Feeling the beat

Dancer-choreographer, Jewish convert and new oleh Marvin Casey has big plans for himself in Israel.

Marvin Casey 88 248 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Marvin Casey 88 248
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Marvin Casey - of African-American, Irish, Scottish, and Native American descent - is an oleh hadash with a twist. Not only does the 27-year-old Casey, a convert to Judaism, have an intriguing background, he is becoming increasingly known as a talented hip-hop dancer and teacher. Marvin Louis Casey II walks into the café and sits down, smiling enthusiastically, admitting later how excited he is for his moment in the spotlight. Jerusalem's German Colony, where Casey now lives, is worlds apart from his hometown of St. Louis, Missouri. He had a strict upbringing, which he attributes to his mother being raised on a farm in the South. Casey's parents labored long hours, his father working nights for the US Postal Service and his mother working days as an independent claims agent. He went to a local county school, and was not always a cool, hip dancer. "I was a bit of a wallflower. I was a little overweight. I didn't really come out of my shell until I left high school," he admits. Casey became more confident and self-assured once he completed high school and attended a local community college. It was around this time that he discovered a love for dancing. He would go to local clubs, and was amazed at his confidence on the dance floor. Casey knew that dancing was something he wanted to pursue seriously, but it took some time until his parents approved. "My parents thought until last year that it was a phase, and that I was growing up and it was part of a party lifestyle." But he insists that this was not the case. "It was the antithesis of a party lifestyle. I've never taken drugs. I have never even had a cigarette to my lips. I had a love for music and going out to feel the beat." CASEY BEGAN to work for an entertainment company, which he saw as an opportunity to make connections and get a feel for the business. A career highlight was when Touchstone Pictures approached him and a friend to choreograph pre-screening entertainment for a film premiere in St. Louis. "It was an awesome feeling, a high that I'll never forget. From there, things took off on their own." In addition to the changes taking place in his social and professional life, Casey discovered at age 21 that he was interested in religion. "I wanted to be a nice guy. After a while I started looking for something else. I tried to find something that spoke to me. I would go to a bookstore and get a book on religion and I would read and read and read." Judaism interested him the most. "I'm naturally curious. The thing that attracted me to Judaism was that you are supposed to ask questions." He started going to Shabbat services. He recalls how amused he was initially by the "bim-bim Shabbat Shalom" song. Casey describes the moment during a Yom Kippur service when he knew that he wanted to convert. "I had just broken my leg. I had a thigh-high cast and was hunkering up the steps on my crutches to the Aron Hakodesh. It felt right. It felt good." By September 2003, he had completed his 18-month conversion process with a Conservative rabbi. ABOUT A year and a half ago, Yisrael Moshe Chayim - as he is known in Hebrew - moved to Israel, after visiting the country only once, in spring 2004, with Birthright. He views the move as successful, but not without difficulty. "It's very rare for me to walk into a synagogue, or walk into a Shabbat dinner and just be accepted as Jewish," he says. "I constantly get questioned about how I am Jewish or which side of my family is Jewish or which one of my parents is Jewish or if I have ever met my birth parents because it is assumed that I am adopted. It gets very frustrating. It makes me feel like I'm like a circus freak sometimes," he continues. Casey explains that this line of questioning is more prevalent in the Anglo immigrant community than among the Israelis he meets. "The Israelis ask the questions less. For the most part, they take me as I am. Unfortunately, a lot of olim question me because of their background and the Judaism they are familiar with and the fact that they come from societies where the majority of Jews they know are white. I know that there's no intention of malice, but at the end of the day I feel like an oddity." Perhaps the most challenging aspect of aliya for Casey has been dealing with the questions and obstacles stemming from his Conservative conversion. "Some people feel that I'm not Jewish because my conversion - according to them - wasn't kosher enough. That's a very hard thing when you're trying to start over your life in another country. That is almost my day-to-day existence," he explains. Casey shares his frustration over the rabbinate's monopoly on Jewish ritual. "I can't get married and I can't get buried in this country unless it's done in a round-about way," he says. He is outraged by the message conveyed: "You're Jewish enough to live here, you're Jewish enough to serve in the army, but you're not Jewish enough to get married here. I'm trying to build a life here, but you're telling me that I can't have part of my life here." "This makes me question the leaders of Judaism right now and the direction that they're taking us," he says. "There is a split happening. They talk about bringing Jews together, but they are dividing people." Casey would like to see a dramatic change in the way conversion is dealt with in Israel: "I would like to see unity. I would like the rabbinate, together with the leaders of the Conservative movement and the Reform movement, to set a basis for conversion that everyone can agree on. I think there need to be massive reforms as far as the issue of conversion goes in this country because the rabbinate has a stranglehold." FORTUNATELY, CASEY has managed to overcome most challenges and has become an active member of both the oleh community and wider Israeli society. Over the past year and a half he has kept a demanding schedule. He choreographed Before Rent, an original community production and prequel to Rent, and is currently choreographing and preparing for his role in a June production of Rent and assisting in a local production of High School Musical. He also has big plans for the next few years. He would like to audition for Nolad Lirkod, the Israeli version of the TV series So You Think You Can Dance. He also sees himself choreographing dance videos and stage theater. He would also like to open his own dance studio. "I would like to do it differently. I think dance is a great medium for reaching out to different people, to different cultures. It is a very easy medium to connect [people]." But first, Casey would like to build on his experience by teaching. He currently teaches at a number of dance studios, including Studio 106, Mehola and the Israel Hip Hop Academy. Casey may be famous one day, but in the meantime we will have to be satisfied with seeing his choreography in community productions, attending his classes and hoping that he's accepted to next season's Nolad Lirkod, so all of Israel can see this rising talent.