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Hasidic chakra: Couple introduces yoga to Israel’s ultra-Orthodox

originally published November 19, 2012 Haaretz.com (registration required)

by Tamar Rotem

Many Haredim regard yoga as idol worship, but one couple has set out to dispel that view right in the heart of an ultra-Orthodox community.

The yoga studio that Rachel and Avraham Kolberg run is situated at the end of the street, a useful location for preserving secrecy. And secrecy is vital because the Kolbergs, a couple in their thirties, teach yoga to ultra-Orthodox residents of Ramat Beit Shemesh, where the practice is widely regarded as taboo.

The fact that the Kolbergs are themselves strictly observant members of the Breslav Hasidic sect, and the fact that men and women are taught separately has not softened the opposition to yoga in this Haredi neighborhood of Beit Shemesh.

About two weeks ago a student at a Hasidic seminary (high school for girls ) came close to jeopardizing her future when someone tattled to the school administration that she was practicing yoga. She had in fact begun learning yoga upon the advice of her homeroom teacher but when the principal heard she was going to a “place of idol worship,” as she said, the girl’s parents were warned she would be expelled from the seminary unless she stopped. Expulsion from the seminary could destroy her chances of a good match; the girl gave up yoga.

The seminary administration did not spare Rachel Kolberg either. “They said this is a place of impurity that encourages immodesty,” she relays, “and that I stay with the girls after the classes and introduce them to prohibited things.” Lately she has been waking up every morning with the fear that derogatory pashkavils [wall posters] with her name on them are plastered around the neighborhood.

The studio, a bright and intimate space paneled in wood from the floor to the high and sloping ceiling under the tile roof, does not look as though it belongs to the ugly street outside. It is on the second floor of the Kolberg home and to reach it, it is necessary to pass through the family’s living quarters. Despite the holy books and the pictures of rabbis, there is a personal touch in the apartment and a mysterious and pleasant atmosphere, as the sound of a clarinet playing a Hasidic melody wafts from one of the rooms.

Shortly after the start of a class, an embarrassed girl appears. She hastens to get dressed and a few minutes later reappears with pants under her long skirt. Her black stockings will remain on her feet throughout the entire class. A women whose clothing indicates she belongs to an extreme Hasidic sect doesn’t even change her clothes and tensely hastens to find a spot for herself in the room. She and her friends sneak in here like thieves in the night. As they come in they seem to shrink their bodies – they are uncomfortable with the other women’s gaze. They do not write their names on the disposable water glasses as is customary, for fear of being identified. But it seems they are longing for this tranquillity, agonizingly acquired. And anyone who hasn’t seen a Hasidic woman resting on her heels and closing her eyes in a typical yoga pose has never seen rest in his life.

According to Kolberg, a minority of her students are religious women from English-speaking countries who know why they are coming. The others, she says, the strict Hasidic women and Lithuanian (non-Hasidic ultra-Orthodox ) women, “would never have imagined practicing yoga, and for them there is a problem. They are cut off entirely form their own bodies. Usually they come here only after they are in dire straits health-wise.”

The two teachers regard changing the attitude toward yoga in the ultra-Orthodox world as their mission. It took some time until they realized that the hardest cases from the extreme religious factions were being sent to them, instead of being referred to the authorities. For example, at one of the classes for men given by Avraham Kolberg, a teenager showed up with the story, “He’s bored but his parents won’t let him quit the yeshiva until the match is made for him,” relates Rachel. Eventually they found out that the youngster admires Hitler and tortures cats. After a while he disappeared and subsequently he was tried for rape and went to prison. “The community,” says Rachel, “isn’t really interested in solving these problems. They give some kind of alternative treatment, Ritalin, and then they think: ‘We’ll marry him off and it will go away.’”

Avraham Kolberg relates that there are instructions the Hasids have a hard time following, in part because “they don’t know the names of some of their body parts. They don’t know how to raise their arms. They come to the class in their everyday clothes and insist on keeping on their tzitzis (fringed undershirt ). They don’t have sports clothes.”

The recoiling from yoga is deeply rooted. “If they ask a rabbi he will tell them it is idol worship,” says Avraham Kolberg. For Kolberg, yoga is a way to worshipping God. “The moment a person needs to be aware of his heel, with his eyes turned to a certain place and I ask him to concentrate on a different place in his body, observation of what is unseen is created. This is spirituality.”

Rachel believes that when one is cut off from one’s body there is no possibility of doing spiritual work. “This is my challenge to the ultra-Orthodox,” she says. “When my son sits in the lotus position in his Gemara lessons at the yeshiva, they yell at him that he is acting like a Gentile. Why, if this helps him to concentrate? This is a tool they refuse to use.”

The Kolbergs began their turn to religion in India, through the study of yoga. Rachel, 39, immigrated to Israel from the Soviet Union in 1990, when she was 17 years old. Her name in Russian was Yula and she grew up in Moscow. Her father was a Spanish teacher and was Fidel Castro’s personal translator into Russian.

A year after she arrived in Israel, she did full matriculation exams in Hebrew. In her 20s she met her husband under his former name, Dagan Yifrah,. He hen lived in Ramat Hasharon. At that time she also discovered yoga. “Like a good Russian girl I did acrobatics from an early age. When I came to Israel I tried other areas until someone introduced me to yoga. I was swept away and I swept up my husband.” They lived in the Sharon area, practiced yoga and taught at the Beit Berl College School of Art – he. photography and she, painting. In 2000, married and with a 3-year-old son, they went to India to study the Iyengar method. (B.K.S. Iyengar is the father of modern yoga.

“The yoga bug grabbed us hard,” says Rachel. They were not classic backpackers: They didn’t go to Goa, they didn’t smoke drugs. They lived in a small city, woke up early every morning and went to study yoga.

“In India they live the tradition and this aroused our envy,” says Rachel. “Suddenly we were aware of holidays. There was also the matter of discipline at the yoga school – not discipline for the sake of discipline, but in order to efface yourself and obtain a different rung of spirituality.”

Towards Passover that year, they felt isolated and decided to travel to nearby Rishikesh and find Israelis with whom to celebrate the holiday. “We happened on a couple of Breslav Hasids who did a a seder night there,” she says. “It was jolly, a lot of food, being together. Suddenly we received an answer to the questions we had been asking.”

After Passover they began to observe the Sabbath. At that time Rachel was pregnant with their second son and they started to think about returning to Israel. Upon their return the connected the Breslav Hasids and seven years ago they moved to Ramat Beit Shemesh.

She asked a rabbi about yoga. “He said to me, ‘It is your craving. Don’t work, devote yourself to your children.’” And indeed she devoted herself to her children for two years, and stopped doing yoga even though, as she says, “I nearly went crazy in that loneliness, with four sons at home and without the yoga.”

When the children started school, they wanted to register them at Hasidic schools. “I want to bring them into the Hasidic elite,” she says. The children were not accepted because – so it was hinted to them – they are newly religious and even more than that because of their Mizrahi name (which refers to Jews from Middle Eastern countries ). Only after Yifrah Dagan became Avraham Kolberg (his mother’s maiden name ) and Yula became Rachel was the obstacle removed. She began to dress like a Hasidic woman from the strict Yerushalmi sect, he grew a beard and sidelocks and took on the managerial responsibilities as a gabbai at a synagogue. “I didn’t want to be religious lite,” she says. “I wanted the whole package. I thought we’d dress like them and we’d be like them. I brought myself to a state of being saintly. Just praying all day long, not talking with friends from the past, cutting myself off. Nothing that would arouse in me any desire for my previous life.”

Things changed for Kolberg when it emerged that one of the rabbis at the heder (primary school for ultra-Orthodox boys ) was beating her 11-year-old son. “I realized they weren’t dealing with the rebbe and they wanted to sweep the problem under the rug,” says Rachel Kolberg. “To my mind faith is something big and I am not giving it up. It puts you on another rung. However, the fact that they have put the Holy One, Blessed be He, in their pocket – to my mind that’s a huge distortion. I want to find the way for this to exist in peace.

“I understood how I must dress, how I must behave, but that isn’t enough. I am afraid of getting stuck. I don’t want to get used to living this way, without a drop of spirituality.”

In the meantime she sees her destiny as teaching yoga specifically in the heart of the ultra-Orthodox population. “Yoga gives these women an opportunity to meet with themselves,” she says. “I see this as a kind of return (in the sense of a return to religion ). These women experience a return to themselves and then they can examine whether they love, whether they are doing the things they love and whether they love the place where they are. If they persist with yoga, there are ramifications,” she says. This is something she knows from personal experience.