Ze’eva Cohen, Dancer/Choreographer/Educator

Resident at Westbeth since 1970

I am in Amsterdam, and it is fall 1996. The venue for my evening performance there is the second International Yiddish Festival taking place at the Bellevue Theater, where my dance Mother’s Tongue/I Love You, which I choreographed to traditional Yiddish songs and klezmer music is to be premiered. As an Israeli/American dance artist coming from a Jewish Yemenite heritage, I hardly fit in, and I feel somewhat estranged.

It was my Dutch friend, Mira Rafalowicz, artistic director of the festival, who challenged me to create a dance employing Yiddish. Regardless of Mira’s assurance that it would be fine for the program to include my contemporary Middle Eastern inspired work, I was worried. What an uplift it was to have in the audience, third row center, my neighbors and close friends from Westbeth, Nancy Gabor, Paul Binnerts, and Laura Klein, cheering us along. It felt like my family was there.

Mira often came to New York to work as a dramaturg with Joe Chaikin, founder and artistic director of the Open Theater. Joe and his sister Shami Chaikin, a strong and important performer of that group, lived at Westbeth for a long time. One day, Mira, Shami, and I got together with the purpose of reenacting the Jewish Passover ritual of the seder, which we were no longer celebrating and missed. We met at my kitchen table and proceeded over a few days to rewrite and rearrange the traditional text called the Haggadah. We aimed to make it more inclusive to women and more relevant to social issues of our time.

For several years we got together with friends, family, and members of the Open Theater to celebrate this holiday of freedom. It took place at the SoHo loft of Paul Zimet and Ellen Maddow and included people of all ages taking turns in reading our Haggadah as well as singing, dancing, and sharing food. In our Haggadah, God was genderless, and children included “daughters.”

Photo credit: Jack Mitchell

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