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This article by Nicole Plett was prepared for the March 14, 2001

edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Carolyn Dorfman’s `Mentshn’ & Inspiration

When Carolyn Dorfman was a girl growing up in Detroit

she tried to behave perfectly so as not upset her parents. As

teenagers

in Poland, both her mother and father had lost everything — their

homes, their families, their friends. They survived the Holocaust

in forced labor camps. As the youngest of their three American

children,

Dorfman felt her parents had already suffered enough. The world of

this American kid was quite a bit more complicated than "Leave

it to Beaver." "I made a commitment as a kid not to upset

them because their lives had been so hard," she says today.

"There

was so much emphasis earlier on the pain. But as my parents aged,

I wanted to celebrate the life as well as the pain that makes their

lives significant. The legacy isn’t death, the legacy is life."

"Mayne Mentshn (My People)" is choreographer Dorfman’s latest

dance, a full-evening’s work performed by her company of eight, that

explores and celebrates her Eastern European Jewish heritage. The

work will be presented by the Carolyn Dorfman Dance Company at the

F.M. Kirby Theater on the campus of Drew University, Thursday through

Sunday, March 15 through 18.

Speaking by phone from her home in Short Hills, Dorfman first helps

pronounce her work’s title, Yiddish words which sound like "mine-a

ment-shin," and mean simply, "My People."

"It’s really a colloquial phrase, a phrase my family used all

the time," she says. "My parents used it as a play on the

word `mensch,’ that word for a high-quality human being, the epitome

of all that’s embodied in Jewish ideals — generosity, intellect,

caring, and responsibility. That’s someone who lives by the highest

standards, one my parents believed was what expected of us. So for

me, it’s an endearing phrase of pride."

She says her new interest in celebrating the joy and humor of Jewish

culture has a lot to do with her own family. She and her husband Greg

Galick, an orthopedic surgeon, are parents of two daughters, ages

8 and 11.

"Three years ago at a Chanukah celebration I found myself dancing

to Klezmer music," says Dorfman. "I asked myself, What do

I want to celebrate? What do I want them to know? What will connect

them to this legacy? What were the ideals and values were so special

to me?"

Caught up in these new thoughts and the rich, heady klezmer music,

she found herself focusing on life. "Nobody had ever said,

Remember

the life. They said `Remember the pain. Remember 6 million died.’

Not remember 6 million lived."

"I finally acknowledge all of the strengths, trials, and more

importantly, humor that has sustained `my people.’ This dance is a

tribute to my family, from my nuclear and extended family to the human

race at large. It is about a spirit and passion for life, people,

and truth."

"I am ready to celebrate the joyous, soulful qualities of Jewish

character, gesture, ritual, and humor. Through my art, I want to honor

the tragedy of the past by celebrating my roots through music and

dance and move forward with spirit and optimism into the 21st

century,"

says Dorfman.

Both parents were born and raised in Poland, her mother in the city

of Lodz, and her father, in a village southeast of Lodz. "My

father’s

family — his mother and six or seven siblings — were all

killed

in Treblinka. Only my father and his father, who were working out

of the village when the Nazis came in, survived. My mother’s family

was all killed in Auschwitz. She and two sisters had been sent to

their grandmother’s, and from there they were taken by the Nazis into

labor camps. They were 15, 16, 17 at the time. They were strong and

they survived."

After the war, Dorfman’s mother and father met and married. Then the

couple and her mother’s sisters were sponsored to settle in the United

States. The Dorfmans soon found members of their extended families

in Detroit and joined its Jewish community, which includes a

significant

population of survivors, where they continue to live.

Dorfman says her mother and her sisters are so close they talk on

the phone every morning. "I was brought up to know everything

that had happened to my parents. And because I was the youngest I

think I heard the stories earliest and they had a profound effect

on me. As a kid I had nightmares and great fears. My mother told me

that when she turned 15, her life turned upside down. And I remember

that fear, that sense of catastrophe. I think it’s totally shaped

who I am, but in a positive way."

"Their whole reason for surviving was to carry on the family as

it existed in Europe. The family had to stay together, that was the

essence of staying alive."

Now in its 18th season, CDDC is one of the state’s leading

contemporary

dance companies. This summer, CDDC will make its international debut

as part of the Eighth Annual International Contemporary Dance

Conference

and Performance Festival in Bytom and Krakow, Poland.

Dorfman started dancing as a girl and, inspired by a

Doris Humphrey work, "Passacaglia," decided to major in dance

at the University of Michigan. "I loved the humanity of the dance,

its structure, Humphrey’s craft, and the way she creates the sense

of the individual within the community. I knew then that was what

I wanted to do," she says. Dorfman earned her master’s degree

at New York’s Tisch School for the Arts and began teaching at

Centenary

College. She also began choreographing for groups, and after she took

a leave for her husband’s training in California, she never went back

to teaching. In two much earlier works — "Cries of the

Children"

(1983) and "Lifeline" (1989) — Dorfman explored the darker

side of her family background. But her more recent life experience,

including mothering her own daughters, has changed the focus of her

interest.

"Mayne Mentshn" comprises "The Klezmer Sketch," a

dance created and premiered last year, and the new work, "The

American Dream." The entire work is set to an original score

composed

by Greg Wall, which he will perform with his band, Hasidic New Wave.

Dorfman says the intent of the work is "to mine the exuberant,

joyful, yet soulful quality of Klezmer music." In Klezmer music,

the various instruments used, such as violin and clarinet, take on

human characteristics that celebrate the uniqueness of the Jewish

journey, and the extraordinary universal connections that it

engenders.

"The Klezmer Sketch" (created and premiered last year) is

in four sections. "My Father’s Solo" and "The Three

Sisters"

are personal interpretations of the personalities that nurtured the

artist. "The Table" and "The Arrangement" reflect

the more universal experiences of holiday meals and arranged marriage

shared by many cultures.

In "The American Dream" section of the work, Dorfman expresses

the complexities of her own experience growing up as the child of

immigrants and survivors in Detroit’s close-knit Jewish community.

But many will recognizes the youthful struggles. In "The Sacred

Line" the three sisters deal with their children wanting to go

and be like the others. "The Radio Hour" is based on a Detroit

coffee klatch accompanied by an actual recording of the 1940s

Manischewitz

radio hour in which a band plays a "rollicking" version of

a well-known, celebratory Passover song.

Ultimately she celebrates family as a conduit to the future. Despite

the dark traumas of her parents’ youth, they kept their culture alive

in America. "I was lucky because my parents chose life. There

are a lot of people who didn’t," she says.

"In all my work I have always found the commonality of human

experience

stronger than human differentiation. Now I’ve found that the more

specific the reference, the more universally it seems to touch

people,"

says Dorfman. "The table in my dance is the Passover table, but

people from all backgrounds can see themselves in it. You need to

look inward and find the common ground. I enjoy what is different,

but I cherish the common ground."

— Nicole Plett

Mayne Mentshn (My People), Carolyn Dorfman Dance

Company ,

F.M. Kirby Theater, Drew University, Madison, 973-408-5600. $22

adults;

$15 students & seniors. Thursday through Sunday, March 15 through

18.


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