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Olympic gold medalist skates into her religious heritage

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Oksana Baiul poses with the designer, Levi Okunov (center) and Saule Rachmedova, a ballerina, after Okunov's fashion show during New York City's Fashion week on Feb. 7, 2007. The former gold medalist ice-skater took the runway and danced to Yiddish music as a celebration of her newly discovered Jewish roots. (Daniel Marracino/courtesy of Le)

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Oksana Baiul took the runway in skates, a traditional Hasidic hat and a jacket made from prayer shawls at Levi Okunov's fashion show during New York City's fashion week Feb. 7, 2007. Baiul has recently reclaimed her Jewish roots. (Daniel Marracino/courtesy of Lev)

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Oksana Baiul took the runway in skates, a traditional Hasidic hat and a jacket made from prayer shawls at Levi Okunov's fashion show during New York City's fashion week Feb. 7, 2007. Baiul has recently reclaimed her Jewish roots. (Daniel Marracino/courtesy of Lev)

The Olympic gold medalist Oksana Baiul, 29, skated across a plastic ice runway in the lobby of a posh condominium near Wall Street. She wore a Hasidic fur hat and a jacket made from black and white prayer shawls while holding a prayer book. For a moment, she posed playfully before the audience, looked into the Hebrew pages and skated backstage.

As klezmer music played in the background, sylphs pranced down the runway in designer Levi Okunov’s orange and teal lace garments. More than 500 people watched, many standing in the back or sitting on the floor, as Baiul returned to the runway, wearing a sequined wedding dress and performing her signature number from “Swan Lake.”

Baiul’s routine wasn't as graceful as when the then unknown 16-year-old Ukrainian seized the Olympic gold medal from the favored Nancy Kerrigan in 1994. The balletic style of the blue-eyed blonde that had so awed judges back then is stiffer 13 years later, although Baiul is still lithe.

But for Baiul, this exhibition carried a deep spiritual significance. The show was a celebration of her recently discovered Jewish roots.

“The show was a way of connecting to my heritage, and it was a tremendous success,” Baiul said. “I already heard that people were upset that I wore the strimal"
the traditional hat --"but I wanted to do it because Levi said, ‘Oksana, it’s meaningful.’”

The performance was the brainchild of Okunov, Baiul’s close friend and religious mentor, a 21-year-old aspiring fashion designer from the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn and the son of a Lubavitch rabbi. Baiul affectionately calls the younger Okunov “my rabbi” for the guidance he has provided in Orthodox Judaism and mysticism.

Her religious awakening, like many, has not been easy. Baiul has gone from world skating star to a quiet life in Cliffside Park, N.J. After her moment of Olympic fame followed by Barbara Walters naming her one of the 10 most fascinating personalities of the year, Baiul had nowhere to go professionally but down.

A year after Baiul won the gold, she moved to the United States with her coach, who had unofficially adopted her, and she hoped to compete in the next Olympics. But soon after arriving, Baiul's knee collapsed while skating, and it never healed properly.

Over the next few years, as her frustration mounted, Baiul developed a reputation for heavy drinking and arguments with coaches and choreographers as she earned a living making ever lower-profile skating appearances around the world. Her lowest point came when she drunkenly drove her Mercedes into a tree in Connecticut in 1997. Facing charges of drunken and reckless driving, Baiul avoided jail by agreeing to attend an alcohol education program. A year later, she voluntarily checked herself into a rehabilitation center.

Though she came out sober and has remained so ever since, Baiul felt something missing in her life. She returned to her native Ukraine in 2003 to re-establish contact with her father, whom she had last seen at her mother’s funeral when she was 13. While there, her paternal grandmother informed her that her mother’s side of the family was Jewish. Baiul’s response was full acceptance.

“I always knew it in my heart,” she said of being Jewish.

Working out what this new identity meant was more complicated, though. Even today, Baiul still wears a gold cross around her neck. She occasionally attends synagogue with friends, but her strongest Jewish link has come from volunteering for the Tikva Children’s Home, which helps Jewish orphaned children in Odessa, Ukraine. Baiul twice accompanied the director, Emily Lehrman, to Ukraine to raise funds.

“She identifies herself verbally now as someone with Jewish heritage, but I think she’s still learning what exactly that means and how that will fit into her life,” Lehrman said. “I think it’s difficult because she doesn’t have family to share it with.”

Baiul’s bond with the children seems more related to her feelings of having been abandoned herself. She says that in them she sees the difficulties of her own childhood. “I connect to them because I was an orphan myself, and when I’m able to give something back, I feel good,” she said.

While the children fulfill some emotional need, Okunov is her spiritual anchor. The pair first met about six months ago at a fashion event, and soon afterward Okunov suggested that they collaborate on a fashion show on ice. Baiul readily agreed.

Acquaintances describe the relationship that has developed as intensely emotional, to say the least.

“They fight and get into the most amazing arguments where they’re both teetering on the edge,” said Okunov's publicist, Berel Berko. “She storms away in a huff and comes back five minutes later and says how much she loves him. It’s like they fight to bring out each other’s passion and creativity.”

The two are also enchanted with each other, as was evident recently at the Sky Rink in Chelsea, when they made their customary flamboyant impression. The muse arrived dressed in black, except for fluffy pink slippers. The dark roots were clearly visible in her shoulder-length bleached blond hair, and dangling from her navel was a diamond belly ring in the shape of an ice skater. A florescent pink measuring tape hung around Okunov’s neck, tangled in his shoulder-length matted curls.

“I see something in his creation, and when we collaborate it really is something indescribable,” Baiul said, beaming.

Okunov tried to outdo her compliment. “What I usually get done in seven hours I get done in five minutes with Oksana. Our creative work is unreal.”

When asked about a recent argument that almost derailed the show, Baiul refused to comment. Then, she leaned in close, lowered her head and said softly, “The truth is I’m very, very, very tough. I have that horrible, terrible temper and the strengths of a Stalin.”

While Baiul provides the business smarts and celebrity to their collaboration, Okunov contributes the creative and spiritual vision.

Baiul recalled one night when Okunov took her to the Millinery Synagogue near the diamond district in midtown Manhattan. “We went to pray. I asked for love and happiness, and Levi was wearing a hat, and I said, ‘Levi, please bless me’ and I took his hat,” she said of the black Borsalino that Hasidic men wear. “He said to me, ‘I wore this hat through the whole of Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashana so it has to bring you whatever you want.’” Baiul wore the headgear as part of her costume at one of her recent ice-skating performances.

Baiul continues to perform and has turned her name into a business. She’s produced books and television movies about her life and created the Oksana Baiul Collection, a line of ice-skating apparel. In her latest venture, Baiul, wearing only a thong and a pout, posed for downloadable cell phone photographs, which she sells for $1.99 online.

Baiul says she is at peace with her current position in life, well out of the limelight. “At the age of 16 I was at the top, but you can’t maintain that level,” she said. “I love what I do. I am a producer of my own events, and I am grateful for it. God gave me a freedom that not a lot of people have.”

Her racy cell phone photos did not receive as many raised eyebrows as the fashion show. Many Orthodox rabbis disapproved of incorporating prayer shawls and Hasidic fur hats.

“I’m Orthodox and I find it disrespectful to use something meant for ritualistic purposes for women’s garments,” said Rabbi Yosef Wircberg of Crown Heights. He added, “I know a women’s body, and if it’s not covered properly, it’s not tznius (modest). And if it’s not tznius, it’s not allowed.”

Rabbi Dov Korn, who heads Chabad on Washington Square, a Lubavitch congregation, agreed that the garments were inappropriate. “You can’t cut up a prayer shawl,” he said. “It’s not something to be worn just for fun.”

The feisty diva, however, defended the decision. “I do have Jewish blood, and I embrace it,” she said, raising her voice a little. “I don’t have to regret anything.”

E-mail: rfr2107@columbia.edu