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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
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
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.
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
Caught up in these new thoughts and the rich, heady klezmer music,
she found herself focusing on life. "Nobody had ever said,
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,
"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
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
family — his mother and six or seven siblings — were all
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
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
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
dance companies. This summer, CDDC will make its international debut
as part of the Eighth Annual International Contemporary Dance
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
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
(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
"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
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
"The Klezmer Sketch" (created and premiered last year) is
in four sections. "My Father’s Solo" and "The Three
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
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
stronger than human differentiation. Now I’ve found that the more
specific the reference, the more universally it seems to touch
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
F.M. Kirby Theater, Drew University, Madison, 973-408-5600. $22
$15 students & seniors. Thursday through Sunday, March 15 through
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