Last weekend, while attending an Israeli dance seminar in the States, something unexpected and extraordinary happened…
My deep connection to Israel was sparked many years ago by my fascination with Israeli music, and subsequently, Israeli dance. For the past thirty years, I have experienced and led Israeli dancing around the world as a student, an instructor, and (most importantly) a passionate devotee to the creation and perpetuation of this extraordinary art form.
Several times a year, the international Israeli dance community gathers to learn new material from renowned Israeli choreographers. This past weekend, in a lovely, reasonably secluded hotel in the suburbs of Chicago, we spent three full days dancing, singing, and learning from some of the finest and most well-respected teachers in the field.
On the final night of this seminar, I took a break from our dancing to make a phone call. As I made my way toward the lobby, I heard music playing in another area of the hotel… music that sounded remarkably similar to ours. I peeked my head into the music-filled room and saw a gathering of women dressed in beautiful, traditional Arabic garb, eating, drinking, dancing, and celebrating the upcoming wedding of one of their friends. I didn’t want to disturb their celebration (not to mention the fact that I felt slightly underdressed in my workout/dancing clothes), but I was struck by the fact that Middle Eastern culture had taken over this hotel in the Chicago suburbs. A few of the women caught my eye — and smiled.
I returned their smiles, and then returned to our final (all night) Israeli dance marathon. As I walked into our dance hall, I again noticed that the soundtrack of our event sounded remarkably similar to the music I’d just heard down the hall.
After their bridal shower had concluded, the Arab women made their way to the lobby, and passed by our venue precisely at the moment that we began dancing a traditional Arabic dance form known as a debka. Intrigued, the women gathered near the door, watching us as we turned, stepped, and spun to the ancient rhythms of the Middle East.
At the threshold of the ballroom, I spotted the women who had smiled at me; it was clear that they were as fascinated with us as I had been with them. I approached them and warmly invited them to enter the ballroom. While they were hesitant and resistant at first, I insisted that they join us, and they did.
One of the dancers by the door asked where they were from in the Middle East, and they proudly answered that they were Palestinians, originally from Nablus.
For just a moment, I wondered if I had made a huge mistake in judgment. I had invited them into our tent without considering any potential ramifications… How would they feel when they realized they were standing the midst of hundreds of Israelis and American Jews? How would my Israeli dance friends react to the Palestinian women walking into our ballroom?
The socio-political views held by members of the Israeli dance community are wildly diverse. Therefore, much like at Thanksgiving dinner in the States, certain topics of conversation are generally considered taboo at dance functions. I suddenly feared that this tender moment of connection might morph into a full-blown nightmare; a single antagonistic comment could turn our joyous gathering into a heated political argument.
To my relief, several dancers — mostly native Israelis — approached the women and greeted them warmly. When they said that they were from Nablus, many of the Israelis responded (some in Arabic) “Oh! We’re neighbors!”
I watched as a rapidly growing group of dancers came over to greet the women, to offer them chairs, and to bring them coffee. This was perfect Middle Eastern hospitality; neither foisted nor gratuitous, and without a single moment of hesitation.
Suddenly, while watching the Israeli dancers move around the circle in synchronized movement, the Palestinian women began to dance. A few of our dancers joined them in their impromptu, non-choreographed movements. And for those few moments, I watched, spellbound.
It was an exquisite sight — one that I cannot describe in words that would do it justice. I distanced myself from the women and managed to catch a few seconds of the event on my phone as it was unfolding.
The women finished their dance and bid us good evening, leaving us to dance until the break of dawn.
I couldn’t stop thinking about that moment for the rest of the night. What were the chances that both of our events would end up happening in that hotel? Would they have been welcomed so warmly had we been dancing in the heart of Tel Aviv? Many programs foster “cultural exchange” between Israelis and Palestinians…but how many times do powerful moments of cultural connection occur spontaneously?
Welcoming a random group of Palestinian women to an Israeli dance session is not an everyday occurrence in our folk-dance world. That said, there was something extraordinarily beautiful about the unexpected opportunity that had presented itself in this nondescript, mid-western hotel.
The differences and disagreements that exist between our two peoples melted away — if only for an instant. The commonality that we experienced through our shared love of music and dance transcended the challenges we might have encountered outside of that ballroom.
What an awesome, unexpected, and powerful experience.
Upon reflection, I’ve realized the importance of the moment I first saw those women standing at the threshold of the ballroom. There was no time to analyze, no time to reflect and consider and ponder. On a deep philosophical level, this was a test of my values and ethics, both of which are profoundly guided by my commitment to progressive Jewish thought.
As our tradition so clearly teaches, “Beloved is (wo)man for (s)he was created in the image of God.” (Pirkei Avot 3:14)
If we are all indeed made in God’s image — b’tzelem Elohim — we are empowered to truly see each other first and foremost as human beings. When we transcend the complexities of contemporary society so that we may see the divine spark in all who stand before us, we bring a measure of healing and hope into the world.
And perhaps, if we allow ourselves to seek out those moments of unintended connection, if we allow ourselves to be brave enough to step outside of our normative boundaries (or to let others pass through ours), we will grow roots of understanding and peace.