Dancing Through a Jewish Lens

By Nina Haft

September 1, 2015, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

How does being Jewish shape our lives and our work as dance artists? What do we have to contribute from a Jewish perspective?

Just as I was finding my voice as a choreographer, the identity politics of the 90s were giving way to a new, exciting movement in dance and art: articulating who we were without buying into ‘other’ as a framework for self. For over a decade, I choreographed a number of works that explored Jewish identity (among many other things). My travels to the Middle East—and the work I made about it—helped me to understand just how much of my identity was American.

It has been a while since I made a Jewish dance, and I find myself wondering why. I believe we are in a time when old beliefs and power structures are being revealed and dismantled. It is hard, painful, joyful work, and I believe that being Jewish gives me something to contribute to it.

I wanted to explore this with artists of different Jewish backgrounds, and to connect my questions to some larger conversations around us about art and politics. I started by inviting two dance artists from different generations. We each then invited a contemporary to the table for food and intimate conversation. As a group, we are contemporary dance artists who identify as Jewish. We are in our 30s to our 70s; from East coast, West coast, Midwestern and Southern sensibilities; and actively involved in all aspects of practice—performing, choreographing, teaching, writing and viewing.

Here is an edited and abridged transcript of my lively conversations with Arletta Anderson, Risa Jaroslow, Margaret Jenkins, Leah Kahn and Jo Kreiter.

Risa Jaroslow: The commitment to treating people respectfully is a part of Judaism that is meaningful to me, and that I try to incorporate in my life, all aspects of it. It’s striking to me how much dancers appreciate that and feel that it’s often not there.

Margaret Jenkins: What does Judaism have to say about that?

RJ: I was sort of referring specifically to the
tradition of Yom Kippur, of atonement.

Jo Kreiter: No 10 Hail Mary’s and you’re done? (laughter)

RJ:  Yeah, no, you gotta do the hard part and talk to other people.

Arletta Anderson: For me, it’s that I seek out ensemble work. I want to engage, I want to have inquiry. I feel that is very much a tenet of a Jewish life, to ask questions and not just take things for what they are. Those are tangible ways I can align those elements of my life.

JK: I think I am the only one here who is a fractured Jew, in that my mom is Jewish and my dad’s Christian so it’s very hard to ascribe what is what, except that my mom came from an utterly and defiantly atheistic family. But then my grandparents (my mom’s parents) were a huge influence around the inquiry that you are talking about. I’ve heard from when I could first hear and speak that [my grandparents] were running from the Czars, these things were drilled into you with these stories, and so this thing about justice and fairness, that feels very Jewish for me.

Nina Haft: And so do you identify as Jewish? I realize I made the assumption when I invited you here. (laughter)

JK: I do, but I identify as a fractured Jew, which is a term that a dancing rabbi introduced to me! (chuckles) I was so grateful for him to giving language to what I am, cause you’re not NOT, but you’re not, you know, it’s like being biracial, you’re neither.

RJ:  Or you’re everything. My two granddaughters are biracial; my son in law is black. The older one initiated going to
Hebrew school and wants to have a bat mitzvah, and she said I am not half anything. I am all black and all Jewish.

MJ: It’s complicated for me. A challenging and revelatory moment was going to Jerusalem, (four times in the process of making The Gate of Winds – a collaboration between my Company and Kolben Dance) and seeing how immediately comfortable I was with Amir, the choreographer. The nature of the exchange felt like the home I was raised in, you know: “I love you BUT, that section looked great BUT,” with humor/irony everywhere—supportive and critical all at the
same time. I was raised in that kind of environment, surrounded by people who were in a highly charged exchange all the time—who argued and challenged one another’s thoughts all the time, often ferociously. I think part of the reason that dance was so electric for me and attractive was it provided another way to communicate—a non-verbal form of inquiry. At the time it felt more safe, less charged to be in a dance studio with movement as the primary form of communication. Being raised in such an extremely verbal environment, it was a relief to be in conversation through movement. Although my work is not specifically ‘about’ those early years (McCarthy ever present during most of the 50’s), the sense of danger, the need for safe environments in which to move or think did affect my work. My family gave me that sense of community, as isolated or sheltered as it sometimes was. One’s friends were from the community of left progressives and Jewishness was felt, but not “practiced,” honored but not the organizing principle.

RJ:  Were they mostly Jewish or not?

MJ: I don’t really know, but surely a percentage. You know, when you look at the Red Diaper Babies, many in dance, an awful lot of them were Jewish.

RJ:  My parents’ life was the theater. My father was an actor and my mother was a musician. It was their temple. But they were very Jewishly identified. For nine years I did a lot of work in Poland. My husband was working all over Eastern Europe, in Lithuania, all the Baltic States, and I think we were both very affected by that, our sense of Jewish identity. The absence of the Jewish past of Poland was palpable. I would walk around on a Friday afternoon and think: I can imagine what it would have been like, people hurrying home with their challahs. I would see candles in the windows, picture what it must have looked like on the Sabbath before all the Jews were killed or left. After all that time in Poland, I did make a bunch of pieces that were explicitly sourced in Jewish ideals, Jewishness: Chair Dance for Two Jewish Mothers that I did with Vicky Shick, and several other pieces. And what happened was I realized I was getting pigeonholed as the Jewish choreographer and I really resented that. I didn’t see myself that way.

NH: Well, for me, I think it’s how I go about things is what is Jewish about my work; how
I might start a rehearsal process, or how I might interact with people in the process of dealing with something I don’t know.

JK: It’s an interesting question. But, I mean, could you break things down for yourself, could you make a list of ten ways that your process is….

NH: Jewish?

JK: Uh-huh.

NH: I probably could come up with….four!? (laughter) Yeah, I think this thing about inquiry. Crafting questions as opposed to having a clear destination. Having a Talmudic or shifting frame of reference. Practicing a kind of mystical relationship to formalism. Exploring what is compositional about communication and relationships. Constantly maneuvering closer to what I don’t know even at peril of not being efficient…

JK: I guess I am a destination choreographer. (more laughter)

NH: That’s such a great little moniker. What is that?

JK: I said that in response to what you were saying. I feel like when I decide to make a piece, I know what I want to do. Which doesn’t mean I don’t have questions about how to do it, but I am really driven about hitting the nail on the head. I want to reveal hidden histories for women, it is a destination to do that. For example, I just found out the Labor Archives and Research Center had no oral histories of black women until I did my Bridge piece, and now they have six. I have a certain social agenda that drives the whole machine.

AA: And I find that my inclination in making work is to delve into that territory that is not going to make something explicitly known. Whether that be because I am Jewish, or not, I think that is a very Jewish thing. To uncover layers that reveal more questions and give some sort of perspective. Especially from my experience of growing up in a Reform temple, the rabbi would talk about questioning things that the generation before would never question, like Israel. That parallels the kind of work I lean towards. Today, I get that from my dance community, and my dance inquiries.

Leah Kahn: One of the things I love about ritual in our tradition is that it is experiential, and sometimes it’s about doing movements that infuse what we are doing with meaning. There is a rich tapestry of content in our narrative to be explored, even leaving aside the artistic opportunities for exploration of the Holocaust and the Torah for a moment, but just the Jewish rituals we do in everyday life has a ton of choreography in it. And then, our history and our narrative are also there. What does it look like to embody that narrative and have it come alive physically and choreographically, or even just in our bodies?

NH: Say more about narrative.

LK: Holocaust, European Jewry, Passover, how we relate to the New Year, the mass migration of Soviet Jewry to Israel…we can explore these things through movement. Also, I have been thinking a lot about the lack of emotion that we bring into class as American dancers that I feel like we don’t let ourselves be seen. I don’t know if it is the training, or going through university and just focusing on technique so much, but in Israel people are so much more comfortable with emotion and it comes out in the art. What is acceptable in class and in performance is a wider range than what it is here and we are missing out. Letting our emotions come through the movement, I think it is very Jewish. I want someone to be vulnerable onstage. How can I connect to you if you are just dancing from here down [points below the neck]? Just let it out! If we’re not going to do it, who is? The people on Wall Street aren’t going to do it so that’s our privilege, right?

NH: So that is part of what we have to offer as Jewish dance artists? To express or embody some of this vulnerability.

LK: Yes. And we get to tell a story. Some people go through their whole lives and never get to tell a story to other people, onstage or publicly, and that is part of our privilege as artists.

NH: Can you share some of your own experiences with that?

LK: Sure. When I was a college student at Kent State University, I did a piece called Mahalia’s Legacy. It was choreographed by Dr. Darwin Prioleau, one of my professors at the time. She’s African American, and she trained with Ailey and was really connected to that narrative. Her piece had to do with being a minority and overcoming. One day after rehearsal she said to me, “You and I have survival in our blood, so you need to draw on that story in this work.” It really stuck with me. I had my own story within her story when I was onstage and that came out through the movement. I was able to draw on that and make it personal.

NH: Are there other ways you approach your training differently through a Jewish lens?

LK: Yes! The ferocity with which people take up space in Israel, especially women, it’s so different there. There’s no bumping into someone and then apologizing. It made me realize how I wasn’t using my length as a dancer. A teacher once said to me, ‘If they are in front of you, run them over. The next time they’ll move.’ That’s very Israeli, and a very different way to think about space and chutzpah. When I was younger, I was always asking, ‘How is Jewish ritual relevant to me? Why do we have services on Friday night when all my friends are going out?’ Then one day I realized, OMG, this is like ballet! This is the physicality of the world. This is how things line up: there are limitations which if you place yourself within them, they create other freedoms that you didn’t know were possible. First, I literally fell in love with Shabbat. This is brilliant. You turn off your phone, you separate yourself from the rest of the world to focus more on things that are really important, like family and good conversation and rest. It’s just like if I want to do a pirouette, I have to understand physics, I have to press down on my standing leg and make sure my active leg is turning out and spot and then I’ll be free to do a pirouette. When I opt in to ritual, that whole world is there for me.

NH: Which is like our dance training. You live in that body and I live in this body. I have to figure out how to make dance principles and aesthetics fit my proportions, all the things that are true about my body. I have to negotiate that. I can’t just follow 100% dutifully, that won’t deliver me to 100% artistry. I have to engage, question, prioritize and wholeheartedly accept the practice in order to improve.

JK: I have an observation, which is that being Jewish doesn’t seem to read anywhere right now.

RJ:  You mean here, in San Francisco.

JK: Yes, I mean, in the context of social justice work, being Jewish doesn’t make it on the map anymore.

NH: And yes, this is partly why I am struggling with. What is our relevance? In addition to feeling connected to all of you – which I very much enjoy – what does my identity and work as a Jewish artist contribute to the movements around me? What do our Jewish stories bring to the Occupy Movement or the Black Lives Matter struggle? Is it the lesson that those who remain silent are complicit? Or maybe it is our experiences of assimilating and passing—or not —that we can speak to?

AA: I grew up where the majority of my peers were not Jewish. In most of the artistic processes I have been in, I have been the only Jew. That has led to a sense of being the other at times. It is a theme that I can speak to. But not everyone defines their Jewishness with being the other.

RJ:  You don’t think so? I think to some degree, most Jews do.

AA: I agree, as a more historical and global idea, yes.

JK: And there is a persecution in the history that makes you other, you hear about the numbers.

AA: I did have this experience working with Rebecca Pappas, whose piece (Monster) we performed many places, including here in SF at the [Contemporary] Jewish Museum. When we performed in Singapore, I performed the piece right after I had gotten this tattoo (points to her wrist, and Hebrew letters spelling “Emet” meaning “Truth”). After the show, one woman said she noticed my tattoo mid-performance and that she was quite upset, she thought that it in itself was an untruth and that the piece was speaking an untruth….

MJ: Why untruth?

AA: Well, the piece expresses some pretty strong ideas about Jewish identity, and then I thought “Oh, she identifies me as Jewish!” Rebecca had some pretty strong ideas about what we do in memorializing the Holocaust, investigating how the role of “victim” can become that of the “victimizer”, the death of 6 million Jews being one focus of the story, when there are also other losses.

RJ:  You mean the Gypsies?

NH: And gay people.

AA: My being identified as Jewish changed how that person saw me in the work, and the whole work overall. I’d never had that experience.

NH: This is partly why I am struggling with. What is our relevance as Jewish dance artists? I keep coming back to what do we have to contribute to this particular moment in history? One of the things Black Lives Matter offers all of Americans is the chance to see how our economy and system of social control hinges on policing black bodies, among other things, with slavery as the anchoring historical context. What does a Jewish lens contribute to understanding our world today? I guess I don’t see the Holocaust as the framework. If I did, I think I might feel differently. But I don’t see this as the defining framework for what is going on right now.

MJ: And do you think that is generational?

NH: Yes! I do.

MJ: Certainly people of my generation do.

RJ:  I think having children does something to one’s Jewish identity. I’ve seen it in myself, and in my daughter. Something about having children is about the connection, going back the other way and also going forward, you want that.

AA: For me, being female and Jewish always went hand in hand.

NH: And then there is how gendered all of my Jewish experiences have been for me too, between family, adolescent adventures at Yiddish Socialist Summer Camp, my early dance teachers. Just like my dance experiences have been inextricable from my gender training, for better and for worse. I am never just one part of me at a time.

Nina Haft work in New Jewish Performance has been profiled in Dance Magazine and supported by CHIME, the Djerassi Resident Artist Program, the Conney Project on Jewish Arts Shawl-Anderson Dance Center, and other Bay Area funders. Her article, “36 Jewish Gestures” was recently published in Moving Ideas: Multimodality and Embodied Learning; Mira-Lisa Katz, ed. [Peter Lang: 2013]