Katonti- let’s dance again

A couple of years ago, Israeli dance choreographer Oren Ashkenazi created the beautiful and by now famous dance “Katonti”. The words, sung by Yonatan Raz’el, are said to be “from the sources”, min hamekorot; those “sources” happen to be this week’s Torah reading.
Recent years have brought Israeli dancing to new heights. No longer centered on “hora” variations, dances are choreographed to modern songs with steps from waltz, salsa, rumba, and much more. In addition, many of the songs are indeed “from the sources” and bring to life ancient verses and prayers. One such dance is “Katonti”, expressing Jacob’s journey back to his homeland, and his feeling grateful.
But Katonti is a very strange construct in Hebrew. Literally it would mean “I’ve smallered”. For the sake of English, it would be translated as “I’ve been humbled” or maybe even “I’ve been unworthy”. This is Jacob’s way of stating how overwhelmed he feels by the many gifts he has received; as he says, gifts of two types: kindness (chasadim) and truth (emet). He is fully aware that these two are not only different, but often mutually exclusive; that many times, kindness comes without truth and vice versa. Of all people, Jacob knows what it’s like to have one without the other. He’s been in these situations. One such person, with whom he shares a complicated relationship, is his brother whom he is about to meet after not seeing him for more than 20 years, and parting in very unfortunate circumstances, when Jacob escaped home fearing death due to his brother’s (not unjustified) anger.
Jacob’s preparations for that meeting are a lesson for generations. He works on all fronts: He assembles a fascinating present for Esau as a gesture for peace, splits his camp into two in case of war, and prays. That’s when he says “katonti”: “I’ve been humbled by all Your kindnesses… now I’ve become two camps”. Again, Jacob’s Hebrew is seriously lacking. Shouldn’t he say: ‘now I had to divide my family into two camps’ or any variation on that? What is this “I’ve become two camps” – עתה הייתי לשני מחנות (Genesis 32:11)?
Interestingly, this is the time when Jacob goes through a name change; “no longer Ya’akov but now also Yisra’el” (Genesis 32). Also. Jacob is the only person who forever will be known by both his names, not either, but that’s not the only duplication in his life: though he dwells in the Land, he spends much time elsewhere; he lives with two wives, one who he fell madly in love with, and one whom he slowly grows to love; he experiences great tragedy and great joy; loneliness and self reliance along with a family that becomes a great nation; he is “tam”, wholehearted, faithful, yet knows how to bargain with G-d; he meets good and bad people and a powerful king, but angels are regulars in his life.
The “now I’ve become two camps” is perhaps Jacob realizing that the external dissonances are reflected within him. And maybe not merely “reflected”, but are him. He is about to enter the Land of Israel, and right there, is where he knows that while he‘d like it to be about “the right place”, the “right wife”, the “right child”, he is more than that: he is all these things, and their opposite too. And yet, only Jacob is the proud father of the “Children of Israel”, as all his sons become leaders of the future tribes.
That is possibly his gift to us, and thus, who we are and what our strength is. Being able to hold these opposite tensions and not let go of either is the only way to be whole (shalem) and in peace (shalom).
Shabbat Shalom.

By Gustave Dore, 1832-1883

By Gustave Dore, 1832-1883

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2 Responses to Katonti- let’s dance again

  1. Shira Gordon says:

    I love your hiddush (new interpretation) on “being two camps” in this story. Our task, like his, is to hold those two camps (or multiple ways of thinking about danger and reconciliation) in ourselves.
    “I am in two camps” describes how I feel about many issues. Regarding Katonti, I love the song, and hope to learn the dance some time – that should be amazing to pour body and soul into that song/dance.

  2. Louis Sigmond says:

    Hi Michal, I thoughts your comments about Katonti were really interesting. Then I saw some other writings under archives. I didn’t realize this. I think they are very good. I’m going to start reading them all. Do you give any talks at synagogues? If you do you might want to consider getting in contact with Rabbi Rabashaw at Or Rishon, in Orangevale.

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