The Arty Semite

Ethiopian Jewry's Journey, in Dance

By Renee Ghert-Zand

  • Print
  • Share Share
Zehava Dahan

On October 14 at the Osher Marin JCC in San Rafael, California, at a performance for 400 middle school students from six different Bay Area Jewish day schools, the members of the Beta Dance Troupe seemed to defy the laws of human kinetics. Their shoulders pulsed, their heads bobbed and their elbows flapped, while their lower extremities jumped, glided and leaped in fluid motion.

Coinciding with the recent 25th anniversary of Operation Moses and the upcoming holiday of Sigd, which Ethiopian Jews observe 50 days after Yom Kippur to celebrate the acceptance of the Torah, the performance was part of a current U.S. tour with stops in New York, Connecticut, San Francisco, Seattle and Los Angeles. The seven dancers’ seemingly impossible combination of movements, melding traditional Ethiopian shoulder dancing (Eskesta) and contemporary, innovative choreography, expressed the unique identity of young Ethiopian immigrants in Israel, illustrating the sense of both displacement and possibility that Ethiopian Jews experienced as they were absorbed into Israeli society.

The Beta Dance Troupe, based at the Neve Yosef Community Center in an underprivileged, immigrant neighborhood in Haifa, grew out of Eskesta, a dance program at the University of Haifa. The troupe’s seven semi-professional dancers come from all over the country to the community center at least twice a week for rehearsals, which take place at times when local youth can come in and watch. One of the central mandates of the troupe is to foster young Ethiopian Israeli talent.

Dr. Ruth Eshel has been the force behind the group since before its official inception in 1995. A former professional dancer with the Batsheva Dance Company and a noted postmodern choreographer, Eshel was working as an academic researcher in 1991 when 15,000 new Ethiopian immigrants arrived with Operation Solomon. Curious to learn more about these new arrivals, Eshel spent three years in the field, visiting immigrant camps and “videotaping everything that moved,” as she put it.

After studying thousands of hours of footage, Eshel began to choreograph contemporary dances that used only the movements of traditional shoulder dancing. “Everything had to come out of the DNA of Eskesta,” she explained. “The movements had to be natural and grow out of the shoulder dancing. I was determined not to impose modern dance on it.” Some purists would say that what Beta does is not Ethiopian dance, Eshel Added, but she believes that change is inevitable. “The question is how you change tradition, how to do it carefully and with a lot of respect.”

In the Beta troupe’s performance in San Rafael, which was organized by BASIS, an Israel education initiative, the Ethiopian Israeli journey was conveyed through dances that portrayed traditional prayer gatherings and weddings, as well as in pieces that reflected a more secular sensibility. The shift was noticeable in the choreography and in the music, which went from traditional chanting and drumming to pop songs, electric sounds and spoken word, and in costumes that ranged from traditional African garb to Tel Aviv street fashions.

Eshel and Beta’s associate director, Meeka Ya’ari, inspire and are inspired by the four male and three female dancers, aged 23 to 29. All but one of the dancers were born in Ethiopia, and one young woman arrived in Israel only two years ago. They have all served in the military and are now either university students or working in professional fields. Zvika Izikias, who has a lanky, lithe dancer’s body and long dreadlocks, joined Beta eight months ago after a career with Batsheva Ensemble. When asked why he wanted to dance with Beta, he answered, “Because this is my family.”

Watch a performance by the Beta Dance Troupe:

Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Sigd, Ruth Eshel, Osher Marin, Operation Solomon, Operation Moses, Neve Yosef, Meeka Ya'ari, Haifa, Ethiopian Jews, Eskesta, Dance, Beta Israel, Beta Dance Troupe, Batsheva Ensemble, Batsheva Dance Company, Batsheva, Zvika Izikias

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • What do you think of Wonder Woman's new look?
  • "She said that Ruven Barkan, a Conservative rabbi, came into her classroom, closed the door and turned out the lights. He asked the class of fourth graders to lie on the floor and relax their bodies. Then, he asked them to pray for abused children." Read Paul Berger's compelling story about a #Savannah community in turmoil:
  • “Everything around me turns orange, then a second of silence, then a bomb goes off!" First installment of Walid Abuzaid’s account of the war in #Gaza:
  • Is boredom un-Jewish?
  • Let's face it: there's really only one Katz's Delicatessen.
  • "Dear Diaspora Jews, I’m sorry to break it to you, but you can’t have it both ways. You can’t insist that every Jew is intrinsically part of the Israeli state and that Jews are also intrinsically separate from, and therefore not responsible for, the actions of the Israeli state." Do you agree?
  • Are Michelangelo's paintings anti-Semitic? Meet the Jews of the Sistine Chapel:
  • What does the Israel-Hamas war look like through Haredi eyes?
  • Was Israel really shocked to find there are networks of tunnels under Gaza?
  • “Going to Berlin, I had a sense of something waiting there for me. I was searching for something and felt I could unlock it by walking the streets where my grandfather walked and where my father grew up.”
  • How can 3 contradictory theories of Yiddish co-exist? Share this with Yiddish lovers!
  • "We must answer truthfully: Has a drop of all this bloodshed really helped bring us to a better place?”
  • "There are two roads. We have repeatedly taken the one more traveled, and that has made all the difference." Dahlia Scheindlin looks at the roots of Israel's conflict with Gaza.
  • Shalom, Cooperstown! Cooperstown Jewish mayor Jeff Katz and Jeff Idelson, director of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, work together to oversee induction weekend.
  • A boost for morale, if not morals.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.