View from the Hills: The dancing queen of Judea

Elazar resident, Yehudit Hirsch reaches out through dance to girls from a variety of backgrounds that might have been denied opportunities.

By
June 11, 2013 22:43
YEHUDIT HIRSCH.

YEHUDIT HIRSCH 370. (photo credit: (Courtesy Rebecca Kowalsky))

Here’s a test: Say “settler.” Now close your eyes. What images pop into your head? For most in Israel and abroad the derogatory term most-likely evokes negative images thanks to stereotypes utilized by the mainstream media to brand this group of so-called “messianic” fanatics.

You probably have two images in your mind.

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If you’re imagining a male settler, it’s probably a gun-toting, bearded man on a hilltop, wearing a large crocheted kippa, with flowing side curls and cloth fringes flapping in the wind.

If’s it’s a female settler, perhaps you’re thinking of a woman with a long-sleeve shirt, a modest skirt down to the floor, with her hair fully covered using some sort of scarf, or a wrap resembling a turban. She’s probably carrying a baby, with several other small, barefoot children strolling closely behind.

There are some residents of Judea and Samaria who fit this mold. But in reality, the nearly 400,000 Jewish inhabitants living in 153 cities, towns and communities throughout this region are a highly diverse bunch.

Take for example Elazar resident and professional dance teacher Yehudit Hirsch. Growing up in Jerusalem, this 36- year-old, observant mother of four decided to make the move from Jerusalem to Gush Etzion in 1999, because she and her husband “wanted to be close to Jerusalem since we were both working there, and this is where we could afford.” Hirsch, who says she grew up in a politically left-wing home, admits that her husband, Ra’anan, also wanted to make the move “for ideological reasons.”

Sitting in the spacious, modern kitchen of her brand new home wearing a tank-top and shorts, with her blonde hair uncovered, Hirsch admits that whether she is in Jerusalem or anywhere else in the center of the country, because of her appearance, “It’s always a shock to people that I’m a settler. Nobody believes me, because I’m more modern. They think that we’re all in long skirts and only interested in ‘tag machir’ [‘price tag’ vandalism].”

While it had never crossed her mind to teach dance when she and her husband moved to Elazar, Hirsch, who began her career teaching Bible studies in a secular school, started exploring other professional options since she says her salary was just too low. After a short time she launched an after-school dance program for girls in the area.

“The first year,” Hirsch says, “I had only five girls in the class, which was held one hour a week, and I was teaching out of a bomb shelter, since there wasn’t any other space available.”

By year two, Hirsch’s popularity grew, and she had 20 girls enrolled. But she soon realized that the girls in the course wanted more. “I saw that the girls here were more in touch with modern culture and dance, and wanted different types of classes including hip-hop and jazz.”

But it wasn’t all smooth sailing. Several groups of parents and local rabbis were opposed to modern dance, with its focus on secular music and the potential for immodest dress during the classes. However, in one particular meeting with an influential local rabbi and community leader, Hirsch was able to convince him to give the classes his stamp of approval.

“I explained to him that these are modern-Orthodox girls, who are coming to me once a week to dance, where they can forget themselves and have a release in a kosher environment and not in front of men. I asked the rabbi if he preferred that the girls would sneak off to Jerusalem or Tel Aviv to dance provocatively in night clubs with members of the other sex.”

Hirsch’s rationalize resonated, and she received a green light from the rabbi. Skipping ahead 14 years to 2013, Hirsch now offers 12 different classes covering the full spectrum of dance methods to over 150 females ages four to adult in several Gush communities.

Her end-of-year dance recital, held just last week in the Gush Etzion auditorium, drew hundreds of parents, siblings and dance aficionados, to see a highly varied and professional two-hour show. And to respect the modesty of the dancers, once the girls of bat-mitzvah age and over took the stage, the fathers and all other men present were asked to kindly step out.

But more than anything, Hirsch seems to be most proud of the fact that through dance, she is able to reach out to girls from a variety of backgrounds that might have been denied opportunities in other settings throughout their lives.

“When I grew up dancing, they would only take the skinny girls,” she says. “But I take girls of all sizes. I also take girls who have no rhythm and put them in the front row of our shows, and they are so happy.”

Hirsch says that she also works with girls who have disabilities, citing a student in special education and another who has Down syndrome. She says that she also teaches girls from broken homes who can’t afford to pay for the classes. “Nobody is turned away; these girls dance for free” she says. Another population she focuses on is girls suffering from anorexia.

In addition, she offers her time as a volunteer dance instructor in Elazar, designing performances for community ceremonies on the holidays including Independence Day, as well as Purim. She is also one of the volunteer choreographers of the “Dames of the Dance,” an all-women’s annual dance show in the Gush, which raises funds for the needy leading up to Passover.

Admitting that “I’m not very political,” her optimism with regard to peace with the Palestinians has shrunk since becoming a settler. “I’ve changed my views over the years and am now more realistic... our neighbors don’t want to coexist with us,” she says. She recounts how the Arabs workers who built her new home deliberately “stuffed nylons and rocks into my pipes, so that the toilets didn’t flush, and the showers didn’t work, and we had to replace everything, spending thousands of shekels.”

“I was nice to them [the workers] and friendly,” she says, “but after this, and being stoned on the roads, I am now realizing that they just don’t want to be a part of our lives.”

Hirsch says that when she believed that peace was possible, “I even thought of opening a dance studio in [the neighboring Arab village of] Beit Jala. But reality set in, and I was afraid to do it.”

“I’m proud of who I am and of living where of live,” she says. When asked what would happen if Israel decided to give away her house and community to the Palestinians in a future peace deal, Hirsch is adamant: “I would put up a fight. I’m not talking about violence, but I would try to get the world involved. Where in England was anyone forced to move out of their homes for political reasons? I would spend my time waking up the world.”

The writer is a media expert, freelance journalist and host of Reality Bytes Radio on www.israelnationalradio.com.Photos by Rebecca Kowalsky can be seen at www.imagesthroughtime.com


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