Viewing an Israeli Vision with Diasporic Eyes: A Look at Renana Raz’s “We Have Been Called to Go”

Dance Histories, Israeli Choreographers, My Reflections, Performances

Renana Raz's "We Have Been Called to Go"

Renana Raz in We Have Been Called to Go.  Photo by Eyal Landesman.

After months of avid concert-going, Renana Raz’s evening of work titled Avodah Ivrit (Hebrew Labor) proved to be more than just another enjoyable evening at the Suzanne Dellal Center.  The experience of viewing this concert was so significant that I immediately poured my musings into an essay.

Avodah Ivrit contained two dances, and it was the second – We Have Been Called to Go – which stirred my excitement and sparked my writing.  Out of the many dances I had viewed up until this point in March 2008, We Have Been Called to Go contained the most overt onstage treatment of Israeli society.  As the work employed and played with cultural symbols, and as the audience reacted audibly, I became aware that I was watching this not as an Israeli but as a transplanted Diaspora Jew.  I was fascinated not only by the subject matter but also by the perceptions of viewers from different backgrounds.

Nearly a year later, my understanding of Israeli culture has deepened as I have integrated further into this society as an olah hadasha, a new immigrant.  By now I have discovered other works which tackle the issues of Israeli identity and cultural codes.  Yet We Have Been Called to Go remains one of the most compelling dances to shed light on Israeli society – and to illuminate my own evolving knowledge and spectatorship of Israeli culture.

Below is my initial reflection on Renana Raz’s We Have Been Called to Go.  I first published “Viewing an Israeli Vision with Diasporic Eyes” on March 17, 2008 in my own blog.

* * *

It’s after midnight, and I just opened my Israeli folk dance mix on iTunes to listen to track number 5, the hora that opened Renana Raz’s We Have Been Called to Go.  My body is nearly jumping out of my desk chair, searching for the right pattern of mayims as the familiar drums quicken, while my mind is picturing the smaller motions of the four performers in tonight’s concert.

The bodily sensation I am having right now is the same bodily sensation I experienced in the darkened theater.  Here’s the amazing thing, though: because Israelis were brought up on folk dance, nearly everyone in that theater had access to the same kinesthetic response.

We dancers and dance scholars talk a lot about kinesthetic response, the physical reaction that audience members may have while watching a dance. But rarely (if ever) have I been at a formal concert where the majority of audience members may be having the same, relatively concrete kinesthetic response – where the majority of audience members have done the same steps to the same music in previous contexts, can recollect those experiences, and perhaps even feel the urge to get up and do the dance.

For me, the power of this first moment in We Have Been Called to Go is sustained throughout the entire work, and I imagine that if I was an Israeli, it might have been an even more powerful viewing experience.  As a Diaspora Jew born and raised in the United States, my knowledge of Israeli cultural symbols is still elementary.  I know enough about the sabra – the prickly cactus-like plant which with its spiny exterior and sweet interior is supposed to represent the Israeli character – to understand why one performer holds the plant throughout the evening.  I know that in the springtime, a siren will bring the entire nation to a halt as Israelis remember those who have sacrificed their lives for the country, and so I understand why a piercing alarm mid-dance arrests the action onstage.  I know that “Hatikva” is the national anthem, and so I recognize the Hebrew lyrics on the projection screen before the curtain falls at the end of the work.  Because my identities as a dancer and a Jew merged for a time through Israeli folk dance, I know both this first folk dance as well as another one, “Eretz Yisrael Yafa.”

Even with this knowledge, though, I was acutely aware throughout this concert of my identity as a Diaspora Jew.  I laughed along with the audience at the outdated instructional folk dance video, but my giggles were not chuckles of nostalgic recognition.  I couldn’t tell you why other moments elicited more sounds of amusement or exactly why the performers were wearing certain costumes.

A few discussions immediately after the performance shed more light on the different viewing experiences of Diaspora Jews and Israelis. My friend Ben, a fellow American spending the year in Israel, felt less connected to the work because he was not familiar with all the cultural symbols.  Ben recognized several references, including the seeds which one performer (Raz’s father) noshed midway through the performance, but he did not have the benefit of the folk dance connection which made this work so compelling for me and, I suspect, for the members of the audience who grew up with that tradition.

Meanwhile, Hila, an Israeli who takes contemporary dance classes and ushered at the performance, gushed with insights about parts of the choreography that, while intriguing to me, had gone over my head because I was not raised with the same cultural markers.  For instance, Hila explained that when one dancer earnestly proclaimed her name and parentage at the start of an otherwise gibberish-filled announcement, she was mimicking the speeches that Israeli students make several times a year at school ceremonies.

Out of the many concerts that I have seen in Israel, only a handful have contained references besides Israeli music or spoken Hebrew that are legible to me as Israeli.  How many cultural cues have I missed?   I readily admit that I may have overlooked the treatment of Israeli culture in some choreographic works because I am not fluent in either Israeli symbols or the Hebrew language.  But I’m also quite aware that for the most part, Israeli choreographers are not explicitly tackling material that is either specifically Israeli or particularly Jewish.  This concert gave me the opportunity to test my vision as a Diaspora Jew studying Israeli culture, to see what I have learned and recognize my blind spots as I continue in my research – and to realize just how rare such an open exploration of Israeli society is in this country’s contemporary dance.

Todah rabah to Ben and Hila for allowing me to cite their reactions to this work.

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*This post was made possible thanks to a Fulbright student grant funded by the U.S.-Israel Educational Foundation and hosted by the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance.


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