Change in location but no change in passion

Working through the ups and downs of aliya, this South African immigrant managed to find success in her first love, dance.

Working through the ups and downs of aliya, this South African immigrant managed to find success in her first love, dance (photo credit: Courtesy)
Working through the ups and downs of aliya, this South African immigrant managed to find success in her first love, dance
(photo credit: Courtesy)
For professional ballet dancer Lisa Ben-Yehuda, making aliya did not seem to be on the cards – despite her growing up in a strongly Zionist home in Cape Town with an Israeli father and a South African mother, and despite her membership in the Zionist Habonim youth group.
“I loved Israel and went there often on holiday, but I was pursuing a career in dance, and the company I wanted to get into was in Cape Town,” she says. To her delight, she did get accepted into what is now the Cape Town City Ballet, and was a soloist for six years.
Even after meeting her Israeli future husband on a vacation, and marrying in 1997, she remained in her hometown because of her career and to be near family. But her feelings began to change when she became a mother. The young couple moved to Israel in 1999, when their daughter was four months old.
“I started to become more religious, so coming to Israel more often was important to me, and my hus - band had better opportunities in Israel. It was hard for him to get citizenship in South Africa. So a whole lot of things pushed us to move,” she says.
Her decision began something of a chain reaction in her family. “It was difficult for my mother when I left, because I’m an only child. So we discussed a future move for them as well.”
In time, her mother and sister arrived, as did a cousin, an uncle and aunt – and even her grandmother, at age 79. Her father still lives in South Africa.
A painful adjustment However, all was not rosy. The transition to her new life in Jerusalem was jarring and difficult at first.
“It was painful to leave my career, my friends and my history behind. We started off living in the Old City, then moved to Ramot and then to Givat Ze’ev, where we are now. The most challenging part of the adjustment was the mentality change, coming from Cape Town, where a lot of things were very easy. All of a sud - den there were people speaking roughly, there were customer-service issues, and everything was a mission – you had to go back to every government office several times to accomplish a task, and I’d never spoken Hebrew. To be honest, I had a very hard aliya, but I survived it, and it made me stronger.”
She began working in a string of jobs unrelated to dance. One of those jobs involved handling English correspondence and proposals for a hi-tech company.
And then, around 2001, she and her husband separated and divorced. She went back to South Africa to visit her remaining relatives, only to discover – to her great surprise – how much she missed Israel.
“In my mind, I was always thinking about leaving Israel, but I saw that I didn’t belong anymore in South Africa. Once you do make a change and it becomes a part of your life, you move on. It seemed life in South Africa was calmer and mundane. Israel in many re - gards brings to light the real essence of who you are, and that made me so different to who I was in South Africa,” she explains.
Today, she has no doubts. “I love Israel and would never leave,” she states.
Award-winning choreographer To provide for her family after the divorce, she went back to what she knew best: dancing. She cold-called community centers and found an opening for a dance instructor in Jerusalem’s Pisgat Ze’ev neighborhood.
“I started teaching there not knowing much Hebrew; I learned it through the children, and I made lots of stupid mistakes with words,” she recalls. “I once told the kids to get into ‘boxes’ rather than into ‘groups.’ But I started learning.”
Over the next 12 years, while teaching classical ballet, jazz and modern dance in Pisgat Ze’ev, she created a junior ballet company for the Jerusalem municipality.
“We traveled to America and London to perform. We did very well, and some of my students have gone on to professional companies. One just came back from a course at the Bolshoi Ballet.”
Three years ago, Lisa switched to the Jerusalem Dance Theater in the Patt neighborhood and still runs the Allegra junior ballet company with director Tzvika Monsenego, though it is no longer connected with the municipality.
“In June, we went to an international competition in Prague in which we won first place, and I won second prize for choreography,” she says.
She recently started teaching classical ballet at the Rubin Academy of Dance at the Hebrew University, from which she earned a bachelor’s degree in dance and a teaching diploma about six years ago.
“I hope to do my MA in dance as well,” she says.
An international family About five years ago, she married Dr. Louis Servin de la Mora, a Mexican immigrant working at Hadassah University Medical Center in Ein Kerem.
“I met him when my grandmother fell and landed in hospital and ended up in his department in brain surgery,” she says.
The couple has a three-and-a-half-year-old daughter and an infant son. Her oldest, Chaya, is now 15 and studying at Jerusalem’s Omanuyot High School for Arts. “She dances with me, but she wanted to go into singing most of all.”
Lisa enjoys Givat Ze’ev for its openness and diversity.
“There are so many communities – secular to religious, Sephardi and Ashkenazi, even haredi and hassidic now.
Living here gives me a sense of being out of the hustle and bustle of Jerusalem, but I’m close enough to the city.” Her mother, Thea Givati, helps with the children.
“We’re a very international family, a beautiful part of the Jewish nation. Chaya speaks English and He - brew with no accent. She’s Israeli, and it’s a wonderful thing to see.”
Lisa’s linguistic challenges are well behind her now.
“I have both Hebrew-speaking and English-speaking friends. I made that adjustment of getting into Israeli society,” she says.
She teaches classes all over the country, even giving courses in Eilat once a year during Hanukka. “I love what I do. It’s amazing to get up in the morning and know you are getting paid for what you love to do.”
She says that over the past decade, Israel has experienced “a total turnaround in dance. The standard has definitely improved. Most dance here was based on folklore, and now one of the top countries in modern dance is Israel.”
With all the challenges and ups and downs she has lived through, she believes her aliya was ultimately a positive move.
“The world today is very scary, and I feel safer here than I would anywhere else,” she says. “I’m also very privileged to have family here.”
She thinks of Israel as a kind of mirror: “It makes you face who you are and what situation you find yourself in, not allowing you the opportunity to hide.”