Baruch Agadati was almost certainly the most controversial Jewish dancer of his time, building up large followings both of people who loved him, and loved to hate him. He simultaneously fought against antisemitism, angered most of the Jewish community, challenged gender roles, and built long-lasting cultural traditions. Oh, and he was also the person who created Israeli Folk Dance.
Many claim to be the ‘father of Israeli dance’ and the truth is that Israeli folk dancing has had so many important contributors that it would be impossible to crown any of them with this title, but if we were to try, Baruch Agadati would certainly make the shortlist.
Baruch Agadati’s Israeli dances weren’t just a light-hearted hop, skip, and jump, like they may seem to the uninformed eye – in fact, Agadati revolutionized the art of movement in Israel, from pivoting away from the former heteronormativity of Jewish dance, to taking antisemitic rhetoric and turning it into a powerful tool of Zionist storytelling. Baruch Agadati may have choreographed some sweet holding-hands-in-a-circle dances, but deep down they actually represented an entire ideological schema, reflecting the nonconformitive philosophy of this enigmatic man.
Baruch Agadati was born ‘Baruch Kaushansky’ in Bessarabia, where he lived with his parents and his brother Yitzchak. Considering the fact that it was Eastern Europe in the 1800s, the standard of life for Jews in Bessarabia was actually acceptable, but like with most places in the region, by the end of the century things weren’t looking so great for you if your names were Baruch and Yitzchak, so the two brothers started to make some swift plans to leave Ukraine.
In 1910, Agadati left home to study at the Bezalel Art School in Jerusalem, and he thoroughly enjoyed the dance and film scene in pre-state Israel (Ottoman Palestine at the time). The local culture suited him well, but with the outbreak of World War I, Baruch returned to Eastern Europe to fight in the Russian Army and do what he could to help with the war effort. However, after the war ended, Agadati maneuvered back into the world of dance, trading rifles for rond-de-jambes, and he enjoyed a successful career dancing with the Odessa Ballet. Classically trained and very talented on his toes, Agadati’s booming artistic career gave him enough confidence to start a new life back in the Land of Israel. So, during the period of the Third Aliyah, Baruch and his brother set sail on the SS Ruslan from Odessa and arrived safely, if a little sea sick, at the port of Jaffa.
Following his nose to the source of the emerging art scene in pre-state Israel, Agadati moved to Tel Aviv’s Neve Tzedek neighborhood and earned his living by performing solo dance recitals, which he called his “concerts,” and choreographing routines for local dance troops. His name was already becoming well known at this point, and in 1922 Baruch Agadati embarked on a world tour with his dances.
One might think that a career in dance is fairly innocuous, but this was decidedly not the case for Baruch Agadati. In the 1920s, the predominant style of dance in Mandatory Palestine consisted of Jewish folk dances, in which spritely youths would hold hands and blithely move around in circle formation, smiles on their faces and light on their feet. Agadati was bored of this. He took the traditional Jewish folk dance and decided to flip it on its head (not literally, although with Agadati one never knows!) He would go on to rewrite this choreography in his signature expressionist style, and add intricacies to the folk dances which no one had ever seen before.
It was in this way that the “Hora Agadati” was born. The Hora Agadati is one of the earliest “Israeli Dances.” Choreographed by Baruch Agadati in 1929, in his series of revitalized traditional Jewish folk dances, this is the choreography that most people still remember Agadati by today. A nonobservant but deeply traditional and culturally-connected Jew, Agadati took the outmoded Jewish dances and reframed them using a new, secular yet acutely Israeli, perspective. This refreshing style of circle dance, with its Debka-Jumps and Twisting Hips, helped shape what most people now call Israeli Folk Dancing. The Hora Agadati is still a popular dance today, and one need only visit the promenade in Tel Aviv on a Saturday night to see people of all ages and denominations dancing to Baruch Agadati’s signature Israeli folk style.
If our story ended here, we could be led to believe that Baruch Agadati was an inoffensive, perhaps even somewhat dull cultural figure in the artistic scene of pre-state Israel. But that wouldn’t be any fun, so luckily our story takes a turn for the weird.
From early on in his dance career, Baruch Agadati was making waves. During his first stint in Jerusalem in 1913, he performed a recital of the well-known Mephisto Waltz. But, breaking with tradition in a fairly explicit way, Agadati “donned a black coat as his only attire and, during the performance, right in front of the audience, in a beautiful turn of the waltz, in the moment when one side of his coat had been very indecently raised, he appeared naked, completely naked as on the bright day on which his holy and good mother brought him forth into the world” (Isaac Katz, 1927). This naked dancing fiasco was actually the scandal that led Baruch to change his original last name and adopt the name Adagati instead, after the embarrassment that his series of nude performances caused his poor mother.
Agadati continued to overturn the standard motifs in dance with the way he dressed, the way he played with gender norms on stage, and his use of unconventional and pointedly imperfect moves. He embraced new concepts of movement by using his body in jerky and sometimes awkward ways which undermined the ideas of grace and elegance to which most people were accustomed to seeing in dance. In the words of Clair Croft (2017) he “refused monolithic signification and instead forged a politics from the productive frictions among identities.”
If those concepts sound a bit dense and impenetrable, don’t worry, we will explore some examples to elucidate the point. We’ve already mentioned the Hora Agadati, so let’s start there. A little-known fact is that this dance was originally set to a traditional Moldavian antisemitic propaganda tune, picked on purpose for its hatefulness by Baruch himself. Baruch wanted to reclaim this work inspired by antisemitic sentiment, in an act of rebellion exemplifying that even the vilest racist hatred would not be permitted to destroy or humiliate Jewish culture. As time went on, this subtle meaning was lost to the masses, and it was decided that the tune should be exchanged for a new melody composed by Alexander Uriya Boskovitz, after many Jews took offence at the notion of dancing to the tune of an antisemitic song.
But this rebellion against antisemitic tropes was a theme that kept reappearing in Agadati’s work. He set out to reclaim racist stereotypes associated with Jews by taking what was considered to be a typical Jewish style of movement, but instead of allowing himself to be mocked for the very moves and gestures that inspired such antisemitism, he turned them into a delicate artform instead (Marlene Gallner, 2017.) “He took the lowly, often crude, exaggerated gestures of the antisemitic cartoon and ‘ennobled’ it, lifting it, so to speak, from the rubbish-heap onto the stage” (Giora Manor, 1986.) In reframing these antisemitic caricatures, Agadati constructed a style of Hebrew dance which proudly reclaimed the idea of the masculine Jew that antisemitic narratives had tried to destroy (Alexander H. Schwan, 2022.)
This may all sound quite positive from a Jewish perspective, but Agadati’s takes on Judaism varied, and some of his dances were not so positively received. In his dance “Melave Malkva,” Agadati personifies four different hassidim on stage. In Jewish ritual, Melave Malka is the period on Saturday night after the end of Shabbat during which Jews often eat, drink and sing away the Sabbath, as they prepare to leave behind the holiness of Shabbat and enter the mundane week ahead. Agadati used this concept as a basis to dress up as four different pious men with varied takes towards the end of Shabbat: Reb Meir, Reb Netta, Reb Joel, and Reb Shachna. Reb Meir is the wise man, for whom the end of Shabbat is a sad and deeply religious time, which he related to via the divine; Reb Netta is a poor and humble Jew who is far more down-to-earth. Reb Joel embodies the ghost of the late grandfather of Reb Meir, who is just visiting from heaven, as you do, and Reb Shachna, exemplifies a normal hassid who would be a familiar face if seen walking down the street. The twist, though, is that Baruch Agadati performed each of these four hassidic personas in drag – something which would surprise many religious Jews today, let alone 100 years ago!
In fact, Agadati’s performances often saw him taking on the personas of various characters who had impacted him during his conservative upbringing in the Eastern European shtetl, but he often embodied these roles in controversial ways. For example, in his early 1920s performance, “Galut Cycle,” Agadati portrayed a young Torah scholar, studying in a Yeshiva, completing the daily custom of laying tefillin, a practice in which religious Jewish men wrap black leather cords around their arm and forehead. Except, in Agadati’s interpretation, the Yeshiva student is wearing nothing but the tefillin! He posed nearly nude with the holy tefillin straps, leaving most of the room speechless.
It is sometimes surprising what Agadati deemed appropriate. He usually self-published the advertisements for his “concerts” and would invite adults and children alike to his shows, despite his frequent nudity and overt sexual euphemisms. In perhaps the most shocking of his performances, Baruch Agadati donned an elaborate costume and performed his show dressed as an Arab living in Jaffa. His stereotypical cultural appropriation would have made the news as it was, but that offense was far overshadowed when he opened his trousers and urinated live on stage against the wall, as part of his dance routine (Raz Yosef, 2004) (Achim Rohde, Christina von Braun, Stefanie Schüler-Springorum, 2017).
After this scandalous escapade, and the press reviews that went along with it, Agadati took a break from dance and moved into other areas of art instead. He worked with his brother Yitzchak on films, paintings, and controversial cultural events such as his divisive Jewish beauty pageants. Agadati never stopped being a pioneer in the world of dance, but his sights were now set on other pursuits – making movies rather than moves.
Baruch Agadati undoubtably helped shape Israeli dance, breaking through mainstream ideals of religion, nationalism, and identity, and in a way both opening and closing the question of how Jewishness could be expressed via the medium of dance. Artist and historian Liora Bing-Heidecker describes Agadati as a pioneering gay man, and Agadati is certainly thought of today as a gay icon and activist. But what is surprising to learn is that although he certainly unlocked the stage for LGBT+ activism through his art, Agadati lived and died not actually mentioning his own personal persuasion in this area, despite public opinion.
As it goes, we can speculate all we want (and people often do) about the meaning of his art, the hidden messages behind his religious, explicit, and controversial pieces, the real story of his spiritual ties, sense of identity, and culture. The only thing we can know for certain is that Israeli Dance is the way it is today because of Baruch Agadati. Love him or hate him, we all dance to his tune.
This article has been published as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to connect with people, institutions and communities across Europe and beyond, through storytelling, knowledge sharing and community engagement.
A special thank you is extended to Alexander H. Schwan, whose article “Queering Jewish Dance: Baruch Agadati” aided in the research of this blog post.
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