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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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A rabbi hasn’t walked into the bar ... yet

It’s not every day that a liquor license comes up for sale in Teaneck. (State licensing laws limit the number of licenses in a formula based on a town’s population.)

So when Jonathan Gellis heard that the owner of Vinny O’s in Teaneck was looking to sell the establishment, including the license, after 28 years behind the bar, he realized that only one of the more than 20 kosher restaurants in Teaneck could sell alcohol.

That seemed to be an opportunity.

Mr. Gellis is a stockbroker by day. He’s used to working in a regulated business — and the alcohol business in New Jersey is highly regulated.

Mr. Gellis grew up in Teaneck; his parents moved the family here from Brooklyn in 1975, back when the town had only one kosher restaurant. His four children attend Yeshivat Noam and the Frisch School, and he serves on the board of both institutions. He also is president of Congregation Keter Torah.

 

The converso’s dilemma

Local group goes to New Mexico to learn about crypto-Jews

Imagine that you were raised as a Catholic. Then one day — perhaps as a beloved parent or grandparent lay dying and leaned over to whisper something in your ear — you learned that your family once was Jewish. Your ancestors were converted forcibly some 500 years ago.

For those people all over the world who have had that experience, the next step is not entirely clear. Do they jump in with both feet and vigorously pursue their new Jewish identities, or do they simply go about their business, choosing to do nothing with this new information? These dilemmas, and more, were the subject of a recent Road Scholar program in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

The topic — “New Mexico’s Conversos and Crypto-Jews” — continues to fascinate both Jews and non-Jews, as evidenced by the religious identity of the attendees. Among those participating in this month’s session — there are 10 such programs held each year — were five residents from our area, including this author.

 

How to learn Hebrew

Confronting American Jews’ linguistic illiteracy, many programs offer help

Can you read a Hebrew newspaper or order a meal in an Israel restaurant? If you’re like the vast majority of American Jews, the answer is no.

“Half of Jews (52%), including 60% of Jews by religion and 24% of Jews of no religion, say they know the Hebrew alphabet,” according to last October’s “Portrait of Jewish Americans,” the famous study released by the Pew Research Center.

“But far fewer (13% of Jews overall, including 16% of Jews by religion and 4% of Jews of no religion) say they understand most or all of the words when they read Hebrew,” the report continues.

Alarmed by this finding, the World Zionist Organization, the Israeli Education Ministry, and several partner organizations recently launched the Hebrew Language Council of North America to help more Jews become conversant in the language of their literature, lore, and land — as well as the language of their peers in Israel.

 

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Mississippi burning, remembered

Puffin marks jubilee of Freedom Summer

It was a summer that changed lives.

It was a fight for American democracy in the face of terrorism.

It was dubbed “Freedom Summer,” and it drew 700 college students and young adults to help Mississippi activists fight for civil rights.

The year was 1964.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech the previous August, during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. In Washington, a far-reaching civil rights bill that would desegregate public facilities had been introduced to Congress by President Lyndon Johnson — but quickly stalled and was then filibustered for months.

 

Adding to Jewish life in Clifton

Rabbi Moshe Mirsky heads religious services department at Daughters of Miriam

Rabbi Moshe Mirsky thinks his new position as the director of religious services at the Daughters of Miriam Center/Gallen Institute in Clifton is a perfect shidduch.

Actually, it is not quite a new job. Rabbi Mirsky had already worked there with Rabbi Ira Kronenberg, who just retired from the home this month, in the late 1980s. Back then Rabbi Mirsky was studying for simicha — rabbinic ordination. He worked there once again in the 1990s, while he was teaching at various day schools.

“I would come on the weekends for Shabbat and on yom tov to assist Rabbi Kronenberg,” he said. “I would lead davening, give Torah classes, go to the Alzheimer’s unit, and try to engage the residents Jewishly. I had a special rapport with Rabbi Kronenberg and the residents.”

Indeed, then he already was doing many of the things he is doing now as director of religious affairs.

 

Poor assumptions = poor policy

ZOA’s congressional lobbyist talks about Israel, Oslo, and plans doomed to fail

The two-state solution is a chimera, Joshua London says. It is a lovely vision of something that never can be real, and chasing it — chasing the plan that would make Israel and Palestine two separate states, living next to each other in prickly but sustainable peace — is chasing the wind.

Mr. London, who lives in suburban Maryland, is the Zionist Organization of America’s co-director of government affairs. He will be taking a break from his daily routine — lobbying Congress to further the ZOA’s own understanding of the Middle East — to speak at a parlor meeting in Teaneck on Wednesday.

His goal, he said, “is to bring clarity and critical analysis to the longstanding U.S. policy for support of — and in fact to apply pressure toward — the creation of a Palestinian state from territory that otherwise belongs to Israel, and to do so under the notion that this will bring peace.”

 
 
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