Reading Rivka Nahari’s bio was an exercise in humility, at least for me.
In addition to being the director of the Jewish Center for the Performing Arts, the Flatbush mother of seven has danced professionally and is trained in ballet, tap, jazz, character, contemporary, hip hop, and flamenco and has sung in multiple operatic performances. She has appeared at Carnegie Hall, provided backup vocals for world-renowned recording artists and is a concert pianist, an accomplished flutist and a professional harpist since age 13. But most of all, Rivka is someone who is equal parts talent, dedication and ambition, whose road to the arts began the day she was born.
I don’t know about you, but I am pretty sure that if I put my resume next to Rivka’s, hers would be a whole lot longer than mine.
Having arrived in this world with legs that turned unnaturally inward, Rivka was one of those babies who wore her shoes on a bar in order to correct their alignment. Her mother, Laura Kramer, was told that if she wanted her baby to be able to walk straight, she needed to keep exercising her legs. By the time Rivka was three years old, she started ballet at her doctor’s recommendation. In addition to discovering a love of dance, Rivka also got her first real exposure to classical music.
“I wasn’t wonderful at ballet,” Rivka says. “My hips were okay, but my feet really weren’t great. Still, I kept on dancing.”
The Kramers moved from New York to Las Vegas when Rivka was seven, bringing the family piano and a stack of instructional books with them. Rivka set her sights on piano lessons, and she worked her way through an introductory piano book before her teacher showed up for their first session, teaching herself to read notes so that she could play every piece in the book. Seeing that their daughter was clearly self-motivated, the Kramers cancelled her lessons and handed her the piano books they had brought from New York instead. She worked her way through those as well, and continued playing every piece of sheet music she could get her hands on.
“To me, reading notes was like learning to read a book,” recalls Rivka. “I would open up a piece and wonder what it sounded like and just play it. When you play by ear, you always need someone to play a piece for you first in order for you to be able to play it yourself.”
In seventh grade, Rivka auditioned in school for the honor choir – a district-wide choir comprised of the best young voices. She was both surprised and thrilled to be accepted. In addition to singing with the choir, she studied pre-professional dance at the Academy of Nevada Dance Theater and took up both flute and harp by age 13. Four months after she started on the harp, Rivka’s teacher asked her to fill in for her as the main harpist at a concert with the Las Vegas Symphony Orchestra and, with few harpists available in the area, Rivka found herself in high demand at weddings, corporate events and concerts.
Within a year, Rivka, a straight-A student and a member of the honor society, wanted to add piano lessons to her already packed schedule, but her parents laid down the law, telling her something had to give.
“They told me I was doing too much and since I didn’t have great feet for ballet and I was playing the harp professionally, I realized that my life was headed more towards music than dance,” says Rivka. “I gave up dance and started taking piano, but by the following year I was dancing again, although not quite as often, something I kept up through high school.”
Moving on from the honor choir after ninth grade, Rivka was chosen for the even more prestigious all-star choir in high school. With the boys attired in tuxes and the girls wearing gowns, the all-star choir performed in numerous locations, which included performances singing backup for luminaries of the music world. But even as Rivka’s passion for the arts continued to bloom, the seeds for a previously undiscovered element of her existence began to sprout deep in her heart.
From Tallis to Truth
Rivka had always been interested in Judaism, but when the Kramers arrived in Las Vegas, they found the only Orthodox shul filled with elderly congregants. Applying the same diligence she had used with her piano books to her father’s old Hebrew school texts, Rivka taught herself to read Hebrew, practicing her skills every Friday night when they attended services at a newly opened Conservative synagogue. But there was little religious observance in the family home, where Chanukah was celebrated, Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur involved occasional trips to the local synagogue and Pesach happened just once in a blue moon. All that changed when Rivka was 14.
“I had a world history class and our teacher told us to bring in something that showed our heritage,” says Rivka. “I brought in my father’s tallis and people started asking me questions about the fringes, the knots, and its significance and I couldn’t answer any of them. I was so humiliated I went home and cried my heart out. Why was I Jewish but I didn’t know anything about my religion?”
Rivka met Rabbi Shea Harlig, the local Chabad shaliach, through one of her classmates. While her parents were less than pleased with her budding fascination with Orthodoxy, Rivka found herself drawn in over time, and it just seemed natural to begin incorporating mitzvos into her life as she learned about them, something that didn’t sit well with her mother.
“My mother was the ultimate stage mom and she realized the conflicts I was going to be facing,” observes Rivka. “At the time when I was becoming frum, there were no opportunities for frum women in the performing arts.”
Rivka carved out a small nook for herself in the family kitchen. Her mother’s belief that religiosity was just a passing phase gave her the opportunity to continue growing in her observances, but all that changed the day that Rivka told her mother that she needed kosher food. A standoff ensued and when Mrs. Kramer insisted that she wasn’t buying kosher, Rivka informed her mother that she wasn’t going to eat. After a one-day fast, Mrs. Kramer gave in. Kosher food became a new reality and, with time, so did modest attire. Shabbos presented a far bigger dilemma for Rivka who often had Saturday performances.
“If I had a mandatory gig or performance, I would keep Shabbos, go do what I had to and then come home and continue Shabbos,” recalls Rivka. “But by the time I was 16 I had gigs one Shabbos after the other. When Purim came, I went to Chabad, and I will never forget the feeling of being so out of place. I didn’t like how that felt and I realized that I wasn’t going in the right direction, and I gave up performing on Shabbos.”
It took time for people to accept that Rivka could no longer play harp on Shabbos, but she found that there was no shortage of jobs during the week. She continued to play professionally, adding voice lessons to her already full schedule. Singing was somewhat less complicated from a Shabbos perspective, given that it involved no instruments. In her last year of high school, Rivka was given a massive solo at the end of year performance, which happened to coincide with the first day of Shavuos. Always a problem solver, Rivka found a way to make it work, eating her yom tov meals at Rabbi Harlig’s house, and staying at a friend who lived within walking distance of both Chabad and her school so that she could go to the performance, sing her solo, and then leave to continue her yom tov celebrations.
Having graduated high school a year early, Rivka had her heart set on going to seminary in Crown Heights, something her parents forbade. Pulling parental rank, they enrolled her at the University of Nevada Las Vegas where she earned a harp scholarship but ultimately ended up majoring in piano and played flute. After completing her freshman year, Rivka packed her instruments and headed to New York where she split her time between the Beth Rivkah Seminary and Mannes College of Music, this time majoring in voice. Another new dimension in life opened up for Rivka when a seminary friend invited her on a double date, giving her a choice between two potential young suitors. One had a cool car and was popular with the girls, while the other had a nice voice and knew how to dance. It should come as no surprise which of the two appealed more to Rivka.
“The second I saw him, I felt like was looking at the other half of myself,” Rivka says.
While Rivka and Zerach Nahari clicked instantly, it took a full year for an engagement to happen.
“He grew up in Bnei Brak and his grandfather was a big rav in Yemen who was known to be a big tzaddik,” explains Rivka. “For him to marry someone who was studying to be an opera singer and grew up in Sin City took a lot of time to work out.”
Eventually, Rivka realized that she wasn’t going to give up on her bashert and instead abandoned her dream of becoming an opera singer. After their marriage, the couple settled in Las Vegas and Rivka became a housewife and mother for the next five years, working as a medical transcriptionist for her aunt and playing piano occasionally while the rest of her instruments sat around collecting dust. When Zerach lost his job, the Naharis figured it was a sign from above that the time had come to leave Las Vegas, especially with their children hitting school age, and they packed their up their household and made their way back to New York.
While the move may have been good for the family as a whole, it turned out to be very difficult for Rivka. With the higher cost of living, Zerach was working long hours, and with no friends or family nearby, Rivka began sinking into a deep depression. Finally, a dancer friend counseled Rivka to relax by taking a ballet class, albeit in modest attire, and she signed up for what should have been just one session.
“It felt so liberating to be able to dance again and let out my passion for the arts,” muses Rivka. “One class became another and then another and before I knew it, I was dancing seriously, doing ballet three times a week and taking flamenco.”
For Rivka, dancing wasn’t a social activity. It was an opportunity to indulge her long-suppressed creative side. The passion in flamenco resonated deeply with her and she started dancing with her teacher’s company but after being in a bad car accident, Rivka realized that she needed to take a step back.
“I felt like Hashem was saying ‘This isn’t for you – don’t do that,’” notes Rivka.
Taking up dance had Rivka contemplating singing again, but she realized that it was piano that she needed most in her life. Once again, she began seeking out uber-talented teachers and was accepted in the most advanced piano class at Julliard’s evening division, where Rivka continues honing her talents.
As someone who had had the benefit of high caliber professional instruction in so many different areas, Rivka realized that no such opportunities were available to girls in the Orthodox Jewish community who wanted to learn serious technique. It was Zerach who came up with the idea to open up a professional dance studio, and the Brooklyn Jewish Dance Theater first opened its doors in 2008 in the Nahari’s basement. It took time to smooth things out with some local rabbonim who were concerned that the studio could expose students to elements that they considered potentially problematic, but Rivka persevered. She finds that those who come to her studio, now called the Jewish Center for Performing Arts, reap many rewards, much as she had from her own childhood lessons. Rivka has seen girls with terrible posture gaining confidence and poise, children who have been bullied blooming in a safe space, and has heard from students whose grades have improved significantly since they started dancing. She believes strongly that the JCPA’s rare combination of professionalism and commitment to yiddishkeit could only come from someone who is a chozer b’teshuva, bringing with them a breadth of training that was previously unavailable in the frum world, as well as a firm commitment to Torah values.
A Family Affair
Rivka’s girls are part of the studio, which has relocated to a storefront on Flatbush Avenue just south of Avenue J. Daughters Avichayil, Hadas, Shlomit, and Hodaya Adele all dance and play instruments, with Hadas and Shlomit specifically taking up cello and violin so that they could take lessons from someone other than their mother. Sons Shmuel Yisroel and Chananel have both done break dancing and are talented artists, while two-year old Itamar is already trying his hand at harp, piano, drumming, dancing and singing, following along with students as Rivka gives voice lessons.
Maximizing every child’s potential is a credo that Rivka lives by both in the studio and in her personal life. While her sons have always attended a traditional yeshiva and Hodaya Adele is currently a student at Bais Yaakov of Bensonhurst, she found herself in a quandary a number of years ago when her three older daughters were in elementary school and their school closed its doors for financial reasons at the same time that another school also shut down. It wasn’t easy for the other local schools to absorb such a large number of students at the same time, and the change wasn’t working out well for the Nahari girls, prompting Rivka to jump headfirst into homeschooling, with a non-Jewish neighbor helping her get started.
“I did my own research and chose my own textbooks and made a special place in the house for them to do their learning,” says Rivka. “I would sit with them every day, teach them their lessons, going from one to another and working them on their individual lessons and then giving them assignments.”
Rivka estimates that Avichayil, Hadas and Shlomit spent about two or three hours each day on their schoolwork, enjoying each other’s company for the remainder of their day.
“I watched my kids find happiness and grow into their own,” notes Rivka. “It was a lot of work keeping everyone on schedule but it was definitely worth it. I enjoyed spending time with them and having a part in their education.”
Throughout her life, Rivka has been a truth seeker, pursuing every challenge and every instrument to its fullest. That approach has had her finding new teachers when she felt she was stagnating, paving the way for her studies under the crème de la crème in the music world, where she has been able to reach for the highest levels of technique and artistry.
That same approach propelled Rivka on her journey to yiddishkeit, prompting her to go all out when it came to stepping into the world of Orthodox Judaism. She acknowledges that her in-laws were hesitant when she and Zerach first became a couple, but all that changed when they met her and realized her complete dedication to the world of Torah and mitzvos. She is enamored with the Yemenite culture and the community that accepted her warmly. Her mother-in-law jokingly refers to her a “Taymani levana” – a white Yemenite – because of her fair complexion.
Rivka is a big believer in teaching children to shoot for the stars by providing them with the opportunities to maximize their potential. Having grown up at a time when it was impossible to develop talent on a professional level without compromising on religious values, she is grateful for the opportunity to provide children with the rigorous training that will help them shine like the diamonds they truly are, in an environment with Torah-true standards.
“Art is so much more than technique and self-expression,” observes Rivka. “It teaches you life skills, time management, motivation, and pushing yourself to be the best you can be, and those are things I have taken with me in my whole life. I learned to be respectful of my peers and my teachers and that brings so much to a kid, empowering them and filling their lives with joy in a positive way.”