Celebrating Israeli dance amid life’s joys and sorrows

Celebrating Israeli dance amid life’s joys and sorrows

Israeli folk dance instructor Elyse Litt tries out steps with her son, Jake Altholz, who choreographed the dance in memory of his father. Photo by Moshe Gordon
Israeli folk dance instructor Elyse Litt tries out steps with her son, Jake Altholz, who choreographed the dance in memory of his father. Photo by Moshe Gordon

Like the rise and fall of their steps, the dancers assembled at Elyse Litt’s gathering acknowledged the sadness they have shared with her, and the uplifting joy they have found in her Israeli folk dancing classes. Next year, she predicted, would be filled with the latter. 

“2018 — the chai year — will be my year of happiness,” Litt told the crowd of around 70 gathered at the Le Pari Dance Center in Fanwood on Nov. 19 to celebrate her birthday, son’s college graduation, and to honor the memory of husband Reed Altholz. 

Altholz died in June 2016 after a grueling battle with esophageal cancer. After what their friends describe as an extraordinarily close marriage, Litt’s commitment to happiness hasn’t come easily. He was her partner in so many ways, among them helping to facilitate her classes. 

All evening, both levity and grief were apparent, mourning leavened with humor — from the “First Annual Memorial Reed Altholz Trivia Contest” to the joyful dance her son, Jake Altholz, 24, had choreographed in his father’s honor and taught to the crowd. Even the “memorial” Litt had set up elicited smiles. She had arrayed a table with mementoes of what her husband loved — Altholz’s favorite black and white cookies and his favorite hot drink and chocolates, as well as a picture of him with baby Jake.

It was for Jake’s benefit that Litt and Altholz first began learning Israeli folk dance in 2004 — their son had high cholesterol and a doctor recommended more exercise. The three of them, Clark residents and members of Temple Beth O’r Beth Torah, signed up for a class in nearby Cranford. It wasn’t long before Litt developed the expertise and passion that has fueled her teaching ever since. With Altholz as driver and music tech, she gathered students across the central region of the state.

She called her classes “Exercise with Ruach!” using the Hebrew word for spirit, and that’s what she insists Israeli dancing is. As she tells people, “This isn’t your grandma’s hora.” Litt has no firm number of how many attend her classes, because students come and go. But according to those at the party, its popularity is growing steadily, and not just with Jewish New Jerseyans. A broad swathe of ages take part in Israeli dance classes around the state. Most are women, but a good portion of regulars are men.

There is a special camaraderie among the dancers. That fellowship proved itself magnificently three and a half years ago, when Jake, then studying in Australia, was severely injured in a car accident. The cost of suspending life and work at home and flying halfway around the world on short notice was enormous, but the Israeli dance community rallied around them, and contributions came from the U.S., Israel, and elsewhere. Litt and Reed arrived at Jake’s bedside within days, able to help with his recovery.

“I can’t replace my dad — I’d never try — but I can follow his example,” Jake said before leading the revelers into another series of intricate step-turn-step maneuvers. 

As party guests — students and friends from Clark, West Orange, and Hillsborough, where she currently teaches, and beyond — took to the Le Pari floor, the ruach was evident, both for teenagers and those many decades past their teens, those fumbling their way and those tripping the light fantastic. 

Described by numerous people as “an amazing teacher” and “patient, thorough, so easy to follow,” Litt organized the music and joined the line, as other instructors led the dancing. They included Vera Galleid of East Brunswick, Tamara Ruben, who used to teach at Temple Beth-El Mekor Chayim in Cranford, and Eyal Ozeri, a leading Israeli choreographer touring the United States. 

Asked why he’d come all the way from Boston, where he had been leading dance workshops, to celebrate with someone he’d never met face-to-face, Ozeri said, “To make people happy.” And that, according to Litt and her students and fellow instructors, is what Israeli dance is all about.

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