My Encounter with the Yemenite Jewish Dancer

Dear Friends,


Immediately following the fall Festival of Succos is the Festival of Shmini Atzeres. Since we finish reading the Torah on Shmini Atzeres, this Festival has become host to another celebration, known as “Simchas Torah” – the Joy of the Torah. It is customary to dance with the Torah during this celebration, and Simchas Torah has become the most joyous celebration of our people. 


About twenty-five years ago, when I was still living in New York City, I decided to celebrate Simchas Torah at a synagogue in Manhattan which was known for its spirited singing and dancing on this joyous occasion. In some American Ashkenazic synagogues, young children become very playful on Simchas Torah, and a few bold children will try to tie the strings of an adult’s talis (prayer shawl) to a chair or nearby pole. This is what happened at this synagogue during a quieter period of the service when there was no dancing. A young man suddenly walked into the synagogue, looked with disapproval at the chaotic scene of some adults trying to untie the knots of their talis strings, and then walked out of the synagogue.


It seemed that I was the only one who noticed him enter and leave. His features and dark skin gave me the impression that he was from the Middle East, and I thought that he may be a Yemenite Jew from Israel who was unfamiliar with the playful custom of these children, and who might have concluded that this was not a respectful Simchas Torah celebration. I felt a responsibility to this visitor, and I therefore left the synagogue with the hope that I could still find him. I was able to catch up with him, and I asked him why he had walked out. He told me that he was a Yemenite Jew from Israel who was a dancer. He had heard that this synagogue had very joyous dancing on Simchas Torah, and he had come for some spiritual inspiration, but the chaotic scene that he noticed caused him to leave. I explained to him about the playful custom of the children at some Ashkenazic synagogues in America, and I invited him to return to the synagogue and give it another chance.


We later spoke at length. He told me that his parents were not traditionally-observant and that he did not receive a Torah education. He also told me that he was now studying in New York at the school of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Center. I mentioned that I was a director of a center for Jewish artists, including dancers, and I invited him to visit the Center. I had him memorize the address, and after the Festival, he came to visit me. He mentioned that he needed a room where he could practice his dancing, and I immediately offered him a room at the Center.


Whenever he visited, we had some talks about the spiritual path of our people. I decided that it was important that he also meet some religious Jewish artists from Israel. I therefore arranged for him to visit a married couple from Israel that I was friendly with – both of them warm and hospitable people who were also artists. The husband was an artisan with wood, and the wife was a musician. They invited him for Shabbat, and he became a good friend of their family.


He began to feel within his soul a desire to study Torah, and his study led him to start to fulfill the mitzvos of the Torah, step-by-step. He decided that he could not continue working as a professional dancer, especially since performances were scheduled on Shabbat and the Festivals. He therefore decided to become a natural healer, and he began to study Shiatsu with a noted teacher from Japan. During this period, he met an American Jewish woman who had rediscovered her spiritual roots, and they got married. They had two children – a boy and a girl. He also became very successful in his new profession, as he perfected his own method of healing which helps many people.


After I moved to Israel about twenty-two years ago, I lost touch with him. To my great surprise and delight, I met him on a street of my neighborhood, Bayit Vegan, Jerusalem, about thirteen years ago. He told me that he and his family had just moved into the neighborhood! We embraced, and I was grateful to the Compassionate One for arranging our reunion.


My friend and his family returned to Zion with a deep devotion to the soul of Zion. His journey is yet another reminder of the following Divine promise to our mother, Rachel, who was weeping in heaven over the exile of her children:


“A voice is heard on high, wailing, and bitter weeping: Rachel is weeping for her children. She refuses to be comforted for her children, for they are gone. Thus said Hashem: Restrain your voice from weeping and your eyes from tears; for there is reward for your accomplishment, says Hashem, and they will return from the enemy’s land. There is hope for your future, spoke Hashem, and your children will return to their border.” (Jeremiah 31:14-16)


The promise “they will return from their enemy’s land” is referring to liberation from physical exile, while the promise that “your children will return to their border” is referring to liberation from spiritual exile. (The Klausenberger Rebbe)


Shalom, and may we be sealed in the Book of Life.

Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen


P.S. Yom Kippur begins on Wednesday evening, Oct. 8th.  

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