A Thirst for Wisdom of the Body, and Quenching It

ELAH VALLEY, Israel — Over the summer, in a spacious sunlit studio in this lush valley between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, Rabbi Hanania Schwartz and Yuval Azoulay covered their heads with yarmulkes and mumbled a blessing before sipping from their water bottles. Then, yarmulkes off, they began to perform a short dance.

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, New York Times

ELAH VALLEY, Israel — Over the summer, in a spacious sunlit studio in this lush valley between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, Rabbi Hanania Schwartz and Yuval Azoulay covered their heads with yarmulkes and mumbled a blessing before sipping from their water bottles. Then, yarmulkes off, they began to perform a short dance.

Facing each other, Schwartz and Azoulay alternately adopted opposing postures meant to represent the extremes of modern Jewish and Israeli masculinity: One was bent over, as if studying in a yeshiva; the other upright, chest thrust out like a soldier or farmer.

“These are the archetypes,” said Ronen Izhaki, who choreographed the piece. After laying them out, “we destroy them, we mix them together.”

The excerpt is from a work called “Heroes,” which is to be performed Wednesday at the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan when the Ka’et Ensemble, a contemporary dance company of religious Jewish men from Israel, makes its U.S. debut.

The breakdown, or scrambling, of those archetypes — specifically, the religious and the secular — has been the driving force behind the troupe, which made its first public performance in Jerusalem in 2010. Audiences and critics embraced its signature blend of modern dance and devotional gestures to convey the struggle between the sacred and profane.

“We didn’t know it was a special thing,” Izhaki, 45, said in a recent Skype interview, of the company’s initial reception. “We didn’t expect the fascination. Everyone was interested in it.” He was joined in the conversation by Schwartz, Azoulay and two other Ka’et dancers, Eyal Ogen and Yair Barbash, all in their 30s.

The embrace of the group, by audiences and critics, speaks to Ka’et’s ability to challenge the stereotypes of both art and faith. “It shakes you a bit out of your orientation, your categorizing of people,” said Ruby Edelman, the chief executive and an artistic director of the Machol Shalem Dance House in Jerusalem. “They can reach people.”

Dance and devotion have a long, rich relationship in Judaism. And dance continues to be used by some groups, including the Hasidim, as a form of ecstatic spiritual expression. For the members of Ka’et, all of whom identify as dati leumi, or religious Zionists (akin to modern Orthodox in America), dance also offered a way into prayer. As Schwartz said, “I can’t fully express myself spiritually without connecting to my body.” But putting that body on a theatrical stage, in front of an audience, was a bold and unusual move.

The ensemble’s path began in 2000, when Izhaki, who is secular and lives in Tel Aviv, the center of Israel’s dance scene, was asked to teach an experimental dance workshop for Orthodox men in Acre as a way to integrate physicality into prayer. There, he was inspired watching the men pray during breaks. “It was the most delicate movement I’ve seen in my life,” he said.

The workshop was brief, but its influence lingered. A few years later, Ogen, one of the students, asked Izhaki for private lessons. “When I started, I was hiding it from my father and family,” he said. “I was ashamed of what I was doing.” Some in Orthodox Judaism consider anything aside from textual study to be a distraction; others look at the public performance of dance suspiciously because of its inherent sensuality, which they feel contradicts the closely held tenet of modesty.

But Ogen continued, and more students soon joined, including Schwartz, who said he was “thirsty to learn the wisdom of the body” — wisdom he now imparts to his students at the yeshiva where he teaches both Torah studies and movement classes. By 2007, they had a small school. Eventually they developed what the company members call “a new Jewish contemporary dance.”

That new style, and Ka’et’s focus on exploring the tension between orthodoxy and pluralism, has resonated outside of Israel as well. “Heroes” was commissioned by JW3, a Jewish communal and cultural center in London, and made its debut there in 2016. That fall, Megan Whitman, director of the Lambert Center for Art + Ideas at the Manhattan JCC, saw an excerpt from the work in Israel. “It wasn’t just that it was novel,” she said. “It was that it was profound, how these disconnected elements of society could be brought together in such a beautiful way.”

She also saw parallels back home. Referring to how audiences from Crown Heights, Brooklyn, or Manhattan’s Upper West Side might identify with Ka’et, she said, “We’ll see reflections of that same divide.”

For Ka’et, “Heroes” represents an artistic evolution. Compared with earlier works, Edelman said, “the layers of this piece are much more sophisticated.” Its sources include the pioneering Jewish dancer Baruch Agadati, the influential German choreographer Pina Bausch and the biblical story of Jacob and Esau. The work is “relevant to what’s happening in contemporary dance culture,” Edelman said. “It’s not isolated, it’s not their own island.”

That evolution also reflects a new willingness among the dancers to probe their faith’s traditions and assumptions. “At the beginning, we had to do something religious,” Schwartz said. “We didn’t have the courage to play with it. We have the courage now and the freedom to search new things.” More than a decade after beginning secret lessons with Izhaki, Ogen now manages the Ka’et school, where 45 students train three days a week in ballet, modern dance and Gaga, a popular movement language developed by Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin. (All students and teachers are male.)

Enthusiasm for contemporary dance has been growing among religious Jews, Edelman said, including women. “The body is part of the soul,” he explained, “and it’s supporting their belief.” When people realize they can combine the two, “they’re hungry for this.” Machol Shalem is hosting a three-month program for religious dance teachers.

Despite the meaningful support and growing acceptance, Ogen said, “there are places I go where I think twice about whether I say I’m a dancer.” And other Ka’et members said they still faced skepticism from many in their community. But increasingly, they are met with curiosity and even a bit of envy. When Schwartz recently attended a yeshiva reunion, he mentioned that he was a dancer. The guy next to him said, “My life isn’t as interesting.”

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