(photo credit: Courtesy)
Hanni Landau sees absolutely no contradiction between her deep religious faith, her grandmother status and the fact that she teaches belly-dancing for a living. The 58-year-old grandmother of four, who has the energy and enthusiasm of a teenager, sees her dancing as a mission - to bring happiness to other women by liberating them and showing them that it's never too late to realize your dream.
"I'd always loved to dance," she says, "but my parents wouldn't even let me learn ballet when I was growing up in New Jersey. My father was a ninth generation Israeli whose family left for the States in 1939, and he was a cantor, mohel and shohet. I had a large family in Israel and had visited twice as a child. At 14 I knew I was going to make aliya."
Today a full-time teacher of belly-dancing and trance-dance, Landau arrived her in 1966 at 17 to study at Bar-Ilan University. She studied English literature, married, had three children and worked at various jobs until, 13 years ago, she went to her first belly-dancing class. From the first lesson she knew this was right for her.
"I knew that I had to dance; it was like a fire in me," she recalls.
"As soon as I finished high school I decided to come to Israel and applied for a place at Bar-Ilan University. I chose to study English literature because my Hebrew wasn't that good. I stocked up on clothes not knowing what would be available here."
"Initially I stayed with family and then I traveled to Kibbutz Sa'ad where there was a program for American kids to spend the summer, working and traveling around the country."
In October 1966, she began studying at Bar-Ilan and lived in the dorms. How much studying got done is debatable, but life was fun for the American teenager who had never been away from home.
"There was a curfew imposed but we basically ignored it and if anyone stayed out after midnight on a Saturday night, we had a ladder to get back into the first-floor dorms. I loved being able to eat anywhere - not that there was much choice back in those days, but for me it was culinary freedom. We used to go to Allenby Road [in Tel Aviv] where there was one Kapulsky coffee house and we'd fill up on cakes and stuff, then we'd walk over to Dizengoff for shwarma. I gained 10 kilos in that first year."
"There was nowhere to go, no bowling, no ice skating, no television, but it was great because we could fill the time up doing our own thing. We'd sit on the grass and play guitar and sing, and after the lectures had finished for the day we'd hitchhike into Tel Aviv or to the beach. We had no qualms about it in those days."
She remembers crossing an empty road with a girlfriend at a red light. The policewoman standing nearby threatened to give them a ticket but in the end she just made them go back and cross over again - on green.
In May 1967, with the Six Day War looming, all the male students at Bar-Ilan had been called up and her fellow Americans were getting hysterical messages from their parents to come home.
"I didn't want to go back, but my grandmother and aunts in Jerusalem made me. The second I got off the plane I burst into tears."
Golda Meir was doing a speaking tour of the United States. "We don't need volunteers, we need immigrants," Golda said and it resonated with Landau.
She came back, met and married Zvika when she was 19. She was now an Israeli housewife.
She is hard put to think of anything negative about her beloved country, but then remembers an early trauma.
"When I saw my first cockroach, I was hysterical," she recalls. "I stood on the kitchen table and screamed to Zvika that we were moving. I got used to them eventually."
LIFE SINCE ALIYA
Landau stayed at home and raised her three children and only began working at 25. She had a variety of careers - English teacher, bank clerk, secretary and even ran a slimming clinic until she found the job that was to occupy her for 13 years as a sales representative for a company which imported disposable goods from the US.
The early enthusiasm for dancing turned into a passion and a therapy during a difficult time in her life when her marriage of 37 years was crumbling.
"We just grew apart and, at the same time, I had become disillusioned with my job. I began to wonder if I couldn't make a living from my dancing. I'd done some teaching, and I realized I had the ability to make women free to give up their inhibitions and to impart my intense feelings about dance to them.
"I knew I was going to succeed and that I would be able to make a living for myself. I had complete faith in the Almighty that I was going to make it work."
She acknowledges it was a brave thing to do, to give up a company car and a phone to take on the unknown, but feels it's an object lesson for other women. "It's never too late to start and reinvent yourself," she says.
"I don't take for granted that the Almighty gave me this energy to be able to bring happiness. It's a privilege. And of course I don't see any contradiction between doing a sensual dance and being observant. The Bratslav Hassidim say you have to dance - literally or in your thoughts. And Rabbi Menahem Mendel of Kotzk said that dancing was a segula gedola, a great redemption. I truly believe a person makes his own destiny."
BEST THING ABOUT ISRAEL
"Apart from the obvious things about being in your own country and all that, I love the fact that you can go to any body of water within half an hour from anywhere. I used to sell paper goods to a restaurant on the beach, and I'd stand there and look at the whole coastline and think that there's no place more beautiful than this in the entire world. I don't look at the bad stuff. It's ours, good and bad, and there's so much atmosphere here."
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