Israeli folk dance pioneer still kicking up her heels

For 50 years, Ruth Browns Gundelfinger has inspired an ardent legion of Israeli folk dance students and followers throughout the Bay Area — so it was no surprise when more than 100 people celebrated with her in April when she turned 80.

After all, 125 people or more regularly attend her various dance classes in the area, which she still teaches with equal parts vim, vigor and modesty.

“I began Palestinian folk dancing when my oldest brother joined Hashomer Hatzair [a Zionist youth group] in Montreal,” says Browns Gundelfinger, who was born and raised in Canada but moved to the Bay Area in the early 1950s and now lives in San Rafael.

“He brought home some of the dances and then taught me. I was about 5 years old. I was very shy, but I never stopped moving for the dancing and the music.”

In 1949, a 19-year-old Ruth Browns (standing) performs in “The Song of David” at the Canadian Ballet Festival, held at the Royal Alexandra Theatre in Toronto.

And she hasn’t stopped yet. The Jewish Women’s Archive, a history of Jewish women, lists 10 individuals as Israeli folk dance pioneers in North America — and Browns Gundelfinger is one of them.

In 1969, she started the Café Shalom Israeli Folk Dance Group at the JCC of San Francisco, and three years later she became the first person on the West Coast to start an Israeli folk dance weekend camp. Held on the campus of Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, the camp brought together teachers from Israel and other choreographers and dancers from 1972 until 1997.

Browns Gundelfinger’s desire at that time was for dancers to learn the same dances in a group setting, so that when dancers from San Francisco visited Los Angeles, for example, they could do the same dances the same way. Before her initiative, Israeli dances were often performed one way in one city and another way somewhere else, often leading to confusion.

Browns Gundelfinger loves dance and expressing oneself through dance, and she also loves having a community of loyal participants. She started teaching first at the Hillel in Berkeley in the late 1950s, then at the Jewish Community Center in Palo Alto.

Now, she is even teaching the children of her former students.

“She’s an inspiration to a lot of people,” says Rosanna Horton, the current organizer of Café Shalom, which now is held at a church in San Francisco. “She is physically quite active. She’s had a long-term effect on everyone. Everyone knows her as a teacher.”

Ruth Browns was born in Montreal in 1929. Her father, Samuel, a scrap-metal peddler from Russia, died when she was only 1, leaving her mother, Sara, all alone to raise four children. Thanks in part to her brother Morris’ participation in Hashomer Hatzair, she latched onto dance and songs created by Jews living in pre-state Israel.

Although she was too young to join the movement with her brother, she attended the music and dance sessions every Friday and Saturday evening.

Folk dance teacher Ruth Browns Gundelfinger celebrates her 80th birthday in April in San Francisco.

After graduating high school in Montreal and becoming a bookkeeper, she spent a year in Israel at age 21 and then moved to New York City to pursue a career in dance. She remained in New York for six years, learning a basic repertoire of Israeli folk dances, and then moved to San Francisco, where she eventually earned a B.A. in dance from San Francisco State University.

She also helped form a dance group in 1954 called Rikudom, a contraction of the Hebrew words rikud (dance) and am (nation). Under the leadership of Browns, Rikudom grew to more than 100 members and received a lot of recognition.

In the early 1970s, after Browns spent another year in Israel, a man named Richard Gundelfinger came to Rikudom dance class — and Ruth and Richard ended up marrying in 1974. He died 15 years later.

Among her many endeavors, Browns Gundelfinger taught folk dance at U.C. Berkeley and at Santa Rosa Junior College, and she was a regular at the International Folk Dance Festival in Stockton. She also organized the Kallah Jewish Educational Weekend in Toronto.

She also led dances and classes at many Bay Area venues, including Ashkenaz Music and Dance Community Center in Berkeley and Café Rina in Cotati.

“Browns Gundelfinger pioneered several noteworthy projects and contributed greatly to stimulating interest in Israeli folk dance in Northern California,” wrote Ruth Schoenberg and Ruth Goodman in the Jewish Women’s Archive.

In a book about folk dance, author Franklin Byrom details 59 Israeli dances and gives credit to Browns Gundelfinger for standardizing six of them. She also published two volumes of Israeli folk dance songs.

In 2001, when the Israeli Dance Institute celebrated its 60th anniversary of Israeli dance in the United States with a gala at Hofstra University in New York, Browns Gundelfinger received a special award, along with seven other instrumental teachers.

“My students inject me with energy, joy, excitement and life, and I, in return, give it back to them,” Browns Gundelfinger says. “It is a wonderful way to form a community. Now I am teaching senior citizens [weekly at the Osher Marin JCC] and they are learning very complicated and beautiful dances. They are loving the dances and the  music — and especially the challenge.”

Additionally, Browns Gundelfinger still helps with Café Shalom.

“When people dance, they lose the inhibitions,” she says. “Israeli folk dance is a very healthy Jewish activity where people can be themselves.”

Steven Friedman

Steven Friedman is a freelance writer.