Cityfront: Dancing to a different tune

Hip-hop dancer Marvin Casey's spiritual path has taken him to Judaism and Israel.

marvin casey dancing 248.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
marvin casey dancing 248.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
'I walked into their bedroom and said, "Mom and Dad, I am no longer Baptist. I don't believe in Jesus. I am becoming Jewish," and then I walked out. All Jewish people were banned from the house for two weeks." Marvin Casey is an oleh hadash with a twist. He is African-American, Irish, Scottish, three tribes Native-American, and a convert. Not only does 27-year-old Casey have an intriguing background, but he is also becoming increasingly known within the oleh community as a talented hip-hop dancer and teacher. Marvin Louis Casey II - his full name - walks into the Emek Refaim café where I meet him for the interview. He is tall, well built - unmistakably a dancer. The German Colony, where he now lives, is worlds apart from his hometown of St. Louis, Missouri, where Casey was born and raised. He had a strict upbringing, which he attributes to his mother's being raised on a farm in the South. He does not have a complete picture of his genealogy, but he does know that his maternal great-great-great grandparents were slaves and that all his mother's ancestors were sharecroppers. When Casey was a child, his 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 the cool, hip dancer he is now. "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 entered a local community college. It was around this time that Casey discovered his love for dancing. He would go to local clubs and was amazed at how confident he felt while he was on the dance floor. Casey, who can now be seen strutting his stuff at Jerusalem hot spots Layla Bar and Tza'atzua, knew that dancing was something he wanted to pursue seriously. It took some time until his parents approved. "My parents thought until last year that it was a time, and that I was growing up and it was part of a party lifestyle." But Casey 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 viewed as an opportunity to make connections and get a feel for the entertainment business. A career highlight of his was when Touchstone Pictures approached him and his friend to choreograph pre-screening entertainment for the premiere of a film in in St. Louis. "It was an awesome feeling, a high that I will never forget. From there, things took off on their own." Not only were changes taking place in his social and professional life, but Casey discovered at the age of 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." Eventually Casey discovered that it was Judaism that interested him the most. "I'm naturally curious by nature. 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 hobbling up the steps on my crutches to the Aron Hakodesh. It felt right. It felt good." By September 2003, Casey had completed his conversion with a Conservative rabbi, 18 months after he had begun the conversion process. About a year and a half ago Yisrael Moshe Chayim - as Casey is known in Hebrew - moved to Israel, after visiting the country only one other time as a birthright participant in the spring of 2004. He views the move as successful but not without difficulty. "It is 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 asked 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 says. Casey explains that this form of questioning is more prevalent in the Anglo oleh community than among the Israelis he meets. "The Israelis ask the questions less. For the most part, they take me as I am. They do ask the questions, but it is much further down the line after they have gotten to know me. Unfortunately, a lot of olim question me because of their background and the Judaism they are familiar with and the fact they come from societies where the majority of Jews they know are white. I know that there is 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 am not Jewish because my conversion according to them was not kosher enough. That's a very hard thing when you are 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 of Jewish ritual. "I can't get married and I can't get buried in this country unless it is done in a round-about way," he says. He is outraged by the message being conveyed: "You are Jewish enough to live here, you are Jewish enough to serve in the army, but you are not Jewish enough to get married here." "I am trying to build a life here," he says, "but you are telling me that I can't have part of my life here." He adds, "This makes me question the leaders of Judaism right now and the direction that they are taking us. There is a split happening. They talk about bringing Jews together, but they are dividing people." Casey recalls the first Hanukka he spent in Israel, where he went to the Kotel and saw a rabbi addressing the issue of Jewish unity. He thought to himself, "You want to bring people together and at the same time you are causing that rift because of your non-acceptance." Casey would like to see a dramatic change in the way the issue of 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." Casey has managed to overcome most challenges and become an active member of 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 for Mercaz Hamagshimim's Center Stage Theater. Currently, he is choreographing and preparing for his role in Center Stage's June production of Rent and assisting in a local production of High School Musical. In addition, Casey has big plans for the coming years. He would like to audition for Nolad Lirkod, the Israeli version of the American TV reality show 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]," he says. 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. He may be famous one day, but in the meantime he will have to be satisfied with seeing his choreography in community productions, attending his classes and hoping that he will be accepted to next season's Nolad Lirkod, so that all of Israel can see this rising talent.