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Leah Bergstein

1902 – 1989

by Dan Ronen

Leah Bergstein was the first of the choreographers in Palestine who at the beginning of the 1930s created festival dances at kibbutzim, attempting to depict life in pre-state Israel in general and on agricultural settlements in particular. The unique creation of festival pageants contributed greatly to the development of a genre of rural Israeli festival and holiday celebrations and the creation of the first Erez Israel dances.

The first such celebration in which Leah Bergstein participated took place in 1929, organized by the Shepherds’ Group of Kibbutz Bet Alfa in the Jezreel Valley. Bergstein and the poet-composer Mattityahu Shelem (1904–1975), who were members of this group, helped to create a festival to celebrate the end of the sheep-shearing. In cooperation with Shelem, Bergstein continued to choreograph dances and design festival pageants at Kibbutz Ramat Yohanan in the Zevulun Valley, to which she moved in the 1940s. Creation of festival dances and design of ceremonies became her life’s work.

Leah Bergstein was born on October 23, 1902, in Bolshovtsy, Galicia (94 km SE of Lvov). Her father, Moshe Bergstein (b. Galicia 1873, d. Israel 1954), was known as “Moishe Hasid,” not so much because of his piety as because of the Hasidic-style joy that he projected around him. Her mother, Liba (née Shor, b. Galicia 1874, d. Israel 1958), was a petite, hard-working woman who ran the household and the family store. Her grandfather, Ya’akov Bergstein, was “the Nagid,” or mayor of the Jewish community in his town. When World War I broke out in 1914, the family fled to Vienna, at the time one of Europe’s great cultural centers. The parents emigrated to Palestine in 1938. The couple had seven children: David, who persuaded Leah to join Ha-Shomer ha-Zair and who died in Detroit; Isaac (b. 1908, died 1988 at Kibbutz Givat Hayyim); Effie (b. 1912, d. New York); Haya Dirnhal (killed in Holocaust); Hannah Broner (lived in New York); Rivka (lived in Detroit).

Studying with Mme. Deinish, a pupil of Isidora Duncan (1878–1927) who had fled to Vienna from Bucharest, Leah encountered the modern dance revolution. As part of their studies Mme. Deinish had her students choreograph short dances inspired by ancient Greek vase-paintings, thus imparting to them foundations of movement that derived from a combination of Greek culture and dance. Later Bergstein recollected: “That was how I found my way to the sources.” The influence of Bergstein’s dance teachers later surfaced in her own choreography, in which she sought simplicity and economy of movement.

In Vienna Bergstein was also exposed to Anthroposophy, a movement founded by Rudolf Steiner (1861–1925) at the beginning of the twentieth century, which was based on a mystical belief in life after death and reincarnation. Rudolf Steiner also developed a theory of dance based on a system called Eurhythmics, a rhythmic alphabet in which each vowel or consonant could be expressed by a specific body movement. Through these movements one could put together words and tell a story, add music and turn it into dance. Since the voice comes from the chest, the hands fulfill the main function, while the feet merely assist. Deriving from Anthroposophics the possibilities inherent in the connection between word and movement, Leah choreographed her first two dances, based on poems by Goethe. Under the influence of Theosophy, of which anthroposophy was an offshoot, she became acquainted with Indian dance. While looking through a book on ancient Indian art which she found in a library, she suddenly felt a natural affinity to Indian movement, which seemed to her warmer than Greek movement and, like Yemenite dance, entirely based on movement of the joints.

Bergstein also took courses in pedagogy and gymnastics and studied to be a kindergarten teacher. She developed a pedagogical system of accompanying stories with movement, which allowed children to release tensions and express their experiences.

After completing her studies as a kindergarten teacher, Leah Bergstein studied dance at the school of Margaret Schmidt, an outstanding student of Rudolf von Laban (1879–1958) who eventually became his assistant. A choreographer and dance teacher, von Laban devised a theory of movement which still constitutes the basis of modern dance. Coining the basic terms “contraction” and “relaxation,” he based his dance movement on the three dimensions of space: depth, width and height and on power, time and space. This system helped him compose the first dance notation of its kind, which to this day enables dances to be transcribed. Rudolf von Laban also concentrated on folk festivals. He felt that folk dance was disappearing because of the changes wrought by modernity and therefore a new way had to be found to enable people to celebrate and be joyful. The means that seemed to him central in this process of renewal was a “chorus” of movement, which combined a speaking chorus group with the simplest dance movements that people could perform without prior technical knowledge.

Bergstein progressed in her dancing career, joining the company of Vera Skoronel (1909–1932), a pupil of dancer and choreographer Mary Wigman (1866–1973), who had herself studied with von Laban. However, following the rise of antisemitism in Germany, Bergstein heard people at the notice-board commenting that it was not nice that the Jewish name “Bergstein” appeared on the list of dancers. Thereupon, she decided to give up her promising career as a professional dancer and emigrate to Palestine. She continued to study in Vienna, learning baby care to supplement her profession as a kindergarten teacher, telling herself that dance was not the main aim in life but merely a means of achieving that aim. Her feeling that the people’s return to its land must be accompanied by the building of its own culture steadily grew stronger.

Bergstein arrived in Palestine in 1925 and joined Kibbutz Bet Alfa. At first, she worked in the laundry and later at planting seedlings in the garden. She soon discovered that even on the kibbutz she was expected to contribute artistically during celebrations and particularly on festival days. She performed a number of solo dances and continued her search for simple, pure movement which almost anyone could master.

At Bet Alfa she encountered the culture of the neighboring Bedouin, which she found both attractive and mysterious. Stemming from a connection to the earth, to nature and its annual cycle, and from the ability to form a strong connection between everyday and festival days, the Bedouin culture had a rich tradition of ceremonies, songs and dances to express the feelings of a nomadic shepherd society. For Bergstein, this tradition and its adherents symbolized the ancient Land of Israel. For the members of Bet Alfa, shepherds and flocks served both as a connection with the land and its landscape during Biblical times and as a universal symbol of peace.

Bergstein joined the shepherds at Bet Alfa, first as a cheesemaker, helping with the milking in the evenings when the flock returned from pasture and in the mornings before it went out. Only after some time was she allowed to go out with the flock to Mount Gilboa, guarded by her fellow shepherds.

The shepherds’ group tried to revive the sheep-shearing festival, not on a set date but as a genuine shepherds’ celebration at the end of the shearing season. Mattityahu Shelem, who was also a shepherd in the group, composed a song, “Sheep and Goat, Goat and Sheep Went Out Together to the Field,” for which Leah choreographed a dance. The song and dance served as a basis for the shearing festival, which was celebrated at Kibbutz Bet Alfa for the first time in 1929. Later, an attempt was made to combine the holiday with national shepherds’ conventions, but gradually the festival fell into disuse because it had no set date or tradition, and also because that particular branch of farming ceased operation. The shearing festival at Bet Alfa was a landmark not only for Leah and Mattityahu, but also in the development of the kibbutz festival in particular and the country’s folk-cultural life in general.

Bergstein’s personal life was complicated. Her first husband was a kibbutz member; her second partner was the veterinarian for the Jezreel Valley, whose wife refused to divorce him. Bergstein therefore left the kibbutz in 1935, moving to Tel Aviv, where she opened a school for gymnastic therapy. She had a daughter Rahel (1940–1984) by her third partner, but broke off her relationship with him while still pregnant and remained a single mother.

In 1933 the kibbutz pediatrician had sent her to Vienna to study early childhood care through gymnastics. There she encountered the renowned dancer Gertrude Kraus, whom she had met as a young girl in the gymnastics hall of Maccabi Vienna. She joined Kraus’s company for performances in Vienna and when Kraus emigrated to Palestine in 1936 stayed with her for a short time to help her open a dance studio in Tel Aviv. At the beginning of the 1940s Bergstein returned to Kibbutz Bet Alfa, but after a split within the kibbutz she and a group of friends, who included Mattityahu Shelem, moved to Kibbutz Ramat Yohanan.

Bergstein and Shelem collaborated in creating original festivals for the holidays that developed at Ramat Yohanan. The ceremonies were enacted by the kibbutz members themselves, creating a feeling of innovation wherein every activity had about it a sense of rebirth and pioneering.

Bergstein and Shelem sought a way to depict the complex relationship between nature, a nation’s cultural tradition and the new life in pre-state Israel in general and on the kibbutz in particular. Cultural creation, in their opinion, had to be carried out as part of building the national and societal basis of the country. Together, they created ceremonies for nature and labor festivals, of which the sheep-shearing festival at Bet Alfa was the first. Later, at Ramat Yohanan, they created other festival ceremonies, including the Omer, Tu bi-Shevat, the Festival of First Fruits, the Harvest Festival/Water Festival and the Wedding Celebration. Bergstein choreographed fifty-one festival dances, forty of them to music composed by Shelem; the best-known of these are Rov Berakhot (Many Blessings), Hen Yeronan (Thus shall we rejoice), Shibbolet ba-Sadeh (A Sheaf in the Field) and Shiru ha-Shir (Sing the Song). The uniqueness of Bergstein’s work lay in the search for movements appropriate to the amateur kibbutz members, without forfeiting the full range of expression that the subject required.

Bergstein’s dances derived from the feelings that arose within her when she listened to songs whose words and music had been written by Shelem. Usually she would teach her dances not to the entire kibbutz, but to one of her pupils, who would then pass it on to her friends; she would then ask them whether they found the dance comfortable and pleasant. Since no ancient dances had survived among the Jewish people, Bergstein decided that it was important to remain faithful to a broader tradition, a kind of general truth and universal body movement that found expression in all ancient dances. Another principle Bergstein developed was that a real-life experience that she herself had undergone should be at the root of all her dances. On the basis of these principles, Bergstein developed three groundrules for creativity:

1. Emphasis on the idea—The subject of the dance should relate to the words of the song.

2. Connection between form and content—The better the dance is performed, the clearer its content.

3. Importance of audience participation in ceremonies, dances and songs and clad in festival costumes such as woven belts and brooches.

Bergstein’s festival dances comprise ceremonial dances, dances of prayer and dances about the subjects of the festival itself, such as the grape harvest, shepherds, weddings and the like. The influence of Rudolf von Laban, of Anthroposophy and of the Zionist dream can be seen in her dances and in the design of the holiday pageants on Ramat Yohanan.

THE OMER FESTIVAL

The most outstanding of the festivals that Bergstein and Shelem designed was the Omer harvest festival on Passover eve, which marked the revival of the ancient formal cutting of the wheat on Passover eve. Though connected with the Biblical and Mishnaic festival, this was a completely original creation in which the entire kibbutz took part, creating an impression of genuine feeling.

In her epic poem, One, the poet Anda Amir conveyed the impression made on her by the Omer Festival at Ramat Yohanan: “He will announce: this hour a covenant is made between the people of labor and the blessing of the earth.” Gurit Kadman once said in the course of conversation: “The Omer Festival was the creation of the most original holiday in Israel, and the holiday dances are perhaps the most Israeli ones ever created.”

THE HARVEST FESTIVAL

Celebrated at Sukkot (the Feast of Tabernacles), this festival was also created at the beginning of the 1940s. Opening with the song Pit’hu She’arim (Open the Gates) and a dance to the song Rov Berakhot, it included songs and dances that expressed the joy of harvest and simhat beit ha-sho’eva (the festival of the water-drawing) in a dance with pitchers, the rousing wine-dance, and the heroic debka to Shelem’s song Livshu-na Oz (Put On Strength). As Leah recollected: “It was a festival to mark the transition from summer to winter, the days between light and shadow, the red sun before sunset.” The text and the blessings of the various branches of kibbutz activity on the occasion of the harvest festival were written by the kindergarten teachers of Ramat Yohanan. Later, the name of the festival was changed to the Water Festival and it was celebrated around the Ramat Yohanan swimming pool.

THE FESTIVAL OF FIRST FRUITS (SHAVUOT)

During the 1940s Shelem and Bergstein created a ceremony for the Festival of First Fruits which began with the dance Kumu v’Na’ale (Let Us Arise and Ascend), depicting the pilgrimage of those who brought the first fruits to the steps of the Temple.

TU BI-SHEVAT

The ceremony created for Tu bi-Shevat, celebrating the buds of spring, presents the changes in nature, the sprouting shoots and blossoms.

THE WEDDING CEREMONY

Bergstein created a ceremony and dances for kibbutz weddings. The kibbutz wedding celebration was a melding of word, sound and movement, combining Jewish wedding traditions from various ethnic communities with material from classical Jewish sources. The ceremony not only fulfilled the wishes of the bridal couple and their families, but was also a festival for the entire kibbutz.

THE DISSEMINATION OF BERGSTEIN’S DANCES

At the end of the 1940s and throughout the 1950s Bergstein conveyed her experience to others through the folk dance department of the Histadrut. She coordinated a group of young girls, the Ramat Yohanan Dance Troupe, which enabled her to choreograph more dances. The troupe appeared throughout the country, performing for soldiers during the War of Independence, at conferences and at the folk-dance festivals on Kibbutz Daliyyah. It later became the flagship dance troupe of the kibbutzim of the Ihud ha-Kibbutzim and presented kibbutz dance at the State of Israel’s tenth anniversary. When the group dissolved it was replaced by the Bnei ha-Ihud troupe, which worked with Bergstein at Ramat Yohanan.

The two troupes disseminated Bergstein’s dances and her unique ideas throughout the country. She felt it was important to create a permanent tradition for the holidays and opposed changes even when younger people demanded them. In his book Folk Dances in Israel, Zevi Friedhaber maintained that under the influence of Bergstein and Shelem many agricultural settlements created a more or less uniform way of celebrating rural festivals in Israel.

Leah Bergstein, who concentrated on choreographing festival dances, for many years opposed folk dances created by choreographers, claiming that the process should remain natural. This was despite the fact that many of her own dances became folk dances and Masekhet ha-Omer (Omer Pageant) was even performed, in its entirety or in excerpts, at the national dance festival at Kibbutz Daliyyah and elsewhere. Her dances, which served as a source of inspiration for many folk-dance choreographers, are still danced today.

In an interview at the beginning of the 1980s Bergstein said, “God was always with me—that’s life.” She added: “Sometimes the heavens opened and stories, dances and music came to me. … I love you, bitter and sweet life. I thank you for the dances you gave me. Guard them well and preserve them, for they are a gift from heaven.”

Bibliography

Eshel, Ruth. To Dance with the Dream: The Beginning of Artistic Dance in Erez Israel 1920–1964 (with English summary). Tel Aviv: 1991; Goren, Yoram. Fields Adorned in Dance, On Leah Bergstein and Her Contribution to Israeli Festivals and Dance. Kibbutz Ramat Yohanan: 1983.

How to cite this page

Ronen, Dan. "Leah Bergstein." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 1 March 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on October 30, 2014) <http://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/bergstein-leah>.

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