Folk tales

Ukrainian-born dance teacher Yuri Mirochnik has made a long physical and spiritual journey to the Efron Center.

Mirochnik dance 224.88 (photo credit: Abe Selig )
Mirochnik dance 224.88
(photo credit: Abe Selig )
On a cool Jerusalem night in the Valley of the Cross, Yuri Mirochnik is already perspiring. The sun set hours before, but the lights at the newly established Efron Center shine brightly, illuminating every corner of the mirrored walls and finished wood floors that make up this state-of-the art dance studio. Mirochnik, 50, is inside one of the rooms directing a troupe of adolescent girls as they dance to a piano accompaniment. The girls sashay by and Mirochnik counts time. "One, two, three, four," he yells. As his arms jerk with the beat, his kippa hardly budges. At first glance, Mirochnik seems like an obvious anomaly: Orthodox Jew and dance instructor, a modest man in an environment that is less so. But in reality, Mirochnik's identity runs much deeper. His is a winding story of challenge and success, near death and rebirth, affliction and deliverance. "I started dancing at the age of five in the town of Zhytomyr in Ukraine, where I was born," recalls Mirochnik. Before World War II, Zhytomyr was a major center of Jewish learning and culture, with one-third of its population Jewish. But during the war, the city was decimated and shut off from the rest of the world under the Soviet curtain. Mirochnik's father was a dance choreographer for the Red Army and introduced his son to the world of dance at an early age. Mirochnik continued dancing until he went to university, at which point he began studying to become a choreographer as well. "I studied dancing in St. Petersburg and Moscow and was educated at the Vaganova Academy [of Russian Ballet]," says Mirochnik. The academy, which boasts Mikhail Baryshnikov as one of its acclaimed alumni, is one of the best ballet schools in the world. In Russia, Mirochnik worked with a dance troupe and traveled the world as their choreographer. "It was a fulfilling life," he says with a gleam in his eye, "but something was missing." Mirochnik wasn't sure what exactly, but something inside him kept pushing. "I am a Jew and I wanted to leave Russia so I could live as one." In 1979, Mirochnik put in an official request with the Soviet government to immigrate to Israel. It was denied. "Not only could I not leave, my desire to do so got the attention of the KGB," he recounts. Because Mirochnik's father had worked for the Red Army, and he himself had served his mandatory stint in the military, Mirochnik was suspected as a spy. Anyone who attempted to leave under Soviet rule was viewed with contempt by the Kremlin, and Mirochnik was forced to flee Zhytomyr. Mirochnik resettled in Donetsk, in the eastern Ukraine, where he tried to lay low. During his five years there, he met his wife and they gave birth to their first daughter. Amid all the life changes, Mirochnik still yearned to go to Israel. Soon enough the KGB found Mirochnik again and he was forced to flee Donetsk with his wife and young daughter. They went west to a town called Rovna on the Polish border, and once again tried to start over. This time it wasn't the KGB who caught up with Mirochnik, but history. In 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev came to power and instituted perestroika, or restructuring. Under these reforms, thousands of Jews were permitted to leave Russia, Mirochnik and his family among them. In 1990, they left Ukraine and found themselves in Israel. The Mirochnik family arrived in November, but due to the mass influx of Soviet immigrants, they were put on a two-month waiting list for ulpan. Dramatic changes were taking place in the Middle East as well. Just weeks before Mirochnik and his family were to begin ulpan, the Gulf War broke out and Scud missiles started landing in Tel Aviv. "We knew when to put the [gas] masks on because we'd hear the siren outside," recalls Mirochnik, but the radio announcements that an air raid was over were only given in Hebrew, which they couldn't understand. So their upstairs neighbor, a Romanian woman who spoke a little Russian, would bang on her floor with a broom to let them know when it was safe to take off their masks. After they got settled in an apartment, and after a brief stint at a shwarma restaurant, Mirochnik got work with the Rishon Lezion dance troupe. It was around this time that he began to feel a nagging pain in his back, and unbeknown to him or his family, his life was about to take another dramatic turn. Mirochnik continued working for the dance troupe, even as his back pain intensified. "I would tell my wife not to worry, that it would go away," he says. But it didn't go away and a few months later, Mirochnik was diagnosed with cancer. He began chemotherapy soon after, and his health greatly deteriorated. Mirochnik was bedridden and out of work. "We didn't know what would happen," he says. One day Mirochnik's wife, Ella, received a phone call from an acquaintance who had been out of touch with the family for nearly a year. She assumed that he had called about her husband's illness, but the man insisted he had dialed their number by mistake. After she filled him in on her husband's illness, the acquaintance asked if he could take him to a rabbi who was known to heal people, but she was completely against the idea. "We didn't believe in rabbis," says Ella. "Yuri was sick and I didn't want him to get out of bed at all." But the man was insistent so she finally settled on allowing him to take a photograph of her husband to the rabbi. When the rabbi saw the picture of Mirochnik, he said he could see that he was ailing, but couldn't help him. "He would need to be circumcised," the rabbi said. "Then I could help." When Mirochnik heard this, it moved him; for a while now he had wanted to have a brit mila. But his doctors strongly advised against the circumcision. "They said I couldn't even cut my finger, much less have an operation," recalls Mirochnik. "But I told them that if I was going to die, I wanted to die as a Jew." Mirochnik went to the rabbinate and got permission for the procedure, but at the hospital he was told that there was a weeks-long waiting list. "I couldn't wait," says Mirochnik. "I did not have a lot of time." The hospital told him to contact the surgeon, and sure enough, the man offered to perform the procedure early in the morning, before regular hours. Mirochnik agreed, and the next morning at dawn, he was circumcised by a surgeon who also turned out to be a mohel (ritual circumciser), and he performed the brit mila with all the appropriate blessings. "I felt healthy right away," Mirochnik recalls, and within a year he had mostly recovered. Mirochnik's doctors had told him that if he recovered, he probably would have trouble walking and would never dance again. But within two years, Mirochnik was walking well and resumed teaching with the Rishon Lezion dance troupe. A few years later, Hora Jerusalem contacted Mirochnik and offered him a job: The famous Jerusalem dance academy wanted him to bring his expertise in folk dance to their stage. It was the opportunity of a lifetime and Mirochnik immediately accepted. "Folk dancing is not done very much in Israel and I hope to make it more popular," he says. He already has. "Yurinka," a Russian dance number, and a hassidic-themed dance number, have been extremely successful in St. Petersburg, Moscow and New York. In addition, his classes, attended by serious students of dance, enjoy a full turnout at the Efron Center. Since the center's opening in April, the Hora Dance Academy, as well as other local music and dance ensembles, have enjoyed a new 900-sq.m. home, spread over three dance halls. The NIS 5.5 million complex boasts an acclaimed teaching team, offering music and dance lessons as well as master classes to hundreds of students from a range of ages, levels and styles, including classic, modern, jazz, belly dancing and ballroom dancing. But how does Mirochnik negotiate his love of dance and his awe of God? "It's not so complicated," he says. "God gave me a second chance to do something I love and I want to give that to Israel." Mirochnik says that his students respect his lifestyle, and often dress more modestly when attending his classes. "For what happened to me," he continues, "I thank God and I thank my rabbi. But I also love Israel very much and hope to show the country how beautiful folk dancing can be."