Haim Milshtein stepped around the table hosting his laptop, side-stepping the wires running to two amplifiers booming an Israeli song. Clad in black T-shirt and black jeans, Milshtein addressed the crowd on the dance floor below: "Two steps, cha-cha-cha. Turn and seesaw: forward, back. Turn and … hands up!"
The 200 or so people followed his instructions to a T, nearly all veterans of the folk-dancing sessions Milshtein runs on summer Saturday nights upon a checkered-floor plaza 10 yards from the Mediterranean Sea's edge.
The program is a social highlight of Nahariya, a 65,000-resident town near the Lebanon border that Milshtein, 65, has called home since his Holocaust-survivor parents brought him at age 3 from Poland to Israel.
"Haim is a symbol of Nahariya," said Mayor Ronen Mareli, stopping by in late September. "He brings people and families together."
On stage, Milshtein's gregarious presence emanates. He sings along for a word or two, mutes the volume to elicit participants' completion of verses, introduces songs, instructs on less-common dances, welcomes visitors, and cautions children against rollerblading amidst the dancers lest injuries result.
The work continues to soothe Milshtein in grappling with the death in 2003 of his wife, Regina, after a five-year battle with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig's disease). The two met in high school and produced three children and, now, three grandchildren.
Every day since, Milshtein thinks of Regina. About once a week, he conveys his pain to his girlfriend, Janet. She's "an angel" for understanding, he said.
"People see Haim as the clowning, cheerful guy. They don't know. Why would they? I'm happy. I lack for nothing in life. But this blow has not been easy," Milshtein said over coffee at Penguin Restaurant, a Nahariya landmark.
"If I didn't have folk dancing, I don't know if I could've gotten though it. Folk dancing is happiness. It's only good. People come to have fun. It's music that penetrates the soul. It helps you go from mourning to happiness."
Nahariya's assemblage is joyful and it's eclectic, from toddlers shimmying with their parents during the family hour that opens each program to the 20- through 80-something and pairs dancing later in the evening. Scores of non-dancers observe from the floor's sidelines, sitting on concrete bleachers or while eating dinner on an adjacent restaurant's patio.
Milshtein, a part-time Nahariya employee, leads other groups across the country-100,000 Israelis folk dance, he estimated-and internationally.
He earned a degree in electronics at the Technion - Israel Institute of Technology, taught math, then worked for the Ministry of Transportation. But he found his calling at a folk-dancing social as a Technion student.
"It was love at first sight," Milshtein said. "I was welcomed so nicely. The love in the room changed my life."
He mastered the dances and the disc jockey's role, and embraced the work. He even volunteered for two decades teaching folk dancing to children with autism in nearby Akko.
To some participants, the whole package draws. Nahariya resident Gili Chen first participated with friends 20-plus years ago. Now, she brings her husband and their daughters, 4 and 6.
"It's the dancing, the music, the sea, the atmosphere," she said. "Haim plays many of the same songs from when I came as a kid."
Tiki Paz now joins friends weekly after a decade-long break.
"You think you forget, but you don't," she explained while catching a breather. "People helped by reminding me of the steps."
"Excuse me," Paz said, rejoining the dance circle for "El Admati" (To My Land), about Yemenite Jews' immigration to Israel.
The playlist remains consistent, mixing upbeat songs with ballads, Ashkenazi-flavored and Mizrachi, Zionist-centric and spiritual.
"If I don't click with the song, I don't pick it," Milshtein said in the interview.
Folk dancing-rikudei am in Hebrew-has been central to Israel's cultural fabric since pre-state German Jewish immigrants introduced it as an around-the-campfire activity. Old news clips showing teenaged kibbutz pioneers unwinding from fieldwork, and Tel Avivians celebrating Israel's independence in 1948-they were doing the hora, perhaps the country's earliest folk dance.
Folk dances spread across the Diaspora through Israelis who emigrated or worked as educational emissaries. In the United States today, rare is the Jewish Community Center not offering Israeli folk dancing on its activities calendar.
"Folk dancing is a very Israeli activity, a part of Israeli culture, that we want to preserve," said Moshe Shitrit, who runs Nahariya's municipal sports department, which sponsors Milshtein's program year-round.
"Haim is always refreshing his music, his dances. He teaches new dances to keep challenging people. He's very connected to the music. He's very emotional in his work."
Hillel Kuttler's feature articles have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal. He can be reached at hk@HillelTheScribeCommunications.com.