Deep thoughts, random insights, and musings by Susan Jacobs

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

And now for an encore

Here's my June column:

A dancer’s leap of faith

Nearly every little girl gets a taste of ballet class at some point in her life. Even with a dizzying array of other extra curricular activities from which to choose, most girls, at one time or another, still go through the paces of learning the five positions of the feet and arms and how to do a grande plie.

After that, a small minority stick with ballet’s strict regimen and go on to learn the intricacies of entrechat quatre and pas de chat, among other graceful and complex steps. Others go on to modern dance or hip-hop, or abandon dance entirely for sports or music and other pursuits. A demanding art form, ballet is certainly not suited for everyone.

Friends of mine are sometimes surprised that I still go to regular ballet classes, twice a week. Officially, my explanation is that I am terribly undisciplined about putting myself on an exercise schedule. Ballet class begins and ends at prescribed times, which makes it easier for me to find the time to be there, and the classes themselves build strength, flexibility and endurance, offering a well-rounded workout. (Anyone who thinks ballet is for sissies has obviously not met my teacher, Maria, who compares herself to a drill sergeant.)

But really, the other reason I take ballet is that a big part of me still aspires to perform the graceful leaps and turns that I have loved since I first saw a televised ballet as a child. I may be naturally clumsy, but deep inside, I was born to dance.

My physical limitations and religious priorities kept me from ever considering life as a dancer. With rules of modesty and restrictions that make Shabbat performances verboten, Orthodox Judaism and ballet are an uneasy mix.

However, some time ago it occurred to me that the two disciplines really have quite a bit in common.

Both demand dedication, sacrifice and passion. Both have their own vocabularies, both literal and symbolic. Both are best appreciated by devoted followers, and are easily misunderstood by outsiders. Both are learned best from teachers who mix firmness with compassion, and who understand how to transmit love for their field of study.

On a sadder note, ballet and Orthodox Judaism both have legions of disillusioned former students, sometimes because of the influence of shortsighted or overly strict teachers or a general aversion to the demands of regimen.

Another challenge of both disciplines is that many people see the rules and restrictions and never see the beauty that such guidelines can produce.

For example, a newcomer to ballet class may find it frustrating that three quarters of class may be spent at the barre, instead of leaping across the room. Similarly, one who drops into an Orthodox service may hear lots of Hebrew recitations without ever feeling a connection to God.

However, a veteran of either discipline will tell you that without a solid plie, a dancer will never soar, and that by delving into centuries-old prayers and texts, one will eventually learn how to connect to the Almighty.

There are certainly other paths to artistic beauty and other ways of finding God, but I have found that these time-tested and intricate methods work best for me.

Take me home, Country Roads

It's several weeks overdue, but below is my May column from The Jewish Chronicle.

‘Mountain Mama’ nurtures Jewish souls

Recently, I was home in Charleston, W.Va., to see my family. While there, I had time to attend to some important tasks, not the least of which was paying a visit to Hubcap Heaven, a side-of-the-road operation outside of Charleston where one can find replacements for long-lost wheel covers.

A hand-written sign identifies the white trailer that is Hubcap Heaven, which is decorated with hubcaps of various origin. Hubcap Heaven has no phone book listing, so there’s no calling ahead to make sure they carry the specific hubcap you seek, but chances are good that they will have it. And shopping there is truly a West Virginia experience.

Less typical of the state, but more emblematic of my family’s Jewish experience there, is the old B’nai Jacob Cemetery, which I also visited while I was home.
Three generations of my family are buried there, beginning with my great-great-grandmother, who died in 1912, and ending with my grandfather, who died in 2004.
I find it remarkable that I had great-great-grandparents who lived and died in the same city in which I grew up. And they were Jewish. In West Virginia.

Five generations of my family have lived at least part of their lives in West Virginia, which means that our stay in the "new country" has been more extensive than that of Jews in many places that one might call the "old country."

My great-great-grandfather, Isaac Padlibsky, is rumored to have been a firebrand who reprimanded his offspring for acting like goyim. It is worth noting that his daughter, my great-grandmother, kept a kosher home and was very active, along with her husband, in the local chevra kadisha. They made their own kosher wine and married off their daughter, my grandmother, to the son of a chazzan. Goyim indeed.

Still, Isaac's fervor may have amounted to something. While some immigrants of his generation, and many of their descendents, were all too eager to cast aside the burdens of Jewish observance and identity, Isaac's staunch devotion to tradition likely played a role in his descendents' continued observance of Jewish rituals.

Some of us have even chosen to be more traditionally observant than our parents and grandparents – proof that what was lost can be found again.

Which brings me back to Hubcap Heaven.

Since some of the lost hubcaps on my Ford Taurus disappeared while traversing West Virginia's highways and byways, the spiritual side of me wondered if perhaps in purchasing my "new" hubcaps I was somehow reuniting my car with its original wheel covers.

And that leads me to reflect on deeper matters. That, as much as we each become our own persons, we are inextricably linked to those who came before us.

My grandmother sometimes recounted her memories of Isaac Padlibsky, who lived into her teen years, but she had no memory of his wife, who had died years earlier. Not that long ago, I realized that this great-great-grandmother of mine and I share the Hebrew name Chaya. For some reason, I believed that she had died in Europe, but on this latest cemetery visit I finally noticed her grave stone, right next to Isaac’s. She had been there all along, buried in the hills of West Virginia.