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The Father of Israeli Folk Dance

Lawrence Bush
February 26, 2018

Fred Berk (Fritz Berger), “Mr. Israeli Folk Dance,” died on this date in 1980. He was a modern dancer in Vienna who emigrated from Austria in 1938 as the Nazis moved in. Berk was the founder and long-time director of the Jewish Dance Division at the 92nd Street Y in New York. Arthritis stuck him early in life and ultimately kept him from dancing, yet he was the main catalyst, through his teaching and publications, for the Israeli dance craze that caught on in Jewish schools, camps, and organizations throughout the U.S in the 1950s. During the 1940s, Berk danced with (and briefly married) Kata Delakova in nightclubs and the Yiddish theater. Together they formed the Jewish Dance Guild at the Jewish Theological Seminary. They also danced with Hanya Holm and Louis Horst. In 1948, they brought their performances to Europe’s displaced persons camps, and in 1949 to the new State of Israel. In 1953, Berk co-founded (with Doris Humphrey) the Merry Go-Rounders, which presented modern dance to audiences of children. To see excerpts from his 1953 dance, “Holiday in Israel,” look below.

“At sixty as at six, the timbrel makes her nimble.” — Talmud, Moed Katan 9b

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.