Utah's Jewish Arts Fest dancing to new tune
Jewish arts • Festival steps out in a new direction by showcasing traditional and modern Israeli dance.
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In the past, the Jewish Arts Festival was a chance to eat latkes, buy tchotchkes, admire artwork or watch a comedian's schtick.

But organizers don't want this year's event to be just about potato pancakes, knickknacks or jokes. They're hoping for something more elevated.

"We're doing it a little bit differently," said Rita Skolnick, special events coordinator at the IJ & Jeanné Wagner Jewish Community Center (JCC). "We're going to have a cultural event that wouldn't otherwise come to Salt Lake City."

The festival this year is moving from the JCC to downtown Salt Lake City's Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center and will feature one big event: a performance by Los Angeles-based dance ensemble Keshet Chaim.

Singer Gilat Rapaport, a pianist and 17 dancers clad in colorful, hand-painted silk costumes will grace the stage, telling the tale of Jews and Israel through movement and music.

They will perform pieces about Jewish prayers, the diversity of Israel's population, working the land and the experience of watching a child leave for the military. In Israel, nearly all citizens must serve in the military after turning 18.

"We try to tell the stories of the people living in Israel through choreography," said Genie Benson, executive director of Keshet Chaim.

The Utah performance will include traditional Israeli folk moves and contemporary dance — a nod to the dichotomy of experiences within the small Middle Eastern nation itself.

"It's such an interesting country because you have one of the biggest party cities in the country, Tel Aviv, and then you have the home of religion, Jerusalem," said Leah Bleiweis, company administrator and a former dancer with the group. "Life there is definitely very, very full."

It's something the group hopes to showcase with its art. The ensemble's very name, Keshet Chaim, is Hebrew for "Rainbow of Life."

The group's shows originally were based mainly on traditional Israeli folk dancing, but through the years that has shifted, Bleiweis said. The group, which has been performing since 1983, was founded by Eytan Avisar, who began his dancing career on an Israeli kibbutz and is the group's artistic director.

"As the audience has gotten more artistically intelligent and as the understanding of Israel has gotten so much more mainstream," Bleiweis said, "we're able to include a lot more contemporary movement and artistry in what we do."

The troupe also seeks to combat prejudice and anti-Semitism through its art, outreach and education — a mission that appealed to organizers of the Salt Lake City event.

Rep. David Litvack, who will emcee the show, said the company's mission "brings a higher level of meaning to the event."

Litvack, D-Salt Lake City, said he's happy about the changes for this year's festival.

"To have a group like Keshet Chaim here to kind of kick off this new tradition, I think, is exciting for the community and opens up Judaism and the traditions and culture of Judaism … to a new audience and to a broader community."

As is the case with a number of Utah families, Litvack said, the JCC has meant a lot to him and his family. As a teen, Litvack worked at the JCC as a camp counselor and now, as a parent, he's sent his kids there for preschool, kindergarten and the camps.

The new Jewish Arts Festival is sure to attract a number of people from Utah's relatively small Jewish community. But organizers say it will also likely draw many non-Jews as well.

After all, Skolnick said, about 75 percent of JCC members aren't Jewish. In the past, the festival has attracted as many as 2,000 people over a couple of days, she said. This year, organizers hope to see a few hundred people or more at the event — enough to fill the theater.

Clearly, it will be a smaller festival than the JCC has staged in the past, but it will also be more focused and more meaningful, organizers hope.

And for those who look forward to the fried food and shopping as much as the art, all is not lost. The JCC still will offer both those treats at a Hanukkah market Dec. 2 — just not as part of what could be the state's premier Jewish art event of the year.

lschencker@sltrib.com —

To attend the Jewish Arts Festival

The Jewish Arts Festival will be held Saturday, Nov. 10, at 8 p.m. at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center in the Jeanné Wagner Theatre, 138 W. 300 South, Salt Lake City. Tickets are $43 for the general public, including the Salt Lake County preservation fee, and $30.50 for students, also including the preservation fee. Tickets are available at all ArtTix locations, www.ArtTix.org or 801-355-2787. To learn more about the event, go to www.slcjcc.org. To learn more about Keshet Chaim, go to www.kcdancers.org.