Arts & Minds: Jews in motion and a president’s momentous decision

A book on Jewish influence in modern and postmodern dance, an Israeli dance company and a play about President Truman's speedy recognition of Israel.

odeon dance image
Ephrat Asherie’s dance company will make its Chicago debut with 'Odeon' (pictured here) at the Dance Center of Columbia College in October. Photo credit: Matthew Murphy.

The Many Manifestations of Dancing Jewish 

In her fascinating, multi-faceted book, Dancing Jewish: Jewish Identity in American Modern and Postmodern Dance , (Oxford University Press, 2014), Rebecca Rossen, a Chicago-bred dance historian and choreographer, explores the work of 20th century Jewish-American choreographers in all its complexity.

And along the way, she explains the many and varied ways in which these choreographers "consistently turned to dance as a means to articulate personal and collective identities, tangle with stereotypes, advance social and political agendas, and imagine new possibilities for themselves as individuals, artists, and Jews."

Rossen -- who earned her Ph.D. at Northwestern University, and is now an assistant professor in the Department of Theater and Dance at the University of Texas in Austin -- did not discuss the work of Jerome Robbins, perhaps the most famous of all Jewish-American choreographers, because she considered ballet and the world of Broadway musical theater to be in categories all their own. 

Nor did Rossen mention Ephrat "Bounce" Asherie, simply because the Israeli-born, New York-based, award-winning dancer and choreographer -- whose company will make its Chicago debut at the Dance Center of Columbia College this month -- was still a rising star in the contemporary dance firmament. But there is reason enough to take a closer look at both these artists now.

First, Jerome Robbins, who happened to be born just a couple of months after Leonard Bernstein, with whom he so brilliantly collaborated on the creation of West Side Story . Bernstein has received the lion's share of the attention in this, the 100th anniversary of both men's birth.

Although earlier this year the Joffrey Ballet performed Robbins' grand-scale "Glass Pieces" (set to the music of Philip Glass) both in Chicago and Paris, a national tour of Fiddler on the Roof will play Dec. 18, 2018 - Jan. 6, 2019 at the Cadillac Palace Theatre, and Lyric Opera of Chicago will present West Side Story (with choreography by Julio Monge that largely replicates Robbins' original), May 3-June 2, 2019.

Meanwhile, there is the ideally timed arrival of Wendy Lesser's Jerome Robbins: A Life in Dance . It is the latest volume in Yale University Press' remarkable Jewish Lives series, which to date has released 38 titles in its series of "interpretative biographies" -- concise but engaging portraits of major figures from antiquity (Moses, David, Rabbi Akiva), to luminaries in politics and the law (Leon Trotsky, Disraeli, Jabotinsky, Ben-Gurion, Louis D. Brandeis ), science (Einstein and Freud), the arts and literature (Leonard Bernstein, Sarah Bernhardt, Groucho Marx, Mark Rothko, Hayim Nahman Bialik, Franz Kafka, Primo Levi, Lillian Hellman), and more.

Lesser looks at Robbins' visionary Broadway triumphs as choreographer and/or director of the original Broadway productions of The King and I , West Side Story , Gypsy , Fiddler on the Roof , and many others. She also homes in on a handful of his more than 50 often groundbreaking ballets, most created for the New York City Ballet where, in 1948, George Balanchine invited the then 30-year-old Robbins to become Associate Artistic Director. During his 40 years with the company, Robbins choreographed such works as The Age of Anxiety , The Cage , Afternoon of a Faun , Dances at a Gathering , and The Goldberg Variations .

As Lesser points out, it was The Age of Anxiety , which premiered in 1950, that perhaps best captured the inner torments that plagued Robbins throughout his life -- his conflicted existence as a Jewish, gay, former Communist Party member who lived in fear of and eventually "named names" during the McCarthy era's HUAC hearings. And he spent the rest of his life (he died in 1990), unable to forgive himself for doing so. Of course, out of that conflict, or in spite of it, came his genius.

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And now, on to Ephrat Asherie, whose Ephrat Asherie Dance company -- which devises works that are a hybrid of street dance, social dance, and other influences -- will be making its Chicago debut at the Dance Center of Columbia College, Oct. 11-13. On the bill will be Odeon , a work she debuted this past summer at Jacob's Pillow, the historic dance center in the Berkshires.

Odeon , featuring seven dancers (including Asherie) and four musicians, is set to the music of Brazilian composer Ernesto Nazareth (1863-1934), known for mixing early 20th century romantic music with the samba and other popular Afro-Brazilian rhythms. The work's music direction is by pianist Ehud Asherie, Ephrat's older brother. ("He will not be on this trip, because he just became a dad," explained Asherie, via a recent email chat, "but filling in for him will be Vitor Goncalves, the brilliant Brazilian pianist.")

Asherie, who earned a BA in Italian from Barnard College, and an MA from the University of Wisconsin - Milwaukee (where she researched "the vernacular jazz dance roots of contemporary street and club dances"), was born in Netanya, Israel. One of five siblings, with a mother who worked in law and is an avid dance lover, she moved with her parents to Italy at the age of 10 months, spent six years in Genoa and Milan (for her father's business), and then moved to New York City.

"New York is where I spent my formative years," said Asherie, who also is a frequent guest artist with Michelle Dorrance, the tap dance artist and MacArthur Fellow. "And that is where, in the 1990s, I became immersed in the breakdancing and house community. The underground dance scene in New York absolutely shaped, influenced, and inspired me. And I'm so excited to be performing with my company in Chicago -- the place where house was born."

And there is this intriguing footnote from Asherie: "In August, I started work on a new solo that's actually the first time I've begun investigating ideas surrounding my connection to Judaism."

Ephrat Asherie Dance will perform Odeon (Oct. 11-13) at the Dance Center of Columbia College, 1306 S. Michigan. For tickets, call (312) 369-8330 or visit

A new play considers Truman's role in the establishment of Israel

Truman Israel

On May 14, 1948, just 11 minutes after Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion declared Israel's statehood, Harry Truman, the Missouri-bred 33rd President of the United States announced that this country was formally recognizing the new state. It was a momentous move, and one Truman reached only after considerable ambivalence, including concern that in those early Cold War days such a move might put this country's Middle East relationships (in other words, oil) in jeopardy.

How the decision was finally reached is the subject of Truman and the Birth of Israel , a play written by Robert Cohen (the pseudonym used by William Spatz, executive director of the Greenhouse Theater Center), that will perform its Oct. 15 world premiere under the direction of Randy White.

In addition to Truman (to be played by Tim Kough), the play will feature actors portraying such colorful characters as Bella Abzug, lawyers Melvyn Belli, Clark Clifford, and Al Schwimmer, and most importantly, Eddie Jacobson, the president's longtime Jewish friend and early business partner in Missouri who was vital to convincing Truman to do the right thing.

Truman and the Birth of Israel runs Oct. 11-Nov. 18 at the Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln. For tickets, call (773) 404-7336 or visit

Hedy Weiss, a longtime Chicago arts critic, was the Theater and Dance Critic for the Chicago Sun-Times from 1984 to 2018, and currently writes for WTTW-TV's website and contributes to the Chicago Tonight program.


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