Dassa Connects a Step-Kick at a Time

By the age of 4, Dani Dassa knew what he wanted to do with the rest of his life.

“I remember going to the synagogue on Simchat Torah and watching the adults jumping up and down with the Torah,” he says. “Even then, I knew there was something to that kind of dancing.”

Some 73 years later, Dassa’s priorities have not changed. He remains singularly devoted to the practice and transmission of Israeli folk dance. In Israeli folk dance circles both locally and internationally, his name is synonymous with words like legend and pioneer.

“Dani has a magical way of bringing you into his own spiritual high,” says Ruth Goodman, a popular New York-based Israeli folk dance teacher, director of the Israeli Dance Institute and Dassa’s longtime colleague. “He absolutely deserves the status of a legend because he has influenced so many people’s lives. When he dances and teaches, he makes Israel and the Bible come to life.”

Yet, for someone who’s choreographed around 70 dances, taught all over the world and made Los Angeles a vital center for Israeli folk dance, Dassa maintains a relatively low profile. He has never carried a business card, for example, and tends to steer clear of press interviews. “I don’t have the ego for self-promotion,” he says.

Seated at his kitchen table with Judy Dassa, his wife and business manager of 49 years, Dassa tries to pinpoint the secret to his success. “I’ve always shared all that I have, physically and spiritually,” he says.

Dassa has also possessed an unwavering faith in his abilities. Arriving in Los Angeles in the late 1950s with $800 in his pocket, he persisted in trying to do the only work he loved. He managed to secure an interview with Shlomo Bardin, founder of the Brandeis-Bardin Institute.

“He asked me, ‘Can you really make better Jews out of dancing?’ I said, ‘That’s exactly what I do,’ and I got the job,” recalls Dassa. “That was my lucky break.”

Born in Jerusalem to traditional Jewish parents, Dassa grew up dancing in youth groups. Early on, he mastered the art of moving in a circle and how to dance with a girl not by holding hands but by interlocking elbows.

“Of all body-motion activities, dance was my first love,” he says. “Also, the Israeli landscape, the Bible stories … these were not fiction to me. They were my reality, and the only way for me to express that reality was through dance.”

After graduating from Israel’s Wingate Institute with a degree in physical education, Dassa studied modern dance, first in Israel and then in New York, where he learned from famous choreographers like Martha Graham and Louis Horst. Though sought after as a dancer in New York, Dassa knew his calling lay elsewhere.

“I studied modern dance only for the technique,” he says. “The music and ideas of this kind of dance never touched me.”

As a choreographer, Dassa always sought a direct connection among the stories of the Bible, the land of Israel and the movements he generates.

“The words dictate the movement; the music enhances the words,” he says. “If I’m making a dance about praying for rain, we are really going to do that. The dance is not about the steps, it’s about reliving an experience.”

“My father doesn’t just teach dance, he connects people to Judaism through dance,” says Dassa’s son, David, a highly sought-after Israeli folk dance teacher in Los Angeles, who “literally” followed in his father’s footsteps. “I am definitely carrying on his legacy, because when I teach, the actual physical learning of the dance is secondary. It’s about connecting people Jewishly.”

Genie Benson feels the same way. Now the executive director of the Keshet Chaim Dance Ensemble, Benson had been a ballet dancer until she started to study with Dassa at Camp Alonim and later at the Brandeis-Bardin Institute.

“He changed my life,” she says. “He would sit on the grass with us and tell us Bible stories or about the pioneers in Israel. He encouraged us to choreograph our own dances. He went far beyond being an ordinary dance teacher.”

“I started out by teaching 10 basic dances everywhere,” he says. “The idea was that people from all over the world could communicate with each other through these dances.”

In 1966, Dassa launched his crowning entrepreneurial achievement: Café Danssa, the folk dance club that still operates in its original West Los Angeles location. The Dassas only owned the club for about seven years, but maintained a presence there for decades.

In the 1970s, “you’d find hundreds of people in that room, there would be a line out the door,” Dani Dassa says. “People from Israel would get off the plane and head straight to Café Danssa.”

“So many people met, married and divorced at Café Danssa,” Judy Dassa recalls. “You knew about everyone’s life because for those people, Café Danssa was their life.”

Though he no longer choreographs, Dani Dassa still teaches workshops all over the world, including every year at the Rikud Dance Camp that he founded at the Brandeis-Bardin Institute.

“Get me dancing in a workshop, and I feel like I’m 21 years old again,” he says. “There’s no question I will be dancing until my grave.”

Face to Face

Before he was the Buddha, or Enlightened One, Prince Siddhartha lived a luxurious life behind the walls of his family castle. But each time he ventured out, the legend goes, he discovered the lame, the halt, the dying. His squire, Chandara, convinced him to ignore such things, as the world was full of suffering. Then his wife gave birth, and Siddhartha, at 29, was struck by the inexplicable mysteries of life and death. Late one night, he kissed his sleeping wife and newborn son goodbye and wandered out of the palace with Chandara to find the answer to how one overcomes suffering.

I read this legend in the home of my friends, John and Jip, in Seattle last weekend, and it struck me why I would make a lousy Buddhist. I imagined Siddhartha’s wife as she awoke the next day and was told her husband left her and her newborn to find the meaning of human suffering. I imagined what if Siddhartha’s wife was Jewish. He did what? He wanted to find out what? Suffering? Let him stay, I’ll show him suffering….

My friend John is a school librarian. Jip — her name is pronounced Jeep, the sound of a young bird — was born and raised in a village near Chaing Mai in Thailand. She was working as a nurse in a refugee camp on the Thai-Cambodian border when she met John, who was teaching English at the camp.

She came with him back to Seattle, where she earned her master’s in public health at the University of Washington. They married. Not long afterward, doctors diagnosed Jip with multiple sclerosis.

That was 13 years ago. Now Jip — a beautiful, bright, luminous, raven-haired and almond-eyed 42-year-old — is a quadriplegic. She has lost feeling below her chest, lost the use of her arms and legs, and she has gone almost completely blind. Her limp, recalcitrant body is confined to a medieval assortment of wheelchairs, body lifts and standing platforms.

Weekdays, home-care aides come and assist her. Nights and weekends, John tends to her. The financial toll of home-care on a middle-income couple is simply bankrupting.

The emotional toll is something I tried my best to fathom, as I watched John manipulate Jip’s spasmodic legs, lift her in and out of their car for a picnic, bring her food and drink. They disappeared behind their bedroom door for hours, as he bathed and dressed her and took her to the bathroom. This was my weekend; this is their life.

They have friends, literally. Their community of Quakers has formed a "care committee" to provide practical and spiritual support. The committee makes sure someone brings over dinner four nights each week. The committee meets on Sunday to help them strategize on medical treatment, deal with mundane errands, help make life-and-death decisions. It is bikur holim, the prescribed act of visiting the sick, taken to yet another level. "They’re there for me as much as for Jip," John told me.

John and Jip’s home has acquired many of the same books my cousin’s apartment had after he was diagnosed with ALS, or Lou Gherig’s disease: "The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying," Anne Lamott’s "Traveling Mercies," numerous volumes by the Dalai Lama and the Vietnamese Buddhist teacher, Thich Nhat Hahn, books on healing and nutrition.

If there are no atheists in foxholes, there are few dogmatists facing serious illness. In the cereal aisle of American spirituality, people can pick through great traditions to find the little parts that work for them — antioxidants, acupuncture, meditation, snippets from the kaballah, quotes from Thomas Merton. Whatever works. To be fair, though, Jip was a practicing Buddhist long before she ever walked into a Barnes and Noble.

When John disappeared with Jip into their room, I plunged through their books; I needed them all. Intellectually, I know people have been on this wheel of birth and suffering and death for thousands of years, and no one has figured it out, no one has escaped, and no one has resigned him or herself to it.

Faced with what John and Jip have to endure, I was wondering if any of those books on their shelves offered, well, The Answer. When my cousin was dying, I’d read many of these same books, but the wisdom doesn’t stick, and every anguish seems fresh and inexplicable.

I read like a fiend but stopped short when I came to that story of Siddhartha. I know little of Buddhism and apologize in advance for insulting readers who do, but it struck me that John and Jip, by staying put, by facing the suffering in their own home, were on a path as holy and transcendent as any Prince Siddhartha undertook.

If Siddhartha were Jewish, I’d like to believe he would have turned back to the castle to be with his wife and son. The Book of Isaiah speaks of a time when God will "swallow up death forever … and will wipe away tears from all faces." But that will be then, this is now.

In the face of sorrow, suffering and death, Judaism puts aside the big questions for prescribed practices: rituals, traditions, prayers. Confronting her father’s long and difficult illness, historian Deborah Lipstadt reflected once that Jewish traditions are "the exact antithesis of the tendency to separate oneself from reality." Understanding is not the aim. The key is to face it, not fear it.

John, a young and vibrant man devoted in his care to his ailing wife, was the embodiment of that. If Suffering thought it could scare off this son of the Midwest with gentle blue eyes and broad smile, it thought wrong.

As for any Big Answer I sought, the closest I came was on the flight back to Los Angeles. I was watching the movie, "American Splendor," about the middle-aged Jewish American comic book author Harvey Pekar. "Life seems so sweet and so sad," Pekar says, "and so hard to let go of in the end."

Israel Mourns

Even for Israelis hardened by years of dealing with
Palestinian terrorism, the death of Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon came as a
difficult blow.

The weather itself seemed to reflect the national mood: A
thick, mustard-colored fog blanketed Israel on Sunday afternoon, a day after
Ramon and six other NASA astronauts were killed when the space shuttle Columbia
broke into pieces as it reentered the Earth’s atmosphere.

Even in a nation used to trauma, the Columbia tragedy hit
especially close to home, said Naomi Baum, a psychologist at the Israel Center
for the Treatment of Psychotrauma.

“We identified with Ramon and his family, because we learned
so much about them in the past four years, and especially in the past two
weeks,” Baum said. “It hurt so much, because we developed an intimacy with him
and his family.”

“In many ways, the shuttle disaster and the loss of Ramon,
someone who represented so much of what was good about Israel, served to dredge
up a lot of the other trauma Israelis have gone through in the past few years,”
she added.

Ramon was Israel’s very own “right stuff” — Alan Shepard,
John Glenn and Yitzhak Rabin rolled into one. He was, many Israelis felt, the
best of the best: professional, brash, modest, handsome — and proud to be an
Israeli and a Jew.

“We felt he was our messenger to the great wide world,” Baum
said, “and now feel like a true friend and leader is lost.”

By Sunday, the hero’s welcome that Israel had planned for
its first astronaut had given way to mourning.

“Even for the world champions in watching disasters unfold
on television, this event was not quite like anything we know,” one commentator
wrote in the Ma’ariv newspaper.

Flags flew at half-staff and schools held special assemblies
to remember the 48-year-old Ramon. A memorial ceremony was held for the
astronaut at his former high school in Beersheba. Among those attending were
Ramon’s former classmates.

“Ilan was a hero, and yesterday afternoon he became a
legend,” former classmate Reuven Segev told current students at Mekif Gimel High

At Tel Aviv’s prestigious Herzliya Gymnasium, more than
1,000 teenagers attended a memorial service for Ramon. A hush fell over the
schoolyard as a student began to read from a poem Ramon’s wife, Rona, had sent
him while in orbit. The poem read:

“The last of my days is perhaps nigh/ Near is the day of
tears of separation/ But I will wait for thee till my life is extinguished, as
Rachel awaited her beloved.”

The students were captivated by the words, the drama and a
numbing pain with which they could all identify. The chatter picked up again,
until a husky voiced youth on stage began to sing “Hatikvah,” Israel’s national

“Maybe we are cursed,” Eyal Oren, a 17-year-old student,
said afterward. “We can’t catch a break. Even the easy things are hard.”

Amid the tragedy, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon vowed that Israel’s
space aspirations were not over, saying, “The day will come when we will launch
more Israeli astronauts into space. I am sure that each and every one of them
will carry in his heart the memory of Ilan Ramon, a pioneer in Israeli space

Speaking at the start of Sunday’s weekly Cabinet meeting, Sharon
also said the deaths of the Columbia astronauts Saturday morning were not in
vain. He extended condolences to the United States and the families of the
other six Columbia crew members.

Memorial books were opened for Ramon in Israeli consulates
around the world, an honor generally reserved only for heads of state.

After the Columbia disaster, President Bush phoned Sharon to
express condolences over the loss of Ramon, the father of four and a former air
force fighter pilot. Other world leaders, including Russian President Vladimir
Putin and German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, also expressed their
condolences to Sharon.

In Iraq, however, some felt the tragedy was divine justice.
Iraq’s official newspaper noted that one of the astronauts killed was a
“Zionist,” who had flown in Israel’s 1981 raid on an Iraqi nuclear reactor at

Car mechanic Mohammed Jaber Tamini in Iraq told news
agencies that Ramon’s death was retribution for his role in that raid. “Israel
launched an aggression on us when it raided our nuclear reactor without any
reason,” Tamini said. “Now time has come, and God has retaliated to their

The Jerusalem Post quoted some Palestinians offering similar

Security for the mission had been extremely tight, as officials
feared that terrorists might target the shuttle, because an Israeli was on
board. But officials were quick to rule out the possibility of terrorism in
Saturday’s tragedy.

Ramon’s participation in the 16-day scientific research
mission had been a boost for Israel’s national morale, which has been battered
by two years of Palestinian terrorism and a floundering economy.

“Ilan Ramon took the country to new heights,” said former
Prime Minister Shimon Peres, who was instrumental in arranging Ramon’s participation.

The launch was significant not just for Israel’s space
program but because the presence of Ramon, the child of a Holocaust survivor,
symbolized the Jewish people’s perseverance. Though secular, Ramon requested
kosher meals for the flight and took aboard a variety of ritual and symbolic

Among the items Ramon took into space was a tiny Torah
scroll that a 13-year-old boy received in Bergen-Belsen from the rabbi of
Amsterdam in order to study for his bar mitzvah. The boy, Yehoyahin Yosef, survived
the Holocaust, immigrated to Israel and went on to become a professor of
planetary physics — and was the person who oversaw the Israeli experiment on
board the shuttle to check the impact of dust on climate conditions.

Following the Columbia loss, the front pages of Israel’s
dailies had pictures of Ramon, looking straight at the camera, his hand raised
in a salute — or was it a farewell?

“Shards of the Dream” was the headline appearing in the
Israeli daily, Ma’ariv. The paper ran a full-page photo of burning debris from
Columbia streaming down to Earth. “Crying for Israel,” was Yediot Achronot’s

Ha’aretz commentator Ari Shavit described the pride Israelis
felt in sending “one of our own” into space, and the hope it gave the nation
that it could somehow “defy the gravity of its fate.” But he added, “That hope
keeps shattering.”

In an interview with Ma’ariv last month, Ramon minimized
fears about his safety, saying, “The chances an accident would happen in space
are very small. As far as safety is concerned, I’m not concerned at all.”

“In NASA, safety takes precedence over everything else,” he
added. “The shuttle has backup upon backup upon backup.”

Along with Ramon, the Columbia — which was on its 28th
mission — carried commander Rick Husband; pilot Willie McCool; mission
specialists Dave Brown, Laurel Clark and Kalpana Chawla; and payload commander
Mike Anderson.

When news of the disaster broke Saturday, members of Ramon’s
family, who were waiting at Cape Canaveral, were taken to a private location by
NASA officials. Members of the family who were still in Israel were flown to
the United States Saturday night.

Prior to their departure, they expressed disbelief over the
disaster. In an interview earlier Saturday, Ramon’s father, Eliezer Wolferman,
said he had exchanged e-mails with his son, and had last spoken to him via
video conferencing when he was still in Houston.

“It was very emotional,” Wolferman said. “Our family saw
him, and the children asked their dad to do somersaults in the air.”

Last Friday, Ramon sent his final e-mail to his wife. “Even
though everything here is amazing, I cannot wait until I can see you,” he
wrote, according to the Israeli daily, Yediot Achronot. “A big hug for you and
kisses to the kids.”

Rona Ramon told reporters Sunday outside her home in Houston
that her husband enjoyed every moment he was up in space. “He was with the
people he loved and in the place that he enjoyed so much,” she said.

She added that during the entire mission, she had no sense
of foreboding.

“The only thing that tears me apart now is that during the
liftoff, when we were all high, my youngest daughter yelled out, ‘I lost my
daddy.’ Apparently she was right.”

The Israel Defense Forces have set up an
e-mail address for the public to send condolence messages to Ramon’s family at

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Carl Reiner gets to ‘Bloom’

Getting cast in Steven Soderbergh’s “Ocean’s 11,” says Carl Reiner, was kind of like a scene from the Las Vegas heist movie.

In the film — a remake of the 1960 Rat Pack flick — two crooks played by George Clooney and Brad Pitt, recruit fellow con men by paying each a surprise visit. In a case of life imitating art, “Ocean’s” producer Jerry Weintraub recruited Reiner by urgently ringing his Beverly Hills doorbell last year.

The legendary actor-writer-director was hosting a dinner party, but Weintraub — who’d produced Reiner’s 1977 film, “Oh, God!” — said he had a problem on his hands. “Ocean’s 11” was scheduled to begin shooting in Vegas the following week, but cast member Alan Arkin was in the hospital. Would Reiner, 79, step in to play Saul Bloom, the eldest member of the heist team?

Reiner — creator of “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” and straight man to Mel Brooks’ 2,000-Year-Old Man — wasn’t actively looking for acting gigs. He’d quit directing since his last film, “That Old Feeling,” starring Bette Midler, had wrapped in 1997. But then again, “Ocean’s” was tempting.

There was the chance to work with wunderkind Soderbergh (“Traffic,” “Erin Brockovich”) and the grumpy, rumpled, Rolaids-popping Bloom was too hilarious a role to pass up. “We first see him in the cheap seats at the dog track,” Reiner notes. “He was probably a brilliant con artist in his day, but now he doesn’t even have enough money to play the horses.”

The fictional Bloom is one of two Jews on the “Ocean’s 11″ team (the other is Ruben Tischkoff, a Liberace-esque ex-casino owner, hilariously played by Elliott Gould). In the course of the elaborate casino scam, Bloom gets to impersonate a wealthy, European businessman of indeterminate origin.”Soderbergh let me pick my accent, so I decided to be a Russian,” says Reiner, who is so facile a mimic that in the course of an interview with The Journal he perfectly impersonates Stalin, Cary Grant and Edward G. Robinson. “Every time I turned to my henchmen, I’d use a phrase from this Russian-language song, ‘Black Eyes.’ I thought it was so funny because there I was pretending to be Russian and I was just mouthing song lyrics.”

Bronx-bred Reiner — whom Brooks calls the “tall, bald Jew” — has been funny practically since birth. “As a kid, I could always make people laugh, and I could perfectly tell and retell jokes I heard at the movies,” says Reiner, who was a big fan of the Marx Brothers. His first performance occurred when he put one leg behind his head and hopped on the other in front of his rapt kindergarten teachers and classmates. A smaller crowd watched his Orthodox bar mitzvah, which he says took place “on a Thursday morning before mincha, with just a minyan of old Jews.”

By 1950, Reiner was writing and performing on Sid Caesar’s “Your Show of Shows,” where he met a short, outrageous fellow writer named Mel Brooks. “Mel Yiddishized everything,” Reiner recalls. “I’ll never forget he used to do this character called ‘The Jewish Pirate.’ Instead of a Jolly Roger, he had a Jolly Magen David.”

While hanging out in the writer’s room one day, Reiner made history when he turned to Brooks and ad-libbed, “Here was a man who was at the scene of the crucifixion 2,000 year ago. Did you know Jesus?” Brooks instantly lapsed into a thick, Yiddish accent and replied, “Thin lad, wore sandals, came into my store, but he never bought a thing.”

Over the next 10 years, Reiner shlepped a tape recorder to parties to capture their 2,000-Year-Old Man shtick, though he says he and Brooks refused to cut a record because “we were afraid the accent would play into anti-Semitic stereotypes.” It wasn’t until after they had recorded the album in 1961 that Reiner received the penultimate confirmation that the 2,000-Year-Old Man was universal.

His notoriously cheap neighbor, Cary Grant, had schnorred a dozen copies of the album to take along on a trip to England; when he returned, he knocked on Reiner’s door. “She loved it,” Grant gushed. “Who?” Reiner asked. ” The Queen Mother.”

“The biggest gentile in the world,” marveled Reiner, who became a founding father of the TV sitcom when he created “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” based on his home life during “Your Show of Shows.”

In 1979, Reiner again made history by directing “The Jerk,” the movie that would catapult Steve Martin to superstardom. He went on to direct three more films with the Texas-born comic, who proved to be a very different kind of collaborator than Brooks. “Mel is loud, noisy, abrasive and hilarious, while Steve is quiet and hilarious” says Reiner, who is dad to “When Harry Met Sally…” director Rob Reiner. “But funny is funny.”

The septuagenarian could say the same of himself. During the six-week “Ocean’s 11” shoot, he regaled his young co-stars with amusing Hollywood stories. “Of course, while they knew who I was, they didn’t really know what I’d done,” Reiner confides. But he didn’t mind. “The only thing I don’t accept is people who don’t know who Hitler is,” he says.

“Ocean’s 11” opens today in Los Angeles. Reiner willoffer a tribute to the Marx Brothers during a film festival on Turner ClassicMovies from Dec. 17-21. For more information, visit www.turnerclassicmovies.com .

Musical and Comic Legends

“Rhapsody in Blue: The George Gershwin Story,” withRobert Alda as Gershwin and Joan Leslie as a fictional loveinterest.

If all you knew about composer George Gershwin washis body of work — “An American in Paris,” “Rhapsody in Blue,””Porgy and Bess,” plus countless enduring melodies — you would thinkhe lived to a ripe old age. But, in fact, the musical legend was only38 when he died.

Gershwin was born to Russian immigrant parents in1898, and, beginning in 1931, he and lyricist brother Ira composedscores for four Hollywood musicals — until George’s death six yearslater. This week, the UCLA Film and Television Archive brings backthese movies, as well as seven other films either based on thebrothers’ theatrical works or original musicals with the scorescompiled posthumously from George’s surviving work.

The series, “Strike Up the Band! George Gershwinon Film,” begins on Thursday, May 21, with the 1945 biography”Rhapsody in Blue: The George Gershwin Story.” With Robert Alda asGershwin and Joan Leslie as a fictional love interest, many of Gershwin’s contemporaries appear as themselves, including Al Jolson.There is also a full-length performance of “Rhapsody in Blue,” led byits original conductor, Paul Whiteman.

Among the other films in the series: the 1937 FredAstaire-Ginger Rogers vehicle “Shall We Dance?” which screens with “ADamsel in Distress,” featuring Astaire, George Burns and Gracie Allenon Saturday, May 23. The 1959 feature version of “Porgy and Bess,”directed by Otto Preminger and starring Sidney Poitier, Sammy DavisJr. and Pearl Bailey, will show on Sunday, May 24.

Two versions of “Girl Crazy” will screen: the 1943production, with Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, and the lesser-knownfilm made a decade earlier. “The Goldwyn Follies,” the final filmthat George and Ira worked on, plays with the Rooney-Garland “Crazy”on Thursday, May 28; it features Adolphe Menjou, a screenplay by BenHecht and cinematography by Gregg Toland, best known for his workwith Orson Welles. A double feature of “An American in Paris,” withGene Kelly, and “Funny Face,” with Astaire and Audrey Hepburn, closethings out on Saturday, May 30.

All programs begin at 7:30 p.m. in the JamesBridges Theater on the UCLA campus, with the exception of “Porgy,”which will begin at 7 p.m. For a detailed schedule, call (310)206-FILM.

The Nuart Theatre pays homage to another legendthis week: French funnyman Jacques Tati. “Jour de Fete,” his firstfeature, with Tati portraying a village postman inspired to save timeafter seeing a newsreel of the American postal system, will playthrough Wednesday, May 20. Originally shot with two cameras — oneusing an experimental type of color film and a backup shootingblack-and-white — the color version will now screen for the firsttime in a newly struck print, taking advantage of more recenttechnology.

On Saturday, May 16, and Sunday, May 17, at noon,the Nuart will present Tati’s best-known classic, “Mr. Hulot’sHoliday.” A double feature of “Playtime,” with Monsieur Hulot tryingto survive Paris, and “Mon Oncle,” a silent Hulot gem in color, willshow on Thursday, May 21, only.

The Nuart is at 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., LosAngeles. Call (310) 478-6379 for show times.