means when it came to disseminating his doctrine. He claimed to possess magical qualities, and persuaded each of his wives that he had truly unique powers. He dubbed himself "the first man" at home.

The indictment charges that more and more women joined the "family" over the years, most of them "recruited" by the women in the group. In time, the manifestations of love shown them by D. apparently turned violent, humiliating and demeaning, and started with curses and threats. For instance, it is suspected that D. threatened the women by claiming that if they did not do as he said, disasters would befall their families. Sometimes, it is alleged, he would set the children and the women against each other. He also sent his wives and children to beg all over the country. The women were outside from early morning until midnight, and if they were in another city they apparently called to ask permission to take a break or eat something. Back home, they handed over to D. all the money they had collected, together with a precise accounting. They knew that if he did not like their answers, they would be subjected to a humiliating series of punishments known as dinim (laws ), which D. invoked at will.

"The acts of punishment, known as dinim," the charge sheet states, "were carried out with unusual cruelty, involving harsh violence, imprisonment, starvation, physical and mental abuse, severe acts of humiliation and abasement, which included serious sexual offenses and violence." The indictment adds that the women were forced by D. to submit to his various sexual caprices, which also sometimes involved harsh violence and in some cases led to hospitalization. He is also suspected of perpetrating sexual offenses on his children.

Saga of S.

S., a Jerusalem woman of 30, joined D.'s group seven years ago. She met one of his wives while collecting donations for him at a Jerusalem hospital and decided to follow her. After S. became part of the group, she lost touch with her family almost completely; it is only in the past two years that they have started to become close again. S.'s mother occasionally visited her daughter in the house and cooked for the group; this was her way of maintaining minimal contact with her daughter. Two weeks ago she told Haaretz, "I knew something was going on, some sort of abuse, but not what has now been published. She always hid everything; she would protect him devotedly."

So secretive was she that S.'s family discovered only a year ago that she has a six-year-old daughter - fathered by D.

"When she was pregnant we hardly saw her," her mother recalls. "She came at Purim, dressed as a fat clown, so we suspected something, but she denied it."

After S. herself was released from detention - all the women were arrested and interrogated, but no decision has yet been made about whether to file charges against them - she was sent to a shelter for battered women, and her daughter was removed from her custody. "She is slowly starting to feel better, but she is very confused," her mother says.

D.'s mother, who occasionally visited the various houses in which he lived with his wives, does not believe any of these things. "This is not the first time he has been attacked. What is this story? Aren't they ashamed of themselves? What they are doing now is more shameful than if someone even had 70 wives."

The children did not go to school; they begged on the street, I tell her. "That is not true," N. replies. "Maybe the older ones did distributions [of notes with the "Na Nach" slogan], but I did not see many children like that. They brought a social worker who put it into their heads that 'things should not be like this.' They are a lot smarter than many others; there was always a school in the house. One time I brought a book with all kinds of photographs of nature and trees from France. I thought I would show them something new, but they knew all the names of the trees."

What about the allegations of violence against the women and the children?

N.: "There was nothing like that. He is incapable of even thinking any such thing. What kind of punishments? They loved him."

If it is all untrue, why was he indicted?

"I think it is all a lie. It looks like there are bad people, just like in the stories." W