Israeli brings spirit of the Zohar to a Palo Alto dance company

"That is what art should be: splendor," the choreographer says. "It is very spiritual for me. Out of respect for the tradition I call [the company] `Zohar.'"

Krauss' company is performing as part of the eighth annual "Dance Mosaic Summer Festival," which continues tomorrow and Saturday, July 25 at Cubberley Theatre in Palo Alto. The festival features jazz, modern, ballet, and ethnic dancing.

The Zohar Dance Company, one of a handful of jazz dance companies in the Bay Area, features a dynamic combination of dance styles. Music runs the gamut from the contemporary rock of Tracy Chapman to the 1940s musical comedy numbers of Betty Hutton.

Although Zohar does not perform specifically Jewish dances, Krauss brings a Jewish awareness to his craft. "Jewish doesn't mean you have to wear a kippah. It is in your soul, in the way you approach dance," he says.

"I am always using the biblical symbols. I use the example of [the wanderings of] Moses as a process of change. Everyone needs to take time out for a journey."

To illustrate his point, he mentions an upcoming fishing trip. "The ocean is my desert. On my boat I listen to klezmer and I choreograph moves. We all have a desert to go to sometimes."

Krauss, who has been in this country for 25 years, talks quickly and excitedly, often cutting off his own phrases. He spontaneously tosses Yiddish and Hebrew words into his conversation, blending references to his Israeli heritage with those from Jewish American pop culture.

He quotes the wisdom of an old Jewish mystic as if it were given by his father: "I follow the advice of a rabbi in 1450s who said it is not how much you do, it's how much you finish things," he says.

Later, as a contrast to that seriousness, he blurts out an anecdote from a Mel Brooks movie. "I'm like Moses with the 15 commandments, except I dropped one of the tablets. Now there is only 10. Sorry, just kidding — I don't know what's kosher anymore."

Krauss, born and raised on a kibbutz in the northern Galilee, was drawn to dance after seeing "West Side Story." He received a degree in dance from the Institute of Art in Haifa. In 1973, he came to New York to study with Martha Graham, Alvin Ailey and the Joffrey Ballet. He moved to the West Coast five years later.

In 1983, he established Zohco, a nonprofit Palo Alto organization promoting dance. Zohar Dance Company is a part of that umbrella group, as is IndepenDANCE, a youth outreach program.

Dancing, according to Krauss, is one way Jews have sustained their heritage in the New World.

"The Jewish folk dances came over to America in the 1920s," Krauss says. "There were five or so dances for special occasions. Today, for every song there is a dance. There is so much creativity and different interpretations."

Krauss has taught folk and jazz dancing at the Albert L. Schultz Jewish Community Center and Congregation Kol Emeth, both in Palo Alto.

Although he's an active participant in the Jewish community, he says that it often fails to teach children how to link Jewish life with other experiences.

"In the Jewish school, kids can learn about Judaism all day, but then kids go outside to play basketball, and what they learned in school is not really connected. They need to learn how to deal with life," Krauss says.

So Krauss offers himself as something of a cultural guide bringing dancing, and a little taste of Judaism, into his local interracial community.

He has been visiting the Santa Clara Juvenile Hall twice a week to work with some of the most violent juvenile offenders in the area, using dance to motivate them to express something positive.

"Dealing with outreach programs and juvenile hall kids is a pure mitzvah. With the tradition from the kibbutz of educating youths, I feel like a rabbi," Krauss says.

"When I was in the Israeli army, I taught some in jail and I saw what teaching can do. After the kids performed, a judge who came once asked me how I turn these kids around. I say I have something special to offer because of my background," he says.

Whenever he gets the chance, Krauss shares his heritage with his students. He'll bring a Haggadah or matzah to show his students what Passover means and then encourage them to celebrate their own freedom.

"I'm doing something international. I'm not just teaching from the Hebrew tradition," he says. "I try to bring different cultures together. My background is who I am, but, like any good rabbi, I am always changing."