Dancer Travels to Latvia to Connect With Jewish Heritage


Update: The original article was corrected on June 6, 2019 to clarify grant information. 

Professional dancer Esther Baker-Tarpaga
Professional dancer Esther Baker-Tarpaga performed at an arts festival in Latvia, which was a chance to visit the homeland of her Jewish great-grandparents. (Photo by Karla Conrad)

It was a hot and bright afternoon when dancer Esther Baker-Tarpaga, 44, began her walk through Philadelphia’s Washington Avenue Green, the park next to Washington Avenue Pier, which once served as a processing center for European immigrants.

It was familiar ground for Baker-Tarpaga, who lives close by; as she walked, she greeted a fisherman, a park acquaintance, in Spanish. Baker-Tarpaga said the park allows her to connect not only to nature, but to her heritage.

Such connections were heightened recently when Baker-Tarpaga was invited to perform as a collaborator/choreographer with performing arts troupe La Pocha Nostra at the first-ever No New Idols Performance Festival held the last week of May in Riga, Latvia.

Despite having danced all across the world, she said this trip would be special to her as it would be an opportunity to visit the homeland of her great-grandmother. She was hoping to use the visit to learn about her story and connect with her Jewish heritage.

“I’m excited to be going where I can work and connect with a whole bunch of artists there and meet Latvian people,” Baker-Tarpaga said. “I’m hoping just to go and listen to people. I know there’ll be some language barrier, but maybe through dance.”

Growing up in Fort Collins, Colorado, Baker-Tarpaga said there wasn’t a significant Jewish community, but she did inherit a cultural identity from her mother’s side. After leaving Colorado, she earned her bachelor’s degree from Bowdoin College in Maine and two master’s degrees from UCLA. She moved to Philadelphia about five years ago to work as a professor of dance.

Today, she is an adjunct faculty member at the Boyer College of Music and Dance at Temple University. She has co-founded with her husband the Baker & Tarpaga Dance Project, a dance company based in Burkina Faso and Philadelphia, and is a member of Propelled Animals, a social justice collective.

Baker-Tarpaga was unfamiliar with most of her family’s history growing up, but a genealogy book and family tree compiled by her second cousin shed some light on her great-grandparents. Other information has come from relatives as news of the trip sparked conversations around the dinner table.

“It’s cool to bring up the conversation over at Passover and my uncle will list off some facts, and it’s like, ‘I need to record what you said,’” Baker-Tarpaga said. “It’s an interesting conversation point.”

Her great-grandmother, Ada Levy, was born in 1889 in Dvinsk (now Daugavpils), Latvia, near Riga, where her parents were dairy farmers. At 16, Levy traveled to Baltimore to visit her uncle, Joseph Berman, who ran a shoe shop, for a short trip. But Levy never got the chance to go home. Latvia was then part of the Russian Empire. In 1905, a series of worker strikes, political unrest and military mutinies resulted in the Russian Revolution. Word of pogroms started to spread, so Berman made his niece stay, and invited the rest of her family to come to the U.S.

Soon Levy’s parents settled in Baltimore. After running a failing shoe shop for three months, her parents tried their hands at a dairy. Later, they bought a corner house in Baltimore with a storefront where they made dairy products, and Levy worked as the store’s clerk. She went on to marry Harry Gottlieb, another Latvian Jew, in 1911. Baker-Tarpaga said she was excited to learn that the two met through dance, as Gottlieb was Levy’s social dance instructor.

The couple established a small factory to produce kosher dairy products in Baltimore and named it Harry Gottlieb’s Dairy. They eventually opened a retail store on Narroway Court in East Baltimore. According to The Baltimore Sun, family members successfully petitioned the City Council in the ’70s to change the street name to Yogurt Lane.

Baker-Tarpaga was able to attend the festival in Latvia with help from a grant from the Foundation for Contemporary Arts, in addition to a GoFundMe which raised nearly $1,300, both helping to cover food and travel costs. While in the country, she planned to experience what life is like for the everyday Latvian. Her mother, Ann Eileen Miller Baker, said she was looking forward to seeing what her daughter will take away from the trip.

“It’ll be interesting if she can find something out,” she said. “If she finds out something, great, if she doesn’t, that’s OK, too. I’m just curious.”

If there’s time, Baker-Tarpaga wanted to visit a nearby concentration camp or stop by archives to research her great-grandparents further. She was also interested in visiting the Riga Ghetto and Latvian Holocaust Museum. In the future, she’d like to go back with her 11-year-old daughter to learn about their Jewish ancestry.

“I feel very thankful for this opportunity,” she said. “It’s very personal.”

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