From Russia With Love... of Israel and folk dancing

Meet Yuri Mirochnik, a former refusenik ballet dancer who miraculously survived cancer and found religion in Israel.

russian dance metro 88 (photo credit: )
russian dance metro 88
(photo credit: )
On a cool Jerusalem night in the Valley of the Cross, Yuri Mirochnik is already perspiring. Hours after sunset, the bright lights at Beit Rina Nikova are shining and illuminate every corner of the dance studio's mirrored walls and finished wood floors. Mirochnik, 50, is 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 an anomaly: An Orthodox Jew and dance instructor, a modest man in an environment that is less so. But in reality, his identity is much deeper than appearances. It 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 the Ukraine, where I was born," recalls Mirochnick. Before World War II, a third of Zhytomyr's population was Jewish, and it was a major center of Jewish learning and culture. However, the city was decimated during the war 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 Yuri was brought into the world of dance at an early age. He danced until university, and then 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]," he recounts. The academy, which boasts famous dancers such as Mikhail Baryshnikov among its 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." What it was, he was not sure - but something inside him kept pushing. "I am a Jew," he says, "and I wanted to leave Russia so that I could live as one." In 1979, Mirochnik put in an official request with the Soviet government to emigrate to Israel. It was denied. "Not only could I not leave," he says, "my desire to do so caught the KGB's attention." Because his father had worked for the Red Army and he himself had served his mandatory stint in the military, Mirochnik was suspected of being a spy. Anyone who attempted to leave under Soviet rule was viewed with contempt by the Kremlin, and Mirochnik was forced to flee Zhytomyr. He resettled in Donetsk, in eastern Ukraine, and tried to lay low. He took a job and worked hard, trying not to draw attention to himself, stayed there for five years and met his wife. "I was married in Donetsk," he says. "That's where my first daughter was born." Yet Mirochnik still yearned to go to Israel. The KGB found him again in Donetsk, and he was forced to flee with his wife and small 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 to Mirochnik; it was history. In 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev came to power and instituted Perestroika, or "restructuring." Under these reforms thousands of Jews were permitted to leave, and Mirochnik and his family were among them. In 1990, they left Ukraine for Israel. It was November when the Mirochnik family arrived, and due to the mass influx of Soviet immigrants, they were put on a two-month waiting list for ulpan. In the meantime, none of them spoke Hebrew. Just as dramatic changes were taking place in the Soviet Union, so it was in the Middle East. Weeks before Mirochnik and his family were to start ulpan, the Gulf War began and scud missiles started landing in Tel Aviv. Due to the fear of a chemical weapons attack, everyone in Israel was issued a gas mask to be worn any time a siren went off. "We knew when to put the masks on," he recalls, "because we'd hear the siren outside." Their upstairs neighbor, a Romanian woman who spoke a little Russian, would bang on her floor with a broom to let the Mirochniks know when it was safe to remove their masks. As the war continued, Mirochnik and his wife attended ulpan with their gas masks slung over their shoulders. They settled into an apartment, and after a brief stint at a shwarma restaurant, he found work with the dance troupe of Rishon Lezion. It was around this time that Mirochnik began to feel a nagging pain in his back, and unbeknownst to him or his family, his life was about to take another dramatic turn. He kept working for the dance troupe, but 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. After a few months, they went to see a doctor, and Mirochnik was diagnosed with cancer. He began chemotherapy soon after, but his health deteriorated greatly. "We didn't know what would be," he says of that time. He was bedridden and out of work. No one seemed to know what to do. One day, his wife Ella received a phone call. The man on the other end, an acquaintance, had been out of touch with the family for nearly a year. When he called, she assumed that he had heard about her husband's illness, yet the man insisted that he had dialed their number by mistake. He asked if he could take Mirochnik to a rabbi, someone who healed people. Mirochnik's wife was completely against it. "We didn't believe in rabbis," she says. "Yuri was sick, and I didn't want him to get out of bed at all." But the man was insistent, and she finally allowed him to take a photograph of Mirochnik to the rabbi. When the rabbi saw the picture, he said he could see that he was ailing, but couldn't help him until he was circumcised. When Mirochnik heard this, it moved him. Surely the rabbi could have guessed about his condition, but even then Mirochnik wanted to have a brit mila. His doctors were against the idea. "They said I couldn't even cut my finger, much less have an operation," says Mirochnik, "but I told them that if I was going to die, I wanted to die as a Jew." He received permission from the rabbinate for the procedure, but there was a weeks-long waiting list at the hospital. "I couldn't wait," says Mirochnik. "I did not have a lot of time." The hospital told him to contact a surgeon, who 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 turned out to also be a mohel (ritual circumciser) who performed the brit with all the necessary blessings. "I felt healthy right away," Mirochnik says, and within a year he had mostly recovered. His 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 fine and already beginning to teach for the Rishon Lezion dance troupe. After a few years, 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 he accepted immediately. "Folk dancing is not done very much in Israel," he says, "and I hope to make it more popular." He already has. "Yurinka," a Russian dance number and another hassidic-dance-themed number, have been extremely successful in St. Petersburg, Moscow and New York. His classes, attended by serious students of dance, enjoy a full crowd in the evenings at Beit Rina Nikova. But how does Mirochnik correlate his love of dance and his awe of God? "It's not so complicated," he replies. "God gave me a second chance to do something I love, and I want to give that to Israel." He 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."