May 26, 2019

Her Poles Have a Particular Magnetism

A nun, a Charedi housewife and a U.N. official walk into a pole-dancing studio…

No, that’s not the beginning of a joke with a Middle Eastern twist, it’s just a random Monday at JPole, an exercise studio in Jerusalem owned by —  and the plot thickens — a religious settler.

Originally from Bet El, a Jewish community a stone’s throw from Ramallah, Ayelet Finkelstein opened her studio in the city center six years ago with strong ideals and a weak business plan. “I’m not a business person at all,” Finkelstein admitted. “I just wanted women to feel good about themselves.”

From that perspective, at least, the studio flourished. Women suffering from anorexia joined those battling obesity and with each spin of the pole their confidence bloomed.

But maintaining 1,600-square-feet of prime real estate in the Holy City was no easy task, and in August Finkelstein was forced to close her studio.

“You get to the point where you gave your soul and your heart and then you have nothing left on your plate to give,” she said.

But after the liens, the municipal fines, and the heart-gripping anxiety attacks, that’s when the yeshua — or divine redemption — steps in, she said. In her case, it came in the form of a loyal student who helped Finkelstein reopen her studio at an existing gym, saving her overhead costs.

“In here, you strip your clothes and your preconceived notions.”  — Ayelet Finkelstein

Finkelstein views pole dancing as a form of exercise like any other but she doesn’t dismiss the sexy side to it. She runs the gamut of pole classes — from a focus on the sport’s athletic, acrobatic side to classes that combine the pole with contemporary dance.

Pole-dancing is for everyone, Finkelstein insists. And a peek into the studio’s dressing room unearths a veritable cross-section of Jerusalem society: A nun’s habit lying next to an Orthodox woman’s sheitel (wig) with a pair of killer heels tossed into the mix.

“In here, you strip your clothes and your preconceived notions,” she said without a trace of irony. “So that when you look inside the studio and everyone’s in their underclothes, we all look the same.”

Jerusalem might be fraught with conflict, but a place like JPole draws out the peace in people, Finkelstein said, before going on to describe an absurd scene from a student recital. For over a year, she had taught pole-dancing to first-graders from the Eritrean and Filipino foreign workers’ communities who were brought to her by the nuns. Finkelstein’s eyes lit up as she described the priest in his black cassock, oversized cross and flowing beard who had come to watch the student recital.

“Where else would you see such a mix of people? Well, except for the tram, I mean,” she laughed, referring to the Jerusalem light-rail system that famously brings together the most incongruent sectors of society.

The studio also acted as a second home for many women, she said, giving them community, friendship and a sense of belonging in a judgment-free setting. One of them was Zaida Catalan, a Swedish national stationed in the region as a European Union worker educating Palestinian police officers on gender-based violence. She hated her job, Finkelstein said, and would often linger in the studio’s kitchen, drinking coffee and chatting to other women hours after her pole class was over.

Catalan eventually moved to the Democratic Republic of Congo to work for the U.N.  Tragically, she was killed there in a murder-decapitation that made headlines around the world.

The fact that I’m hearing this story from Finkelstein, a soft-spoken woman with a modest air about her, makes it even more harrowing.

But Finkelstein is used to jolting people out of the comfort of pigeon-holing.

Does she still have people with crazy stories in the studio’s current incarnation?

“This is Jerusalem,” she said, and then smiled. “Everyone has a crazy story.”