Imagine spending up to ten hours a day for seventeen years perfecting yourself in your chosen profession. You put aside all other hobbies and interests, curtail your social life, and spend money on training, travel, and supplies. Your health suffers, but you push on. Your efforts pay off. You're a success; fame is right around the corner.
Now imagine that, in order to become religious you have to give all of it up.
A woman strolls down the street, her four-year-old daughter holding her hand on one side, her two-year-old son on the other. Her husband walks ahead, pushing an infant in the stroller. The woman, wearing a sheitel, a gray pin-striped skirt, and matching vest, is a classic example of a young chareidi mother. If you look more carefully, however, you will notice something different: The woman's back is as straight as the signpost she is passing. Her long, graceful strides spark with an energy that is not typically seen in a mother with three very young children to care for.
When Rivka Ohana was growing up in Chevy Chase, Maryland, she remembers, her mother sometimes lit Shabbos candles. She also remembers each night praying to G-d, asking Him to save her from robbers. She knew there was a G-d, but the others around her didn't seem to know how she felt.
She also knew that when she grew up she wanted to get married and have children. At age five, she made a conscious effort to stop sucking her thumb because she knew mommies didn't do that.
But she got sidetracked and instead devoted 17 years in total commitment to a radically different goal.
Rivka was a child with boundless energy. She loved to run and play on the jungle gym. A natural athlete, she excelled in gymnastics, which she began training in at age four. Two events, unrelated, occurred that changed her life. Her gymnastic class suddenly closed down and, soon after, her mother received a notice in the mail that a new ballet school was opening.
Unlike many American girls, Rivka had never dreamed of being a ballerina.
She recalls, "When I was seven, I was so energetic my mother threw me into that ballet class. She thought it would be a wonderful outlet for me."
Were you naturally talented?
"Not at all. I wasn't born perfect for ballet. My feet weren't high-arched and I was slightly bow-legged."
By age twelve, Rivka knew she wanted to dance. "I wanted to make people happy through my dancing. And I still had such a strong need to be active. I loved the discipline of ballet, the rules, and the concentration. I also loved the music and the rhythm."
Her teacher saw her potential and realized that she was on her way to becoming a ballerina. "My teacher told me: 'Your determination is going to make you a professional.'"
Ballet took over Rivka's life. She was no longer home for family meals, Shabbos or otherwise. She stopped her piano, tennis, and Hebrew lessons; she spent less time on her schoolwork.
Summer meant ballet camps in Boston, Upstate New York, and Colorado. She enjoyed dancing outside in nature.
In high school, she had dance lessons every day after school. By 12th grade, she arranged a dance internship in place of regular classes. This meant four dance classes a day, much preferred over academics and reading the secular textbooks. Even then, she disdained them.
And when you weren't dancing? Did you rest, take a break with friends?
Rivka's free time was spent swimming, speed walking, working out on a Pilates machine, and doing stretching exercises for an hour a day. While talking with friends, she would use cans of food to weight-lift.
"My teacher said it was too much, but I was determined to excel."
At age 18, Rivka's mother took her to ballet company auditions. She tried out at ten different companies all over the United States, and. was accepted by the Cincinnati Ballet Company. Of approximately 75 companies, it's one of the top 15 in the nation.
There were 28 dancers, only one other of which was Jewish. She was an apprentice and, unlike Rivka, she didn't perform on Yom Kippur. "I wondered how Jewish she was and if I should take off then, too."
Daily life as a dancer involved class for one and a half hours, five hours of rehearsal each day, and performances every two months for three nights.
Ballet was a great way to keep out of the secular world. "I didn't go to college, and my rigorous schedule didn't give me much time to delve into a silly or dangerous social life. No one seemed serious about getting married, or anything else. But at least I had something serious in my life."
"My mother loved that I was a ballerina. It meant so much to her." Rivka reflects, "My parents gave us a good upbringing. They did a great job of raising us to be loving. My mom raised us to honor our husbands. Life was good."
Rivka might have continued along this path, dedicating the prime years of her life to achieving acclaim as a ballerina, if it hadn't been for her older sister.
"Batya always wanted to get married and have ten kids," Rivka recalls.
"When she was 16, she spent a summer on a kibbutz. She loved it and wanted to go back. She saved her babysitting money all year to pay for her plane ticket. She eventually met her husband on kibbutz. He wanted to live an observant life and she agreed. She was 19 when she married him, and they settled into religious life in Israel. I was 11 at the time."
"I remember when she came for a visit with her family, when I was 16. I was very fond of her sweet three-year-old boy. One day he said to me, 'You're not tzenuah!'
Were you insulted?
"No. I realized that this little boy was much holier than I was."
Every two years, the family took a trip to Israel to visit Batya. When she was 18, Rivka was intrigued by a book on Batya's shelf, A Guide to Torah Hashkafa by Eliezer Gewirtz. "I read it and it made sense to me, but then I thought, No, not now. First I want to live, have fun in life."
Rivka's mother gave her a necklace from the safe deposit box that contained her deceased grandmother's jewelry. The necklace was from Israel and the charm on it looked like a hand. It was a chamsah. She put it on and wore it every day during rehearsals. She liked to look at and touch it.
How did you feel wearing it?
"It made me feel proud to be Jewish. And that G-d was protecting me from harm."
On the next family trip to visit Batya, they went to the kever of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. A woman asked if she could take a picture of Batya's religious-looking children. The woman turned out to be from Cincinnati and was surprised to hear that Rivka was with the ballet company there. Rivka and Karen Dreyfuss became instant best friends.
When Rivka returned from Israel, she was selected to be the principal dancer, with many solos, in a 35-minute modern dance about pagan rites.
"'Get out of that world!' my sister warned me from the Holy Land. But I wasn't ready yet to hear her."
Rivka put so much effort into her practicing that she injured herself.. She suffered from shin splints that were a result of overzealous jumping. She was unable to perform in the pagan rite dance.
"Hashem lifted me out of it," she says, still grateful for those injuries.
Karen took her to Lubavitcher events. They went to shiurim and a challah-baking party at Rebbetzin Kalmanson's home. "Baruch Hashem, Chabad goes out all over the world. Jews need other Jews."
At age 22, on the next family trip to Israel, Rivka decided to dress tzniusdig while visiting her sister and family. She returned home and, for two months, kept to her new standards, even though she was surrounded by a hostile environment. Feeling totally isolated, she finally succumbed and began once again dressing like everyone else around her.
On Batya's next visit to America, Rivka asked the children if they would teach her the various brachos over food. They complied happily with her request.
"I was always proud to be a Jew, and I knew I wanted to marry someone interested in Judaism. So I went to the Reform synagogue services, and I saw men and women socializing with each other there. I knew this wasn't right. They were so busy talking to each other, there didn't seem to be anyone talking to Hashem. I guess I could have led a nice Reform Jewish life, but that just wasn't for me. I knew there had to be more. There wasn't enough at the Conservative synagogue either; things were missing, askew.
"Finally, I found an Orthodox shul, the Golf Manor Synagogue with Rabbi Hanan Balk. This is it! I felt. Inside, I was starting to wake up. Then Karen took me to a special all-day program of shiurim. I came there with my bleached blonde hair, looking very different from everyone else. Rabbi Balk spotted me and asked, 'Don't I know you?' I told him I'd been to his shul a few times. Then I added the words that would change my life: 'I want to be more Jewish!' Despite his busy schedule, Rabbi Balk immediately offered to meet with me once a week to teach me more. He also set me up with a woman named Dina Lipman.
*"I was surprised to see Dina backstage helping out at one of our performances. It turned out that she was also a dancer. I once, saw her walking down the street in her Shabbos clothes. Her dignity made a lasting impression on me."
Although Rivka was a very social person who smiled a lot with her friends, she never smiled during rehearsals. She attributes this to her natural instinct for wanting to be modest. "On stage, we had to smile. But during rehearsals, it wasn't necessary."
As Rivka was reaching the peak of her career as a ballerina, she began doing things that sabotaged her advancement. She over-exercised. When she wasn't rehearsing for hours on end, she went swimming or biking. She hardly ate anything and was one of the company's thinnest dancers.
Rivka loved the gravity-defying ballet jumps. She was one of the highest jumpers in the company. "Maybe my soul was trying to escape from that world." She sighs.
She had OOS (Occupational Overuse Syndrome), Carpal Tunnel Syndrome in her feet that made her unable to walk for a month. Anorexia, smoking, and drinking didn't help her general health.
She tried to straddle both worlds. In her offstage life, she dressed with the dignity of a tzniusdige, Orthodox woman. In the dancers' studio, she blended in with those around her, excelling in the dances she had spent her life perfecting.
She attempted to keep Shabbos, without giving up her regular activities. This meant still teaching girls in a Saturday dance class, but taking the trouble to arrange for a non-Jew to drive her there. She was careful to turn the tape recorder on and off with what she thought was an acceptable shinui for the situation, by using the back of a pencil.
She also tried to keep Shabbos while babysitting for the dance mistress' daughter. She stayed overnight at their house so that she wouldn't have to travel home on Shabbos. She brought along candles, wine for Kiddush, and challos. She made brachos out loud, the four-year-old Jewish daughter listening. Rivka wonders if that child has ever experienced another Shabbos since then.
"People in the kollel community opened their arms and took me in. They had me over for Shabbos. The Shabbos food really saved me; it started to fill the empty places in my stomach and my soul."
But she still performed on stage.
"I knew I was a hypocrite."
She tried to have it all. She had danced professionally for six years. She had ten more years to look forward to as a professional ballerina.
But as she struggled hard to have the best of both worlds, a disturbing question occurred to her: All this hard work, what's it for? I'm working like a slave. And for what? For what am I working this hard? Wouldn't it be more worthwhile to work hard for G-d?
She tried to put this question out of her mind; it was time to sign another contract for the next year. The company was performing Swan Lake. Even though Rivka had been unable to perform during most of the previous year, due to her injuries, she was offered another contract and she signed it.
Swan Lake…joining hands with other dancers, leaping, almost running, toes pointed, heads tilted, feet moving, speeding to the fast frantic tempo…flying, flying away from that world….
Rivka decided she must talk with Rabbi Kalmanson. "I know it's not right to perform with the company," she told him. "But what can I do? I signed a year's contract. I'll have to finish up the year. I don't have a choice."
"Dancers fight for contracts," she explained to the rav. "They cry for days if they don't get them. Ballerinas never break their contracts." And what about her ballet slippers? The company had already purchased $1,000-worth of ballet slippers custom-fitted for her. No, she couldn't possibly break her contract.
"You don't have to finish the year," Rabbi Kalmanson said. "You can stop. Your obligation isn't to the ballet company; your obligation is to Hashem."
Rivka instantly absorbed what the rav had said. And then she felt tremendous relief. Finally, she felt that it was acceptable for her to be an Orthodox Jew She now felt she had the confidence and courage to approach the company's manager.
Rivka remembers that phone call. Her mother was in the room. She'd come to Cincinnati to see her daughter perform, unaware that Rivka was determined to throw away her entire career.. It was the worst day in her mother's life.
Rivka called the manager. "I'm very sorry, but I can't continue my contract. I can't dance in front of men, anymore, I've become religious. "
How did the manager react?
"Believe it or not, he was happy for me. They all saw I'd been in terrible conflict. Beside, I think that non-Jews respect Jews more when they act like Jews."
Is it important in life to be a ballerina?
"For many years, I thought it was. Now I realize that it wasn't that great. We are bnos Melech. We are queens! It's a higher form of life to be tzniusdig. I had reached the top of that other life - and it wasn't so high."
Rivka felt committed to finish the Swan Lake series. She spent Rosh Hashanah on stage. Tzom Gedaliah was her last performance. At the end of the Swan Lake performance, two white doves were released to fly over the dancers' heads. This was an unusual finale for a ballet performance, and Rivka attaches her own personal significance to it:
"Doves are kosher birds. They make me think of Noach releasing the doves from the teivah, to see if the world was safe and ready. It was as if those two doves flying across the stage on my last ballet performance were rescuing a girl from a world filled with evil, leading her into a new, peaceful life."
When Rivka emerged from the backstage door she was surprised and deeply touched to see there six women from the Orthodox kehillah. They told her how beautiful her performance had been and offered her encouragement for her decision. "It was as if angels were there, greeting me at the beginning of my new path."
How did you feel, after you left the company?
"It was a free feeling. I had proven myself. I didn't leave because I had failed. I had made it. When you open your eyes, Hashem shows you the right path. Once I began to notice all the Jewish things around me, I could close my eyes to all the silly stuff. I was ready to eat well and take care of myself, to be able to serve Hashem with koach."
After she left the ballet company, Rivka found work in telemarketing. But she didn't enjoy sitting at a desk all day; it didn't bring her any closer to Torah.
"'Go to Israel," Rabbi Kalmanson told her. She sold her car, clothes, and perfume, and went to Neve Yerushalayim Seminary in Jerusalem. The Cincinnati kollel community paid for her plane ticket as well as her seminary tuition.
Rivka spent four months learning at Neve. "Ballet is very technical and has many rules. You must be disciplined. If you do it right, you earn praise. It was great preparation for Torah. Torah is a huge world. I didn't know much. The teachers were great. I miss it now. In this life, our role models are the rabbi and the rebbetzin. I need rebbetzins in my life."
While at Neve, she taught ballet classes six hours a week to girls, students, and women. She also taught dance at the Ron Conservatory in Har Nof.
Seeing her sister's life strengthened her and quickened her teshuvah process. Batya had never tried to push her way of life onto Rivka, except for a few remarks and letters that really made her think. She remained in the background, setting an excellent example of what an observant Jewish woman could be.
Rivka was ready and eager for marriage. She knew she wanted to marry a Moroccan who was a serious Torah learner.
How did you know this?
"I saw a picture of the Ben Ish Chai. My neshamah must have sensed that my husband was supposed to look like him." Rivka's brother-in-law made the shidduch. She married a Breslover chassid from Canada, who was of Moroccan origin.
"When Ashkenazim marry Sephardim, Mashiach will come."
Rivka now began in earnest to fulfill her earliest dream of being a wife and mother. "Being a Mom is great for me. I don't have to be perfect, as in a dance performance. But being a mother is much harder than being a ballet dancer. It's the hardest work of all. Unexpected things keep coming up that are not part of the program. It's a work of art, each minute."
Rivka's four-and-a-half-year-old daughter has joined the young girls' dance class. "She loves it. Dancing with my children is better than being on any stage. This is the real life. "
She loves teaching ballet. The girls in her classes all dress in long, flowing skirts, unlike the non-tzniusdig attire found in regular ballet classes. Rivka has a new dream now, of opening up a frum ballet academy. She has also danced in a Tzfas women's dance group called Naaleh and has choreographed her first dance, to a melody of Anim Zmiros.
"When I choreographed that dance, we were living In Jerusalem, in Beis Yisrael. This was during a terrible time, when bombings were happening in Jerusalem almost on a daily basis. I had this image of everyone waking up, pulling everyone up, for Mashiach was coming. This inspired me to compose a dance which begins with me waking up and rising."
The long, rectangular room is filled with women and girls seated on long benches. Rivka lies on the floor as the music begins. She's wearing long, loose-fitting clothing that befit a modest woman. With gentle, sweeping motions she arcs her arms above her head and then slowly and regally rises to a sitting and then standing position. Standing on her toes, she pirouettes, one turn after another, then reaches out her arms like a mother greeting her children, the serene smile on her face making it look effortless. Her face radiant, her dance giving her audience joy, inspiring awe.
Whatever happened to the thousand dollars worth of ballet shoes that were purchased for you, before you quit the ballet company?
"I don't know." But she does know what happened to the ballet shoes that she used on stage with the ballet company. She gave them to Dina Lipman to give to the girls in Cincinnati's Orthodox community. Fifteen girls hung the toe shoes above their beds. They saved them for many years, remembering "Becky the Ballerina" who used to dance in their city, and whose teshuvah made her an even greater star in their eyes.