Summer in Israel: Seventy Faces to Torah and to Dance
What is the connection between Contemporary Dance and the Talmudic tractate Sota?
This summer, believe it or not, I discovered some unique parallels.
Growing up, one of the most widely repeated mantras I heard in Torah study contexts was “Shivim Panim La’Torah”– there are 70 faces to the Torah (Bamidbar Rabbah 13,15). This emphasizes the point that there are multiple ways in which the Torah may be interpreted. Most often, the rabbis who taught this to me never encouraged outside-the-box thinking, so I just accepted this mantra as a cute cliché and nothing more.
This summer, however, when studying at the Conservative Yeshiva (CY) in Jerusalem, the saying took on new meanings which I truly internalized. Taking Ulpan, Talmud, Tefillah, and more with people of all ages from around the world, we all had a goal of studying Lishmah (the non-translatable Hebrew term meaning study for the sake of study, not for money, credits, academic degree, etc.). I experienced the beauty of intergenerational study, as well as the annoyances and difficulties that arise with it.
During every Ulpan class, political and controversial discussions often arose, largely at the pleasure of the teacher Edna who encouraged it (as long as it was in Hebrew, of course). Naturally, the volume in the room would rise an octave or so with such debates. One of my fellow students, whom we called Babs, and whose age and vibe compelled us to assume she is a retired grandmother, would turn to me every time, and in her broken Hebrew exclaim she couldn’t deal with the yelling and fast-paced conversation. At one point, she also told me I remind her of her granddaughter, and many other times she would gossip and talk trash about other CYniks, in true Jewish Grandmother Yenta fashion.
Another staple at the Yeshiva, a younger French woman from a rural town in France with incredibly limited English, would express such awe at every twist and turn at the Talmud. Despite often misunderstanding her, I never ceased to appreciate being her havruta because of the sheer excitement she would bring with her sound effects and facial expressions. Learning Talmud with older generations was particularly challenging at first: when I wanted to move on, a fellow student would ask for an explanation of the Talmud’s reasoning AGAIN, after we had already been through it in depth. I soon learned, however, that I too can use extra review as there are always details, especially the Talmudic twists-and-turns, that pass over me. Seventy faces to the Torah, I came to realize, is indeed a good thing, even when many of those faces belong to older-than-70 students.
Being among the few young people at the Yeshiva definitely had its perks. Rabbi Joel, the Rosh Yeshiva, with a desire to educate the next generation of Jewish Masorti leaders, trained us in hazzanut and leading shacharit. I ambitiously volunteered to lead shacharit the next week. The morning of my big debut, I left our apartment with my daily coffee, and out of nerves and excitement (some might say pure clumsiness, but I would disagree) I spilled the boiling coffee on myself. As a dancer, my number one rule of life is that the show must go on. So with a scathing burn on my stomach, I braved the rain and led shacharit for the first time. Immediately after, when I finally revealed my health impediment, my elderly CYniks began taking care of me as only dedicated bubbies would.
The specific Talmud passage we studied was from Tractate Sota, and dealt intricately with which prayers are meant to be read in Hebrew and which should be read in a language understood by the reciter. The Mishnah stated that prayers which have a particularly communal nature, such as the Priestly Blessing, should be in Hebrew, while prayers with a more personal appeal to God, such as the Shema, should be read in a language the reader understands. This differentiation soon manifested itself in a completely different setting, and I realized there were benefits to both.
After studying at the Conservative Yeshiva and working my neurons for three weeks, I spent three weeks overworking my physical muscles. Dancing one week at Batsheva Dance Company in Tel Aviv and two at the Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company (KCDC) in Kibbutz Ga’aton, I saw that Torah isn’t the only thing with 70 faces; dance likewise speaks to so many people and is interpreted in so many different ways! I met dancers from the US, France, Italy, Denmark, Holland, Switzerland, Poland and Israel. The Israeli company dancers who taught us were obviously more comfortable teaching in Hebrew, yet had to put in extra effort to teach in English in order to be understood by everyone. As in the Mishnah, they had to juggle between two competing interests: being understood by everyone, while also maintaining their personal touch. So when they taught the class they used English, but when they choreographed and planned among themselves they could indulge
in the ease of their native Hebrew language. Also as in the Mishanah, the Hebrew language held certain value despite not being widely understood. One teacher, Eran, wanted to emphasize doing a certain movement with “chutzpah,” meaning he was looking for a flavor of fierceness and sass. As there is no word quite equivalent to chutzpah in the English language, he gave the class a quick lesson on the word chutzpah. Sometimes, “lashon hakodesh” really is necessary.
The Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company was founded by Yehudit Arnon, a Holocaust survivor from Czhecklosovakia. In Auschwitz, she was forced to dance for the Nazis, and in that moment she made an oath to herself that if she survived she would dedicate her life to dancing out of free will and pleasure. She became a pioneer and founding member of Kibbutz Ga’aton after the War, and in 1973, she fulfilled her promise and founded a dance school. Almost 50 years later, her Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company attracts dancers from around the world and has become internationally acclaimed.
The Conservative Yeshiva, the Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company, the people I met at both institutions, and the stories of their founding and continued success remind me why I love studying, dance, and any opportunity to do so with new people in new places.