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Former Rockette Rachel Factor now performs women-only shows

 
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In her former life, Rachel Factor starred in Broadway shows and kicked up her heels as a Rockette at Radio City Music Hall.

But that was back then, when she was known as Christine Frances Masave Horii. The Hawaiian born entertainer has come a long way since. Though she continues to enthrall audiences, her acts have been modified: These days, the Orthodox Jerusalem resident dresses modestly and performs only for women’s audiences.

Factor shares the story of her journey — from growing up in Hawaii to performing in Los Angeles and New York to her home in Jerusalem — in a one-woman show of dance, song, and story that has enchanted more than 30,000 women worldwide.

Factor will entertain a local audience on Monday, Nov. 22, at a fund-raising event at Cong. Keter Torah in Teaneck for the Teaneck mikvah.

Event organizers told The Jewish Standard that Factor motivates people to think, but is more entertaining than the typical speaker. “People love to hear about her journey to Orthodoxy,” said Miriam Greenspan, president of the Teaneck Mikvah Assocation. “She dances and sings and shares funny and inspiring stories along the way.” The aim of the event is to bring the Jewish women of Teaneck together and to help raise funds for the recent $4 million mikvah renovation, she said.

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Rachel Factor used to be Christine Horii — and then she converted to Judaism. COURTESY RACHEL FACTOR

A fourth-generation Japanese-American, Factor was born and raised in Honolulu by her Protestant parents. She attended a prep school run by missionaries and found an outlet in the performing arts. Her talent in song and dance earned her renown, and she was enlisted to perform in the community theater.

She left Hawaii at 18 to pursue a career in Los Angeles, where she landed work as a dancer and earned acclaim in music videos, film, and television, where she appeared in more than 40 commercials. She moved to New York and performed in off-Broadway productions, as a Rockette, and in Broadway shows including “Shogun, the Musical” and “Miss Saigon.”

Yet for all of her success, Factor related in an interview conducted by e-mail last week, she felt spiritually dead.

Career driven, she had no time to think about whether she was leading a meaningful life. But everything changed when, at age 29, she met and fell in love with Todd Factor, a Jewish television commercial producer.

He told her that it was essential for him to marry a Jewish woman and have Jewish children. She was impressed by his devotion to the Jewish people and began studying Judaism. The beliefs resonated within her, and she was drawn to the rituals. Upon realizing that Factor knew very little about his faith, she urged him to join the Judaism class she was taking.

She underwent a Conservative conversion, married Todd Factor, and lived as a mostly secular Jew. But she continued learning about Judaism, and she bought her husband his first pair of tefillin.

The birth of their first child moved the couple to deepen their commitment to Jewish life. The Orthodox mohel they hired for their son’s brit milah encouraged them to develop greater Orthodox connections.

Having a child, said Rachel Factor, made her wonder whether she and her husband were living a lifestyle befitting their new task of nurturing a soul. She felt that Orthodoxy offered a structure that revolved around family life, and that appealed to the couple.

But to become Orthodox, she would have to give up her life as a performer, because it was a contradiction to the Orthodox way. Modest dress, hair-covering, and prohibitions against dancing with and singing for men would essentially bar her from working ever again in theater, she thought.

It was a painful sacrifice, she acknowledged. “I identified as an actor and dancer. What was I left with if I wasn’t ‘Tina the dancer’?” Despite that obstacle, she and her child underwent Orthodox conversions.

Eventually, she found new ways to express herself creatively. Her one-woman show makes use of all the artistic skills that she’s been working on for the past two decades, she said.

At first, Factor performed her show for gatherings of women in living rooms, but word spread about her performances, and soon the living rooms gave way to larger venues in theaters, Jewish centers, schools, and synagogues.

She marvels that she’s more in demand than ever before, and she feels that her search for identity resonates with both religious and non-religious audiences. “It is a journey from my old life as a professional dancer, looking for spirituality and finding it in the most unusual of places, Orthodox Judaism, through storytelling, song, and dance.”

But she wasn’t content simply to enjoy performing for audiences. She wanted to give the opportunity to other religious women to find ways of expression. In 2005 she opened Ha Machol Shel Bnos Miriam, a dance-and-wellness center in Jerusalem. The goal of the center is to provide women of all ages the opportunity to dance, work out, and express themselves in a Jewish environment, she said.

“The arts and spirituality are very closely tied together,” she added. “Artists are looking for truth, for beauty, for love. You can find all of those things in HaShem.”

Reflecting on her voyage, she said she is incredibly thankful for the life she now leads in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Sharei Chesed. “I just had my fifth child at the age of 41, I have a full life of Torah and mitzvos, and a dance studio giving religious girls and women the opportunity to express and rejuvenate themselves through the arts. It’s more than I ever dreamed of.

“As an artist, you want to be able to affect people even in the smallest way — to change them, inspire them,” she said. “I’ve never felt that so fully as I do now.”

 
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Laughing with Joan

I made Joan Rivers laugh.

Of course she made me laugh, like she did to millions of others through her decades-long, often unfiltered, and ever-funny career, but yes, I made Joan Rivers laugh.

At the time, I was working at the celebrity-obsessed New York Post, and as the features writer for its women’s section, I had reason to ring up the raspy-voiced, Brooklyn-born blonde for a quickie. I had to grab a quote for some story that I was writing. As I recall, the conversation had turned to food, a favorite subject of the Jewish woman on my end of the phone, and, apparently, of that Jewish woman on the other end as well. Joan told me that she just adored the creamed spinach served at the legendary Brooklyn restaurant, Peter Luger’s — a must-have accompaniment to its famous and robust steaks. Joan told me she would dine there with a hairdresser-to-the-stars, the late Kenneth Battelle. (She kept her physique petite with this practice: She never ate anything after 3 p.m. If she did find herself dining with someone, she popped Altoids to keep her mouth busy.)

 

Cookin’ it up!

Tales of a Teaneck kitchen prodigy

How did 12-year-old Eitan Bernath of Teaneck come to be on the Food Network’s popular cooking show “Chopped”?

“He’s always been curious and he likes science,” said his mother, Sabrina Bernath. “He thinks it’s cool to mix flavors and watch things rise. He also likes to make people happy,” she added, pointing out that he had just brought his friends a freshly baked batch of cinnabuns.

For Eitan, a student at Yavneh Academy in Paramus, cooking is more than just a hobby. Struggling for the right word, the fledgling chef — whose website, cookwithchefeitan.com, will launch this week — described his relationship with the culinary arts as a “passion.”

 

Policies are the best policy

Teaneck synagogue forum addresses child sexual abuse

Does your synagogue have policies in place to protect children from sexual abuse? Do your children’s schools and camps?

Such policies, Dr. Shira Berkovits told a meeting in Teaneck on Sunday night, can make a difference to children’s safety.

Dr. Berkovits is a consultant for the Department of Synagogue Services at the Orthodox Union, and she is developing a guide to preventing child sexual abuse in synagogues. She was speaking at Teaneck’s Congregation Rinat Yisrael, as part of a panel on preventing child sexual abuse co-sponsored by three other Teaneck Orthodox congregations: Netivot Shalom, Keter Torah, and Lubavitch of Bergen County.

 

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Many ways to learn

Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey reboots its adult ed program

We don’t know much yet about the findings of the soon-to-be-released survey by the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, but there is one nugget that already has been made public.

Jewish adults hunger to know more. Their desire for Jewish learning continues to grow. Jewish educators and leaders know that to be true intuitively, and that understanding is borne out in the proliferation of programs and institutes around the area.

Until recently, the federation has fed that hunger with its Melton program. For years now, the Florence Melton program has brought its two-year, pluralistic, in-depth lessons to synagogue classrooms across the region. But nothing lasts forever, and the Melton program has now ended locally — as it has, in fact, in many of the other places that once hosted it.

 

Walking for life

Bone marrow donor, recipient to meet

At the Gift of Life Bone Marrow Foundation’s third annual Walk for Life in Memory of Mel Cohen on Sunday, October 26, a 23-year-old Englewood bone-marrow donor will meet his 43-year-old recipient for the first time since the successful procedure was done, more than a year ago.

These emotional meetings are a highlight of the annual walk, Gift of Life’s CFO, Gregg Frances, said. “Every year at these events we introduce a donor who has never, until that point, met the recipient whose life he or she saved. There’s a one-year moratorium from the date of transplant to the date of meeting, as legislated by the United States.”

 

Teens: Don’t drink on Simchat Torah

Local yeshiva high schools send joint letter urging celebration but also restraint

The principals of six Jewish high schools serving northern New Jersey sent a joint letter to parents urging vigilance in the face of teenage drinking on Simchat Torah, “to guarantee that this special time of holiness will not degenerate into the opposite kind of experience for anyone.”

Nobody is sure how alcohol consumption became a tradition of this holiday, which celebrates the completion of the yearly Torah-reading cycle.

“There are rabbinic sources about drinking wine in the context of the Purim seudah,” or meal, says Teaneck’s Rabbi Michael Taubes, head of school for the Yeshiva University High School for Boys, and one of the six signatories.

 
 
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