A Modern-Day Miriam

Dancer and Choreographer Yehudit Arnon Basks in Long Overdue Recognition

By Judith Brin Ingber

Published October 17, 2003, issue of October 17, 2003.
  • Print
  • Share Share

The People of Israel’s first choreographer was Miriam who, according to the Torah, was acclaimed for her breathtaking victory dance over the Egyptian warriors. I, for one, cannot shake the image of Miriam leading the Israelite women, timbrel in hand, through the magical crossing of parted waves.

Our modern day Miriam is an unusual dancer in Israel named Yehudit Arnon. Arnon’s story of triumph and leadership through dance in Israel are the subject of an overdue biography, “Overseer of the Dance Estate, In a State of Rapture Over Dance: Details of the Life of Yehudit Arnon and the Kibbutz Dance Company,” by Avshalom Kave. Unfortunately, the book has only been released in Hebrew, so I’ve taken the opportunity of this column to highlight her story for our American readers.

Arnon was born 77 years ago in Komarno, Czechoslovakia, to a religious family that forbade her to dance. However, because Arnon suffered from scoliosis, she was sent to a physical therapist who taught her various kinds of exercises and encouraged her talents. Caught in the Nazi web, she and her family were pushed into a Czech ghetto and then deported to Auschwitz on June 11, 1944.

“I was sent to Birkenau,” she recounted in a recent interview with me. “With my shaved head and my tattooed number, I was one of 1,000 women in one barrack. We slept 10 to a slab, and if we wanted to turn over, all 10 of us had to move. Somehow we managed to live and even entertain each other. I was asked to show movement.” Before dark, she danced for this unlikely audience of women. By taking the very body the Nazis sought to exterminate as subhuman and dancing with it, Arnon transformed her encounter with hell.

In December 1944, the Nazis ordered Arnon to entertain them at a Christmas party. “I decided to say no to dancing for them,” remembered Arnon. “By then, we all wanted to die quickly, and I thought that I would be shot, which meant a swift death. Instead, for punishment I had to stand outside in the snow, barefoot. I could feel myself freezing. I decided that if I would survive, I would dedicate myself to dance.”

Arnon suffered through the freezing labor camps, a death march and another death-defying experience in front of a firing squad in May of 1945. She escaped and eventually reached a deportation camp in Avigliana, Italy, where she met her husband, Yedida. At the camp, she taught dance and he taught mathematics to 100 orphans detained there. Eventually, with the help of the Israeli underground, the Arnons smuggled all their students — who ranged in age from 6 to 16 — over borders and through forests, to Haifa’s safe harbors in 1948.

There, the couple became founding members of Kibbutz Ga’aton in the Galilee. Though she worked regularly in the kibbutz laundry, Arnon managed to travel to Haifa to study with influential Israeli dancers, including Gertrud Kraus and Yardena Cohen. She soon set out to convince her kibbutz of the importance of modern dance, at a time when most favored folk dance and egalitarian participation.

Her determination became legendary, and she argued that all the kibbutzim of the north should send her their talented dancers. In 1965, the kibbutz built her a proper dance studio, and she opened a dance center at Kibbutz Ga’aton for youngsters across the region. Her persistence and artistic vision extended to the international dance world when she convinced European and American choreographers and teachers to join with Israeli artists in her studio in the far north. In 1970 she founded the Kibbutz Dance Company (later known as the Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company), which she directed for 25 years. Israel awarded her its highest acknowledgement in 1997, when she received the prestigious Israel Prize for her accomplishments.

Israel recognized Arnon this summer, too, with a book signing and a featured evening of dance at the Karmiel Dance Festival. This remarkable festival, in its 15th year, turns the entire Galilee town of Karmiel into a stage for dance — the tennis courts (minus their nets) were filled with Israeli folk dancers 24 hours a day; the town stadium featured folk dance troupes from all over Israel performing almost until dawn; an amphitheater, built down a mountainside, seated 50,000 for nightly extravaganzas of hundreds of dancers, and other major Israeli professional companies performed as members of lesser known ones mingled in the city squares, parks and gymnasiums throughout the four days and nights, bursting with energy and performances.

Thus it was that on the evening of July 9, seemingly the entire dance world of Israel was present at the Karmiel Cultural Arts Center Theater to honor Arnon. After signing copies of her biography for a long line of fans, Arnon took her place among the other audience members, who had come to watch some of Israel’s finest companies — including star performers from her own Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company — celebrate the diminutive Arnon, small in stature but giant in spirit.

Jiri Kylian, the important Dutch choreographer, sent a videotaped message that almost perfectly summed up Arnon’s life and career: “We met many years ago in my office in the old studios of the Nederlands Dans Theater. I will always remember your slight figure and unassuming strength of conviction — to make a statement as a survivor who does not only want to live on, but wishes to hand something of great moment to the present generation, a message of dance, which represents freedom.”






Find us on Facebook!
  • Are Michelangelo's paintings anti-Semitic? Meet the Jews of the Sistine Chapel: http://jd.fo/i4UDl
  • What does the Israel-Hamas war look like through Haredi eyes?
  • Was Israel really shocked to find there are networks of tunnels under Gaza?
  • “Going to Berlin, I had a sense of something waiting there for me. I was searching for something and felt I could unlock it by walking the streets where my grandfather walked and where my father grew up.”
  • How can 3 contradictory theories of Yiddish co-exist? Share this with Yiddish lovers!
  • "We must answer truthfully: Has a drop of all this bloodshed really helped bring us to a better place?”
  • "There are two roads. We have repeatedly taken the one more traveled, and that has made all the difference." Dahlia Scheindlin looks at the roots of Israel's conflict with Gaza.
  • Shalom, Cooperstown! Cooperstown Jewish mayor Jeff Katz and Jeff Idelson, director of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, work together to oversee induction weekend.
  • A boost for morale, if not morals.
  • Mixed marriages in Israel are tough in times of peace. So, how do you maintain a family bubble in the midst of war? http://jd.fo/f4VeG
  • Despite the escalating violence in Israel, more and more Jews are leaving their homes in Alaska to make aliyah: http://jd.fo/g4SIa
  • The Workmen's Circle is hosting New York’s first Jewish street fair on Sunday. Bring on the nouveau deli!
  • Novelist Sayed Kashua finds it hard to write about the heartbreak of Gaza from the plush confines of Debra Winger's Manhattan pad. Tough to argue with that, whichever side of the conflict you are on.
  • "I’ve never bought illegal drugs, but I imagine a small-time drug deal to feel a bit like buying hummus underground in Brooklyn."
  • We try to show things that get less exposed to the public here. We don’t look to document things that are nice or that people would like. We don’t try to show this place as a beautiful place.”
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.