Hadassah (Spira Epstein)
1909 – 1992
“One of the finest artist gifts to come out of Israel is Hadassah,” proclaimed the Dance Congress of 1953. Hadassah was recognized as a major dance artist of the twentieth century, a performer of Jewish, Hindu and other ethnic dance forms, and a leading force in presenting the dance of other cultures to the American public. She was a pioneer in bringing Jewish dance to the United States and was recognized as such in the first U.S. Congress on Jewish Dance held in New York City in 1949.
Born in Jerusalem on December 30, 1909, Hadassah was descended from a long line of rabbis on both her maternal and paternal sides, who included Rebbe Itzikal Drubitcher, the close companion of the Baal Shem Tov. Hadassah was trained in the mysticism of Hasidic Judaism. Her grandfather, Rebbe Landow, was one of the founders of the School of Mysticism in Jerusalem. Hadassah’s deeply-rooted spiritual beliefs found expression in her art.
Hadassah was the eldest child of Rabbi Isaac Spira and Menuha (Mina) Landow. Her siblings, in order of birth, were Simon, Israel, Harriet and Abraham. They lived among the wide diversity of cultures in Ottoman Jerusalem. Once, while traveling to Jaffa in a horse-drawn carriage (ca.1917), the family heard chanting in the distance. Upon investigation, they were amazed to find that the chants came not from Hasidim cantillating but from Hindu soldiers in service of the British army! Hadassah remarked, “I always felt that these chants, these cantorials, which have been guarded very faithfully to keep them sounding as they did in ancient times, in spite of all the influences that occurred when the Jews were in Europe, were Asiatic. Later, on my trip to India, I met the great Sanskrit scholar, Professor Raghavan of the University of Madras, who told me that the Vedic chant and the Hebrew chanting he had heard sound very similar.”
“How could I forget my grandfather’s face dancing with the Torah in his arms. How his white beard and the Torah seemed like a pillar of fire and the ecstasy on his face! In later years when I saw other exotic dancers from other races, colors and beliefs, that ecstatic expression was always similar.” Hadassah’s great affinity with Hindu dance stems from her lifelong belief that if the Hebraic chants and cantillations resemble the Hindu chants, then the ancient Hebrew dances, had they been preserved, would also have resembled the Indian dances. Her analogy flows from our common experience of “music being the handmaiden of the dance.”
During the Turkish rule of Palestine, a relative in the diplomatic service made a statement in a personal letter which ultimately forced this prominent family into exile. For two years the family moved from place to place, including stays in Vienna and Constantinople. They suffered malnutrition and poor living conditions. Nevertheless, Hadassah thus gained the experience of living among diverse cultures and learning their traditions. Later in her career as dancer, Hadassah had to overcome pain caused by physical disabilities incurred from the deficiencies suffered as a child in exile.
Hadassah migrated to the United States with her family in 1924. In New York on Oct. 28, 1933, Hadassah married Milton Epstein, a painter who also owned a scholarly book store that would later be located near Columbia University for over fifty years. Milton led Hadassah to New York’s museums, theaters and dance performances. Upon seeing Ted Shawn of the Denishawn Dancers perform his Whirling Dervish, Hadassah was flooded with memories, but also struck with the awareness of what an artist could do: the artist could present the traditional form and do so with the magic and excitement of theater.
Spira Epstein began dance studies in New York City under the renowned pioneer of modern dance, Ruth St. Denis, and under Jack Cole, famous dancer of early Hollywood cinema, both of whom had been attracted to the dance of India. In her autobiography St. Denis wrote, “Of those who composed that first little choir, Hadassah springs first to mind. A fine sensitive soul...” Simultaneously, she studied with Mme. LaMeri, founder of The Ethnologic Dance Center in New York, and Nala Najan, a master of the Tanjore Temple style and the leading Hindu dance scholar in the U.S. She learned the Javanese dances from the Court of Soerakarta, receiving the only Teacher’s Diploma granted in the U.S., from Radem Mas Kodrat and Radem Mas Wiradat, twin brothers who performed Javanese music at the Javanese Pavilion of the 1939 World’s Fair, New York. Her name first appeared in the New York newspapers as a member of the Kenji Hinoke Japanese Dance Company.
Hadassah debuted her own choreography on January 11, 1945 at Times Hall, sharing the bill with Pearl Primus, already established at that time as a dynamic dancer introducing African dance into modern dance, and Josephine Premice, a Haitian singer. She was soon dancing on the stages of Carnegie Hall, the Ziegfeld Theatre, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, many Broadway theaters, every major dance series in New York, the Habibi nightclub and Jacob’s Pillow in New England. Previously a solo artist, Hadassah created her own company in 1950, debuting at the YM-YWHA (92nd St. Y) in New York. John Martin, the dance critic for The New York Times, credited Hadassah as an “exceptionally gifted artist...One of the best!”
Her signature piece, Shuvi Nafshi (1947), was based on a verse from Psalm 116, “Return O My Soul.” Of the psalm she said, “My interpretation? Man is not alone when he is ecstatically aware that his soul, albeit an infinitesimal spark, is part and parcel of the Universal Flame.” The work was the expression of her religious belief that the dance was a means to attain this ecstatic awareness and thereby to connect with her Source. “Shuvi Nafshi, a dance of Biblical power in its projection of ecstatic reverence for the divine...powerful and beautiful, is not only of interest because of its emotional communications but also because of its absorbing fusion of modern dance’s expressional qualities with oriental movement idioms” (Walter Terry, New York Herald Tribune).
Hadassah’s defiance of the rules of her Hasidic background by dancing in public caused her great emotional turmoil. A major moment in Hadassah’s life occurred one night after dancing Shuvi Nafshi. Her parents appeared backstage with tears in their eyes, having recognized their daughter’s intent to present her beliefs in the dance. She had won their approval with the beauty and spirituality of her work.
Hadassah’s dances were not all spiritually motivated. Her personality was a magnificent blend of warmth, compassion, gentleness and a tremendous sense of humor. Witnessing Hindu dance popularized in nightclubs to jazz music, Hadassah responded, “in a moment when my sense of humor took the best of me, I made a satire.” Broadway Hindu (1949), which became a classic, “goes over the night club distortionists with a hot iron for their vulgarization of Hindu dance…”(J.S. Dance Observer). “...A hilarious burlesque…” (John Martin, The New York Times).
In 1959–1960, Hadassah toured India and Israel. In India she studied Manipuri style with Ritha Devi, Kathak style with Damayanti Joshi, and Bharata Natya with Raghavan Nair and Ram Gopal. The greatest exponent of Bharata Natyam, Balasaraswati, performed personally for Hadassah. Performing herself for dignitaries in the government and the arts, Hadassah garnered these accolades: “A rare dancer... it is impossible to remain indifferent to her appeal, the skeptical heart is won over” (Times of India), “Wowed the Bombay audiences…”(Bharat Jhorti). Hadassah was able to perform the dance of another culture and win high recognition from that culture. This was indeed a remarkable achievement.
Spira Epstein was the recipient of a Rockefeller Brothers Fund grant award to further her knowledge of Indian Classical Dance and to research the Bene Israel and Cochin Jews who have lived in India for over three thousand years. She was also invited to the Druze village of Dalyat al-Karmil to witness the ancient ritual dancing and chanting. In Israel, Hadassah performed in Tel Aviv to sold-out houses and to an enthusiastic audience of thousands in the Ein Herod amphitheater.
Many, including the famous Inbal Theater, sought to have Hadassah remain in Israel as their teacher. She is remembered by numerous students in the U. S. and abroad as a “great teacher,” who truly cared that her students learned. She was faculty member, board member and chairperson of the Ethnic Division of The New Dance Group, the largest school of dance in New York, and taught in many other venues, including Dance Masters of America, The Dance Congress, Pennsylvania Association of Dance Teachers, Columbia University Teacher’s College, Jacob’s Pillow and Henry Street Playhouse.
Hadassah was well-known for teaching in many Jewish Community Centers and at The Menorah Home for the Aged. When she was unable to dance due to physical disabilities, she dedicated herself to the humanitarian concerns of others.
In 1962, for the Centennial Celebration of Rabindranath Tagore, India’s Nobel Laureate, Hadassah choreographed the Tagore Suite to his poetry, narrated by Saeed Jaffrey, Broadway and Hollywood Indian actor. This work was commissioned by the Tagore Centenary Committee, of which Prime Minister Nehru was Honorary Chairman and Norman Cousins and Pearl S. Buck, co-chairpersons.
Hadassah, like Tagore, believed in the universal brotherhood of man. Upon hearing of Gandhi’s death, she choreographed Chant to Gandhi’s favorite song. Thereafter, each of Hadassah’s classes opened with her students chanting this song, with its words of love for all humankind. In the same vein, she choreographed I Have A Dream, a dance/theater work depicting the life and message of Gandhi and its influence on Dr. Martin Luther King, created in honor of the Gandhi Centenary Celebration 1969.
Hadassah also choreographed and performed other traditional dance forms, including those of Indonesia, Bali and Korea. In creating her own dances, she used gestures that she had observed were common to many cultures. She recognized that they all stemmed from the same motivation, a spiritual longing to connect with and honor the Source. She used such gestures—for example, the mudras (formalized Hindu hand gestures)—according to their literal meaning. However she also used them as metaphor, creating poetry in dance. In so doing, she gave a greater depth to the traditional form. In her dances, her message was repeated over and over through gestures of various cultures. In this manner, she aligned the cultures spiritually, thereby creating her own poems of universal brotherhood.
In Shuvi Nafshi, the work for which she wanted to be remembered, Hadassah used a certain movement which she had seen employed by the Punjabis, North Indian Muslims and among the Dervishes, as well as in Christian sculpture. She used the Cohannic gesture of blessing—a mudra. She used an ecstatic Sufi movement. She used hand gestures seen in pictures of the Dervishes during the 17th through the 19th centuries. She included the horah, the national dance of Israel, the primary dance step of which is common to other ethnic cultures. The music was a cantorial sung by Cantor Leibele Waldman, who sang in the tradition of Yossele Rosenblatt. She wore a simple costume, moving a stylized version of the tallit, the black and white striped Jewish prayer-shawl.
In her intuitive as well as scholarly approach to understanding the universal in the traditions she studied, Hadassah’s contribution was that of a visionary. She developed a process through which many could gain a deep understanding of other cultures. Not only did Hadassah recognize movement gestures common to various cultures; she uniquely recognized that their universality lay within the motivation of the traditions. Remaining deeply rooted in her own culture, Hadassah reached an expansion of the human spirit that understood other cultures.
She died in New York on November 18, 1992.