Here They Shed the City and Dance Into Their Jewish Past


West of the San Fernando Valley, under the shadow of the rugged Santa Susana Mountains, Peppertree Lane turns abruptly away from modern life. A sharp turn off Simi Valley's bustling Los Angeles Avenue, and strip shopping centers and tract houses are replaced by decades-old peppertrees and enormous cacti.

Here, surrounded by the teeming suburb, is the Brandeis-Bardin Institute--an oasis of natural beauty and ethnic heritage. And it is here, in this kibbutz-like setting of orange trees and carefully laid, stone-lined paths, that 100 Jewish men and women spent Thanksgiving weekend, immersing themselves in Israeli folk dancing and taking a break from modern life.

"Step-step-step. Step-step-step. Listen to the sound of your feet!" commanded choreographer Dani Dassa, his eyebrows as dense as his Israeli accent, to his sluggish beginners' class.

"Listen, you're not listening!" he repeated, redemonstrating a basic step during a Saturday morning workshop.

"Now," he smiled, as the dancers finally skipped in a smooth, continuous circle. "Now, it's unified--like the roll of a drum."

The institute was founded in 1947 by a Ukrainian academic named Shlomo Bardin, who conceived the idea with U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis. Brandeis died in 1941, long before land could be found for the project.

The institute holds a variety of seminars, weekend retreats and summer camps designed for assimilated Jews to rediscover their culture. Thanks largely to Dassa, a 61-year-old Leonard Bernstein look-alike fond of cupping students' faces in his hands, the folk dance retreats are among the most popular programs.

"I think the appeal is community," said Dassa's wife, Judy, a New York native who enjoys watching talent and love bloom under her husband's direction.

"You hold hands. You put hands on shoulders. You can talk to people without feeling pressure. You don't have to wait to be asked to dance. It links them to a people, a community, a country, a language--it links them to a world."

Last weekend's unmarried participants came from as far away as Seattle, Chicago and Wyoming to dance in the hills with strangers. Many had attended previous dance retreats or summer camp at Brandeis. Others simply wanted something different and the chance to meet someone Jewish. For $140, they got a meals-included experience that combined Southern California's fitness philosophy with Israeli history and lore.

The weekend began Friday evening with Sabbath services and dinner and ended Sunday with a final dance review and lunch. Between dance sessions, students could roam the institute's 3,100 acres, chosen by Bardin for their resemblance to Palestine.

"For me, to go dancing is therapeutic," said Michal Robins, 35, an Israeli-born psychologist from Woodland Hills. "It's amazing. It's cathartic. It's cleansing. It's physical," she said.

"It's almost like an addiction. Night comes, and you just feel you have to go. It's exercise, it has group dynamics, romance--everything a person wants to have is in one chunk."

"It's social and it's exercise and it's a tie to the culture all at once," said Debra Samuels, a 30-year-old marketing researcher from Chicago who keeps a kosher home and performs with an Israeli folk dance troupe.

That enthusiasm was reflected in the vanity plates on cars lining Peppertree Lane: B DANCN, DNC WIME and I DEBKA, refering to a classic Eastern European line dance.

A young chiropractor from Tarzana came to "get a good Jewish experience again" after a decade devoted largely to study and ambition.

"Since May, I've had a spiritual revelation," said the chiropractor, 29-year-old Steve Katz. "I went to the Esalen Institute and got in touch again with my spirituality. The chiropractor working with me suggested I go there after passing my boards, sort of to rejuvenate. He thought it'd be good for me.

"It was a major experience," Katz continued. "It reminded me of my times at temple, that there is spirituality within the world."

A 31-year-old architect from Jackson, Wyo., attended a summer program for college students at Brandeis 10 years ago and has "always had a real warm feeling about this place."

At the same time, Larry Thalsaid, "a little bit of the Jewish part of myself has woken up. Somehow, it felt rather important to get back to my spiritual self, as if the rational side of humanity just was not quite making it."

A real estate agent from Chatsworth, 28-year-old Lloyd San, said simply: "Maybe I'm at an age where I want to know more about who I am."

After fueling up on an Israeli-style breakfast of cottage cheese, tomatoes, cucumbers and hard-boiled eggs, dancers broke into two workshops Saturday morning, one for beginners and one for advanced students.

"Yemenite left, Yemenite right, a rum-pum-pum, a rum-pum-pum . . ." Dassa intoned for his beginners.

In Southern California "everything is very separate, and since everyone gets into his own car, it can be very isolating," Judy Dassa whispered as her husband taught. "We see a lot of college kids and there's a kind of desperation. They want to meet someone and they're afraid they won't. They don't know how to do it."

Across a footbridge in another dance hall, an anguished love song blasted over the stereo system. Advanced students, broken into couples, twirled gracefully, easily following the steps of a visiting instructor from Israel.

Dassa wandered over from the beginners' class, looking on approvingly.

"This is also nature taking its own course," he shrugged.

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