Ringling Bros. Circus has been a Feld family affair for three generations
As a trapeze artist flipped overhead, a mother in the audience gasped, squeezing her 3-month-old infant tight. It was a moment of nail-biting suspense — the trapezist had missed his partner’s grip on the previous two attempts and fallen into the safety net below.
“I can’t watch,” the mother said, burying her head behind her baby boy, peeking up in time to see the performer swing into his partner’s open hands, setting off a roar of applause.
Letters to the editor: Iron Dome, Tesla crash, PETA and more
David Suissa’s article was terrific, and I pray for his daughter’s safety (“Israel Needs an Irony Dome,” July 18). I also have a lot of family in Israel now. … I have often thought lately that the Journal was too tough on Israel but seems better now. Keep up the great work; we need you.
Chic Lippman, Century City
Physical Repairs, Emotional Reparations
I was shocked to learn of a stolen car crashing into Congregation Kol Ami in Hollywood on July 3 (“Tesla Crashes Into Kol Ami; Damage Undetermined,” July 11).
While the physical damage to Kol Ami was serious, it doesn’t begin to address the emotional costs to our members. Raising funds to erect the building took effort and diligence over a number of years and built a sense of pride in the founding members. The visible harm to our building has been repaired, but a life has been needlessly lost.
I have only a brief, one-year history as a member of Congregation Kol Ami, yet I know that the surrounding Jewish community might benefit from knowing more about our sacred side, with Rabbi Denise Eger leading the way. She, along with Cantor Mark Saltzman and the family-like congregation, open the doors and their hearts to those who suffer from pain caused by finances, health and family loss.
I invite all unaffiliated Jews to share in the blessings as well as the frenzy caused by the car crash. As we head into the High Holy Days, please join us in welcoming Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
Wendy Goldman, West Hollywood
Thank you for spotlighting Michael Feinstein this week — the man is a treasure (“Michael Feinstein Sings Gershwin,” July 18).
To those of us who work in the archival and musical worlds of the Great American Songbook, Michael is a true hero. He travels throughout North America teaching this wonderful music to high school students, he has established an archive and a museum in the Indianapolis suburb of Carmel, and he hunts down rare and meaningful items from the worlds of the Gershwins, Irving Berlin, Yip Harburg, Jerome Kern and so many others.
Here at the Ella Fitzgerald Charitable Foundation, we are proud to support his work.
What a mensch!
Fran Morris-Rosman, Los Angeles
For Those Who Can’t Speak for Themselves
Life in the circus may be an adventure for circus chef Matt Loory, but for the animals used by Ringling Bros., it’s a living nightmare (“Pie in the Eye Is Just Dessert for This Circus’ Young Chef,” July 18).
Elephants spend most of their lives chained in boxcars, robbed of family, the freedom to walk for many miles on fresh grass, and all that is natural and important to them.
Bullhooks (weapons resembling a fireplace poker with a sharp steel hook on the end) are used to keep elephants submissive and afraid. A former Ringling staffer gave PETA chilling photos of baby elephants who were torn away from their mothers, tied up with ropes and terrorized until they gave up all hope.
Ringling paid a record $270,000 fine to settle violations of federal law and has been cited repeatedly by federal authorities for failing to provide veterinary care, causing trauma and physical harm, unsafe handling of dangerous animals and failure to provide adequate care in transit.
Ringling employees have the choice to come and go. Animals do not.
Jessica Johnson, PETA
Happy to Have You
My name is Mark Winn and I am Jewish by osmosis, not by birth, but I grew up in what I’ve coined the Lower Borsht Belt — Fairfax Avenue between Olympic and San Vicente boulevards. I was a Fairfax High graduate, class of 1971, when Fairfax was 75 percent Jewish. Also, I was a member of the Westside Jewish Community Center and played flag football against the temples. I purchased a poster that featured a young African-American boy biting into a piece of Levy’s rye bread — I am African-American, by the way — over which read:
“You don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s.”
I pick up the Jewish Journal at various libraries around, and I enjoy reading the diversity of articles and viewpoints expressed therein.
And in conclusion, I want to add: You don’t have to be Jewish to read and love the Jewish Journal.
Mark Winn, Los Angeles
The California runoff race between Ben Allen and Sandra Fluke was incorrectly identified in a July 18 article (“Jews and Education: An Unusual Difference of Opinions”). They are running against one another for state Senate.
Learning to juggle life skills through Circus Arts
Watching spunky Kaia Susman, 9, stretching her legs in a wide straddle and then bending forward until her body was completely flat on the floor conjures images of a super-stretchy Gumby toy.
“It’s more fun than pain,” Kaia said during a recent training session at Kinetic Theory Circus Arts in Culver City. “My coach tells us not to do it for our friends outside the studio because it’s not something that you can just do. We take a lot of time stretching and building up to the positions — it’s not about just being flexible.”
At Kinetic Theory, housed inside a 10,000-square-foot warehouse with 25-foot-high ceilings, students ages 4 to 64 have found it to be a popular mix of exercise, theater and circus. They routinely learn the skills behind juggling, clowning, stilt-walking, performing contortion and hanging from the ceiling on yards of silk fabric.
“If you don’t like to exercise, you might like circus because it doesn’t feel like it’s exercise,” explained founder Stephanie Abrams. “It’s fun, and our bodies need it, as we are sitting around too much. We need to move to stay healthy. Most of our students come to class for the benefits of the fitness aspect of the training.”
Abrams, 36, is diminutive in stature but not in nature. She stressed that circus training doesn’t give you the perfect body, if there is such a thing. Every discipline has a different body type. For example, there needs to be a certain percentage of body fat to be a contortionist so that there isn’t tearing during stretching; an aerialist needs to build up the shoulders and arms; and a wider, more solid body type is needed for partner acrobatics.
The granddaughter of Orthodox Holocaust survivors from Poland, Abrams got her start in gymnastics in South Florida at the age of 4. Watching a performance of Cirque du Soleil, with its combination of theater and acrobatics, changed her life and set her on a similar course. She started doing mime and physical theater in high school, then went to the University of Texas. At 19, after one semester, Abrams decided college wasn’t for her.
“When I told my dad that I found a circus school and was moving to San Francisco, it didn’t go over really well,” she said.
Her father, a biomedical engineer with a doctorate, envisioned her getting a college degree in whatever field she wanted — anything but circus. Now, though, she said, he is very involved in Kinetic Theory and incredibly proud of her accomplishments.
While studying at the San Francisco School of Circus Arts (now called the Circus Center) for three years, she trained with performers from the Pickle Family Circus. That circus group formed in 1974, veering away from the spectacle of using animals and the three-ring format in favor of a dance-like realm full of juggling, clowning, acrobatics and aerials. In the early ’80s, Abrams worked with Make A Circus, a now-defunct nonprofit group that ran free community, outdoor, hands-on workshops in physical theater, and she became a professional contortionist in 1998.
Maintaining San Francisco as her home base, she started Kinetic Theory Experimental Theatre in 2000 as an ensemble combining, mime, physical theater, acrobatics and dance.
“We were a movement theater company, and all of our shows were experiments,” she said. “I played up the science theme. … Instead of rehearsals, we called them labs.
“The real scientific kinetic theory refers to the movement of particles in gases, but I liked the idea of using a term that refers to the movement relationship of particles. … That’s how I got the name.”
Moving to Los Angeles in 2006, Abrams expanded and renamed the business. It now houses a professional theater company, experimental theater and a circus/theater training program.
Most of the classes and summer circus camps combine gymnastics and theater, attracting children and adults who want to try something different. Melissa Susman of Venice has two daughters taking classes.
“It’s an ideal combination of physical strength and creativity, and while it’s similar to gymnastics in terms of the skills that you need to acquire for the acrobatics, it doesn’t have that competitive aspect that gymnastics has or the rigidity for a young child,” she said. “It’s an ideal sport that’s not just exercise, as it has given them a context to thrive emotionally and spiritually in a nourishing environment. ”
There are some students who aspire to become professionals, and Kinetic Theory has a more competitive arm of the school that involves pre-professional training.
“Being a professional is a different life than it used to be, living out of a steamer trunk and working for Ringling Bros.,” Abrams said. “Cirque du Soleil is an option, but it’s not the be-all, end-all of your career. There are other choices, but it’s a narrow spectrum.
“There are nightclubs, cruise ships and even Broadway plays, like ‘Pippin,’ that have aerialists. And then another option is to work for smaller troupes or parties, corporate events and character walk-arounds,” she said. “We try to inform students about all the different opportunities, as it’s hard and grueling to be on tour. … Life in circus is intense.”
While Abrams’ dream of making it onto a Cirque du Soleil stage never happened, she has managed to take her passion for the circus arts and inspire others.
“Every kid that I have worked with for 15 years or so now, even if they don’t pursue it as a career, they are more confident, they know who they are, they are social, more accepting of other people,” she said. “If you grow up with circus, there is a bond between circus people, no matter where in the world you are.”
Elfman circles back to the circus
Danny Elfman is a huge success, but he doesn’t want you to know it. Humility is a hard thing to hang your hat on when you’ve accumulated four Academy Award nominations, taken home a Grammy, and an Emmy and written some of the most popular theme music of all time, notably for “The Simpsons” and his many collaboration with filmmaker Tim Burton. But that doesn’t stop Elfman from trying.
Sitting in his magnificent recording studio and loft, a hidden gem in one of the sketchier parts of the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles, the composer projects the calm demeanor of a man who’s wonderfully secure with where he is in life. “Finally, at this point in my career, I can say I’m in the circus,” Elfman says, and laughs.
His newest work, a collaboration with the seemingly unstoppable Cirque du Soleil, is IRIS, a salute to cinema playing at the Kodak Theater. And while Cirque and the former Oingo Boingo leader might not seem to be the most natural collaborators – Cirque previously turned to music icons like the Beatles and Elvis Presley for inspiration – it’s turned out to be a match made in circus heaven.
As Elfman tells it, his collaboration with Cirque was actually a happy sort of accident. He was in New York, and a friend invited him to see a dance performance. When Elfman arrived at the show, he realized it was a solo piece and started to panic, but his friend assured him that he’d heard it was fabulous. “I was just imaging the worst… and it was this amazing show by this artist Phillipe Decoufle…it wasn’t at all what I was imagining. It was really entertaining, and I came out thinking, God, I’ve gotta work with this guy someday.”
Six months later, a call came in to Elfman’s film agent telling him Cirque du Soleil wanted him to collaborate on their new show. Elfman’s agent asked if he was interested. “I said, ‘who’s the director?’ And they go, ‘Oh, somebody you wouldn’t have heard of, a French choreographer named Phillipe Decoufle.’” Elfman accepted the job on the spot.
For Elfman, the chance to work with the circus was a homecoming of sorts. “I began performing at the age of 18 and did eight years of theater before I ever started a band,” says Elfman. “The first troupe I ever performed with was, ironically, a French musical theatrical troupe called Le Grande Magic Circus, so in a way this was bringing me back full circle. I was a theater street performer for years, I banged out there on the pavement, I blew fire and played trombone and fiddle, and I have a whole part of my life that goes back to that.”
Elfman’s past exploits proved a great way to connect with Cirque’s owner and creative force, Guy Laliberte, who also worked as a fire-breather in his youth. But even Elfman’s past experience didn’t mean things were easy. “There really were moments where I thought it was impossible, I thought the whole thing was a failed idea; and then I’d go to rehearsals, and every time I went to a rehearsal I’d get pulled into their energy, and their heart, and their commitment, and I’d come back all inspired, going ‘this can be done and this will be done, and if they can commit this energy and dedication to what they’re doing, I can certainly do the same.’”
However, the process of composing for circus was new to Elfman. He was used to collaborating with directors, tailoring his music for a single artistic vision, but with Cirque du Soleil, he found himself working one-on-one with some of the performers to give them what they needed. “It was really quite a constant collaboration with Phillipe, and then also with Shana [Carroll, the acrobatic performance designer], and in collaboration with the specific acrobats.”
One of the performers, an incredibly skilled acrobat who does an awe-inspiring routine where she seems to defy gravity while balancing on one hand, came to Elfman with a specific request. “I need something with a pulse,” she told him. So he set to work writing her a piece that would complement her routine. It’s one of the most beautiful, emotional moments in the show.
Elfman found working on IRIS thrilling. “I’ve been to a lot of Cirque shows,” he says. “I never feel that anything can go wrong. They’re beautiful in their mechanized precision, they’ve got these stages that do these incredible things, a million gallons of water, you’ve got the entire stage lifting into the air and turning vertical and 180 degrees and stuff like that, and here there’s absolutely nothing fancy about what the stage does…it’s all human, and you feel that they can fail at any moment. This show is much more circus than any Cirque du Soleil show that I’ve seen.”
Elfman has now witnessed performers slip up in preview performances of IRIS, and he’s also seen the crowd’s thrilled reaction when they succeed on the second try. “It reminds me of when I was in the theater, and we were doing an incredibly difficult musical solo, and my trumpet player had to end with this high note that was really hard, and he missed it. It was the end of the song, and he went for it again, and he missed it, and he went for it a third time, and by that point all of us were having heart attacks backstage, and he hit it—and I’ll tell you, I’ve never seen a bigger reaction in all the years of performing in my group than I did in that moment. That’s the real stuff, and I love that part of it, it’s terrifying.”
The irony of IRIS being staged at the Kodak Theatre hasn’t escaped Elfman. He’s often said that he doesn’t believe he’ll ever win an Oscar, and having his music grace the stage where the annual Oscars ceremony takes place, night after night, is a strange treat. “It’s funny, because I’ve always avoided going to the Kodak,” says Elfman, who now finds that the theater feels like a bit of a second home after going there daily to run the soundboard for the preview performances of IRIS.
“I really don’t like going to awards ceremonies,” Elfman muses. “If you give me a choice between attending the Grammys or the Academy Awards or any of these ceremonies or having a root canal, it would be a tough choice.”
Elfman credits some of his aversion to awards shows to his Judaic roots. “Modesty in one’s accomplishments is actually, I’ve learned, a Jewish tradition, and I wasn’t taught that, but it’s like a core part of my belief,” he says. “I can never sit there and go ‘I’ve done a magnificent thing, my child’s the most beautiful child on the planet.’ I just can’t do that.”
Growing up in what he describes as a “not atypical Jewish family that wasn’t particularly religious,” Elfman remembers the religious rituals that dotted his childhood. “We celebrated Passover and the major holidays. I was bar-mitzvahed, like most kids in my generation.”
Elfman’s quick to point out that his Judaism only extends so far, though he’s proud to talk about it, and speaks thoughtfully on the subject. “I’m not a religious person, and I cannot pretend that I am. On the other hand as soon as I became a composer, I was deeply aware of the Jewish cultural roots that are embedded in my DNA.”
The soldier in the center ring
“Sagiv’s from Israel!” a woman whispered to her seat partner as Aloysia Gavre, director of the West Hollywood Cirque School, introduced Sagiv Ben-Binyamin, a Hadera-born aerial artist and instructor, at a public showcase for the circus school.
As far as he has traveled, literally, from Israel to this Southern Californian loft-like gym space, Ben-Binyamin has come an even greater distance in recent years in his transition from the Israeli army to the circus sphere, a change he refers to as “extreme.”
Ben-Binyamin, 30, served for three years before moving to the United States at 22, and his move raises an interesting question: Is life in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), one of the strictest armies in the world, really so different from performing the high-wire act he’s now doing? Could it be that a three-ring circus and a three-prong attack have more in common than we think? After all, the demands of the circus and the army overlap threefold: physical endurance, group support and all that drama (just watch any episode of “Army Wives” to see the incredible amount of theatrics that surface at least once a week).
Regardless of such surface similarities, Ben-Binyamin says these days he feels pretty far from his Israeli army experience.
“It’s been a while since I’ve thought about it,” he said. “It was physically hard, I think, mainly because of no sleep … especially at the age when you need 10 hours of sleep.”
But it was important to him to serve. He notes that service is emblematic of the Israeli culture, an institution in which all participate: “I’m happy that I did it.”
“I think it’s pretty similar,” he added. “In the army they teach you how to support each other, and in the circus, naturally you want to support and help your fellow performers.”
But the army wasn’t enough to keep Ben-Binyamin away from his long fascination with gymnastics, which led him to the circus.
“When I moved here, I discovered the circus … I was sucked into it so fast, and I found a local job here, you know, grooming pets and animals. I didn’t have the right visa necessarily, but I wanted to stay here.”
Already, he’s moved from Seattle to Florida to San Diego and now Los Angeles. He’s also working for Cher in her Las Vegas show at Caesars Palace and getting ready for Broadway with the original production of “Birdhouse Factory.”
As far as long-lasting benefits, the army and the circus both come into play. In doing stunts for the “Spider-Man” movie as a side gig, Ben-Binyamin said his circus training was helpful, but he also needed to be tough, “I guess that’s the Israeli part.”
Dan Berkley always carries two noses. “I always try to have a spare,” he says. “Particularly in a pie fight, it can come off. Doing anything, you’re gonna lose a nose.”
Berkley knows noses. He’s a clown in town with the Ringling Bros. When we met, he’d just jumped off the circus train from Fresno. Applying his makeup off Clown Alley backstage at Staples Center, Berkley explained how a nice boy from “the last exit off the Garden State Parkway” ran away with the Barnum and Bailey and the whole mishagoss.
He didn’t. First he got a degree in physics from a college in Maine. Then he fooled around with Circus Smirkus in Vermont and the Pickle Players in the Bay Area, developing a scientist character along the way. Did I mention he’s smart? Now, at 25, he’s an entertainer in “The Greatest Show on Earth!” (Take that Mandy Patinkin.)
Some of my best friends are clowns. I know that sounds like a line, but it’s true. Jewish clowns, too. Back East, there’s Dr. Meatloaf and Dr. Noodle (aka Stephen Ringold and Ilene Weiss). They’re in the CCU, the “Clown Care Unit” of the Big Apple Circus. Like badchens (Yiddish for clown) for the broken up, they play hospitals instead of weddings.
Here, Berkley takes a header into a pie with 15 other clown pals when an elephant walks into his diner. In a “Smashcar” pit-stop sketch, he reaches the heights — depths? — of pratfalling. Yet, his zany behavior onstage in front of thousands of ooh-ing and ahh-ing children contradicts a yeshiva bocher-level interest Berkley has in his art off-stage.
Berkley knows the difference between a badchen and a kachina (a Hopi clown). He learned some of his craft at the funny feet of the wonderful messugenah clown Avner “the Eccentric” Eisenberg. Avner lives off the coast of Maine and is, if not a ba’al teshuvah then not a bad Baal Shem Tov, using humor as a healing tool for the heart and breath. Berkley learned from Avner (and Bill Irwin and other mentors) that clowning “is an evolutionary art.”
“You’re always trying to come up with something new,” he says. “Of course, there are no new ideas. There’s your take on it.”
Clowning has deep Jewish storytelling roots — notably the cartoon faith of Krusty the Clown on “The Simpsons.” His real name is Herschel Krustofski, and his father, voiced by Jackie Mason, was a rabbi. Berkley remembers a line from the Talmud that Bart Simpson quotes in one episode: “Who shall bring redemption if not the jesters?”
Nicole Feld, circus co-producer with her father, Kenneth Feld, hopes such wisdom is prophetic. Her grandfather, Irvin Feld, first moved the venerable show from tent to arena. This is their 136th year and Feld, 28, wouldn’t say whether Berkley is her favorite clown — “That’s like asking me if I love my mom or my dad more!”
“He brought his college background and his interests in physics to his character,” Feld says. “Dan’s great because he can talk to kids about all kinds of stuff and helps us place the value on education.”
Dan starts by putting on his eyes (white, red, black). He can complete his face in 15 minutes. The latex nose goes on with skin adhesive.
“In the medical industry they use it for colostomy bags and stuff like that,” he says. “It works well. You really don’t wanna lose a nose. Guys that are prone to losing their nose, will paint their own nose red so worst-case scenario, they still have a nose. The nose within. The inner nose.”
Berkley steps away and powders.
“We powder our makeup to set it, keep it from smudging,” he explains. “I bump into somebody, I don’t want to leave my face on their costume.”
He tops off with a two-toned yak wig reminiscent of Sam Jaffee as Dr. Zorba on TV’s “Ben Casey.”
“I use yak hair because it’s tougher,” he says, too young for the reference. “It takes a beating. We beat up everything we use.”
Did you know clowns wear two pairs of boxers? For the final touch, Berkley pokes a tiny black clown dot into his dimpled chin. In floppy two-toned custom-made shoes, he’s ready to meander out — lime-green smock over orange shirt with dark bow tie, green-and-black plaid pants held up by red suspenders — for his pre-show “all access” visit with the early-arriving audience. He has been buffooning since 3 a.m., when he did a Univision appearance (Latino audiences are Ringling’s bread and butter in Los Angeles).
Berkley likes the Wavy Gravy line: “A clown is a poet who is also an orangutan.”
“There are a lot of contradictions in clowning,” Berkley says. “There are no rules. It’s one of those arts where you can do anything. You’re limited by what you can get your hands on sometimes and how much time you have to work on it.
In Staples, I ran into some Israelis I knew. Not to get all “Up With Laughter” about it, but they said Israel could sure use a circus. Leytzan, they told me, is the word for clown in Hebrew. Dan Berkley is very leytzan.
The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus is currently in Anaheim, through Aug. 6. For ticket information, visit see www.ringling.com/schedule/.
Hank Rosenfeld learned in a Ringling Brothers audition “ya gotta have a heart as big as Alaska” to reach the top row.
7 Days in the Arts
Saturday, July 8
8:30 p.m. $75-$150. Hollywood Palladium, 6215 Sunset Blvd. (323) 656-9069. ” width=”15″ height=”1″ alt=””>
Sunday, July 9 Monday, July 10
10 a.m.-4 p.m. (daily, except Sundays). Free. FIDM Museum and Galleries on the Park, 919 S. Grand Ave., Los Angeles. (213) 624-1200, ext. 2224. Tuesday, July 11 Tues., July 11 and 25, 6-9 p.m. Free (children 5 and under), $7-$16. Los Angeles Zoo, Griffith Park. (323) 644-6042. ” width=”15″ height=”1″ alt=””> Wednesday, July 12 8 p.m. (July 12-14), 3 pm. (July 15), 4 p.m. (July 16). $25-$45. 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. R.S.V.P., Thursday, July 13 July 7-Aug. 26. Free. 7358 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 937-5525.
Sunday, July 9
Monday, July 10
10 a.m.-4 p.m. (daily, except Sundays). Free. FIDM Museum and Galleries on the Park, 919 S. Grand Ave., Los Angeles. (213) 624-1200, ext. 2224.
Tuesday, July 11
Tues., July 11 and 25, 6-9 p.m. Free (children 5 and under), $7-$16. Los Angeles Zoo, Griffith Park. (323) 644-6042. ” width=”15″ height=”1″ alt=””>
Wednesday, July 12
8 p.m. (July 12-14), 3 pm. (July 15), 4 p.m. (July 16). $25-$45. 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. R.S.V.P.,
Thursday, July 13
July 7-Aug. 26. Free. 7358 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 937-5525.
Friday, July 14
7 Days in the Arts
Singles – Painted Clowns
As part of our stroll down memory lane, it seemed fitting to reprint a column by one of our most popular writers. Teresa Strasser, now a regular on prime-time television and morning radio, generated stacks of reader mail with pieces such as this one.
I’m drinking at a bar called the Dirty Horse on Hollywood Boulevard. Well, that’s not the real name, but I never got a look at the sign and that name seemed right.
It fits the place, with its plastic pitchers of beer, painted clowns on black velvet, bowls of peanuts and the fast-talking, baseball-hat-wearing guy at the end of the bar who clutches a clipboard and swears he can hook you up with tickets to a taping of “Yes, Dear.”
That’s the nature of the place, a bar — where as you can probably imagine — a half-pretty girl in a three-quarters-dark room gets served a pretty stiff drink. I’m drinking martinis for the simple reason that they work fast and I’m on a bit of a schedule. I’ve been on the road working for all but four days of the past six weeks and I’m wound up tight. I keep thinking about my perpetually overheating Taurus, the way the mechanic’s gloved hand slowly loosens the radiator cap and lets the steam out.
At some point, the line between Mickey Rourke and me blurs. I slur. I buy drinks for strangers. I spill the contents of my purse onto the floor. By the end of the night, I have no cash, none.
In the interest of making sure the cliché train doesn’t miss a single stop, I make out with my ex-boyfriend, who is my designated driver and seated on the stool next to mine. It is later reported to me that without warning, I burst into tears and had an impassioned discussion about not much in said ex’s ear.
Hold that thought.
Several months before the Dirty Horse, I was out with a guy my girlfriend dubbed Sexy Pete. Pete’s in the music industry, dresses well, appears to take his workout regime very seriously and would never let you pay for dinner. Sexy Pete has been around. Normally, I’d never go out with a guy who exudes more sex appeal than mensch appeal, but my friend talked me into it.
“Now that you’re 30, things are different. In your 30s, you don’t worry so much. You just have fun,” she explained.
Not to shock you, but it turns out Sexy Pete just “wasn’t into a relationship right now.” Still, we went out a couple times before that last date, which ended up with me back at his place, very late at night. We talked on his couch. It got late, then early. He fell asleep and I was stuck there, not knowing whether to extricate myself from Sexy Pete’s sleepy grip or stay.
I thought to myself, “I’m in the apartment of a guy who couldn’t care less about me. He barely speaks. He has no interest in a relationship, a sentiment I finally understand has no hidden meaning for men. This is about to get really sad if I don’t leave now.”
Out I went. Pete, with all the enthusiasm of a catatonic patient at a hospital square dance, muttered, “Don’t leave.”
The door was already half shut, and it closed. I was out on an unfamiliar street in last night’s boots and skirt. I spotted my car in the harsh light of early morning and the old Taurus had a brand new ticket.
This is what I call a Karma Ticket, the kind you get when you are where you shouldn’t be. It never fails. You may also be familiar with the Nobility Ticket, the kind you get when you couldn’t move your car because you were working and didn’t want to lose your flow, listening to a friend discuss her divorce or otherwise doing good in the world. You feel good when you pay these and almost want to write in the memo line of your check, “Fee for being such a good person.”
Because I’m 30, I don’t cram the Karma Ticket in the glove compartment and forget about it until it doubles. I pay it.
Now back to painted clowns.
I wake up after my evening at the Dark Horse. In my 20s, I would have had a series of concerns, sort of a self-administered shame questionnaire: Why did I do that? Should I still be dating that ex? What does it all mean? Why do I have to be such a jackass?
But now, it’s about slack. Just like my friend predicted, I don’t worry so much. I’m old enough to know what it costs to get wrapped up with a guy like Sexy Pete, which doesn’t mean I don’t get close, but it’s three dates and out. I don’t need to interpret what’s wrong with him or with me. I just move on with the mollifying impact of slack easing the way. I call the ex and we go over the highlights of the Dark Horse. It was the most fun I’ve had in a long time.
Here’s the thing, if you spend the night where you shouldn’t or get crazy on martinis once a year, there’s no need to judge yourself. When it comes down to it, a few painted clowns do not make your life a circus.
The Beastie Boys, Jesus and Me
Tightrope of Life
In the days of communism’s fierce grip on the Soviet Union, there lived a Chasidic Jew named Reb Mendel Futerfas. Reb Mendel repeatedly put his life at risk with his efforts to promote Jewish education behind the Iron Curtain and for some 14 years was incarcerated in prisons and labor camps for his “crime” of teaching Torah. While in the Siberian gulags, he spent most of his free time studying and praying, but he also interacted and conversed with other prisoners — some Jewish, some not. Among these prisoners was a circus performer whose claim to fame was his incredible skill as a tightrope walker.
Reb Mendel would often engage this man in conversation. Having never been to a circus, Reb Mendel was totally baffled by the man’s profession. How could a person risk his life walking on a rope several stories above ground? (This was in the days before safety nets were standard practice.)
“To just go out there and walk on a rope?” Reb Mendel challenged incredulously.
The performer explained that due to his training and skill, he did not need to be held up by any cables and that, for him, it was no longer all that dangerous. Reb Mendel remained skeptical and intrigued.
After Stalin died, the prison authorities relaxed their rules somewhat and the guards told the prisoners that they would be allowed to stage a makeshift circus on May-Day. The tightrope walker coordinated with other acrobats in the camp, but there was no doubt that his famous tightrope act would be the highlight of the show. The tightrope walker made sure that his friend, Reb Mendel, was in the audience.
After all the other acts finished, the lights came down; everybody waited with baited breath. The tightrope walker climbed the tall pole to the suspended rope. His first steps were timid and tentative (after all, it had been several years) but within a few seconds, it all came back to him. With his hands twirling about, he virtually glided across the rope to the pole at the other end, and then, in a flash, made a fast turn, reversed his direction and proceeded back to the other side. Along the way, he performed several stunts. The crowd went wild.
When he was done, he slid down off the pole, took a bow and went running straight to Reb Mendel.
“So?” he said. “Did you see that I was not held up by any cables?”
A very impressed Reb Mendel replied, “Yes. You’re right. No cables.”
“OK. You’re a smart man. Tell me, how did I do it? Was it my hands? Was it my feet?” the man asked.
Reb Mendel paused for a moment, closed his eyes and replayed the entire act back on his mind. Finally, Reb Mendel opened his eyes and said, “It’s the eyes. It’s all in your eyes. During the entire time, your eyes were completely focused and riveted on the opposite pole.”
“Exactly!” said the performer. “When you see your destination in front of you and you don’t take your eyes off of it, then your feet go where they need to go and you don’t fall. OK, now one more question. What would you say is the most difficult part of the act?”
Again Reb Mendel thought for a moment. “Most difficult was the turn; when you had to change direction.”
“Correct again!” he said. “During that split second, when you lose sight of that first pole, and the other pole has not yet come into view, there is some real danger there. But… if you don’t allow yourself to get confused and distracted during that transition, your eyes will find that pole and your balance will be there.”
This special Shabbat — the bridge between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur — is referred to as “Shabbat Shuva.” In this week’s Haftorah, we hear the words of the prophets — exhorting us, pleading with us, beckoning us to improve the quality of our lives; to even change direction if need be.
It is also noteworthy that this week’s Torah portion — in which we learn about the events that transpired on the last day of Moses’ life on earth — is called “Vayeilech Moshe” (And Moses went). The commentaries point out that even on the last day of his life, Moses was on the move — walking forward, achieving, growing — making the most of every precious moment of life. Moses’ message to us being that so long as we have a breath of life, there ought to be “Vayeilech” — explorations of new horizons, journeys to new frontiers.
How do we walk this tightrope called “life” without stumbling? The answer is: by establishing clear and proper goals and remaining focused on those goals like a laser beam.
The Torah provides us with a road map to a meaningful and fulfilling way of life. It sets down goals and defines purpose.
When you know what your purpose and destination is, and you do not take your eyes off that pole, then you know where to put your feet. Even when things turn, and we momentarily lose sight of the pole, we need not despair. Shabbos Shuva teaches us that a change of direction ought not to send us plummeting. On the contrary, we can and should shift gracefully with changes of circumstances, catch our balance and let the next pole come into view.
Rabbi Moshe D. Bryski serves as the executive director of Chabad of the Conejo and dean of the Conejo Jewish Day School.
Life at a Standstill
PhD on the Flying Trapeze
You’re on the flying trapeze, gliding fearlessly through the air. Keeping you aloft, 30 feet above gaping spectators, are your trusted teammates. Today, your welfare is in their hands. Tomorrow they’ll go back to being — the guys from accounting?
On that premise, Edy Greenblatt has built a new Southern California-based business.
Greenblatt is best known in Los Angeles as an energetic, knowledgeable folk dance teacher. But in search of a more stable career, she studied organizational behavior at the Harvard Business School, in a joint doctoral program involving Harvard’s graduate schools of psychology and sociology. Her doctoral research on stress in the workplace took her to a string of Club Meds — the better to investigate worker burnout.
At a Club Med in Florida, she first caught glimpse of a flying trapeze. It was love at first flight.
The 30-something Greenblatt saw “the most powerful tool for professional and personal transformation.” Now, as president and “chief flying officer” of five-year-old Execu-Care Coaching and Consulting, she helps corporate managers hone communication and leadership skills by teaching them the knee-hang and the back-flip dismount from a bar swinging 30 feet off the ground.
It’s not as terrifying as it sounds. Everyone wears a safety harness, and there’s a net below. Greenblatt’s staffers, who do the actual catching each time you fly through the air, have logged 10,000 hours of training and coaching time.
The trapeze requires intense collaboration, so the corporate execs build trust and self-confidence, which makes them more effective at work. That’s the theory anyway.
At the very least, the experience fulfills many a childhood circus fantasy, and it’s a deductible business expense.
The Chicago-born Greenblatt originally came to Los Angeles at 17 to pursue her passion for international folkdance, studying dance ethnology at UCLA and teaching dance all over the place. But eventually it dawned on her that leading novices through “Dodi Li” was no way for a nice Jewish girl to make a living. She also recognized that, as a dance leader, “I was spending my life fixing the damage caused by work and life.” Rather than struggling to restore people’s psyches through dance, she vowed to help transform the workplace that saps so many souls.
That led her to Harvard for her academic credentials and eventually to the trapeze.
In a way, she’s come full circle. In high school, she sold peanuts and Cokes when Ringling Bros. came to town. When they moved on, she was sorely tempted to go with them. Now she uses circus tricks to teach the desk-bound how to soar.
For information, call (626) 644-7745 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Class Notes – A Ramah Reunion
7 Days In Arts
So you got a screenplay in your back pocket? Welcome to Hollywood. Now all you have to do is get it made. Enter the Writers Guild Foundation. Today, It offers an all-day masters seminar in “Writing the Original Screenplay.” You’ll hear leading screenwriters and execs discuss topics including “Invention and Reinvention,” “A Saleable Premise” and “Getting It Made.” Then down a few cocktails at the party that follows.9:30 a.m.-6 p.m. $110-$150. Writers Guild, 7000 W. Third St., Los Angeles. (323) 782-4692.
We can’t promise it’ll be Val Kilmer, but cast membersfrom “The Ten Commandments” musical give a preview performance of a couple ofsongs this evening. Part of a special event sponsored by The Jewish Journal, thenight also features a panel discussion on the Ten Commandments by Rabbis IsaacJeret, Daniel Bouskila and others, moderated by Rabbi Richard Spiegel, as wellas an art exhibition of angel paintings by Mel Blatt and catered reception byDelice. For those who can’t make it tonight, the Museum of Tolerance hosts thesame event on Sun., Aug. 8. 7 p.m. Temple Etz Chaim, 1080 Janss Road, ThousandOaks. R.S.V.P. for either date to
Â or call (213) 368-1661.
In 1992, Mona Sue Weissmark brought together 22 Jews andGermans, the sons and daughters of camp survivors and of Nazis, for a four-daymeeting. In her new book, “Justice Matters: Legacies of the Holocaust and WorldWar II,” she explores her findings from that meeting and examines the extent towhich injustices experienced by parents come to influence their children. OxfordUniversity Press, $26. www.amazon.com
Playing live, 24/6 is Five Towns Radio, a Jewish musicstation based out of Cedarhurst, N.Y. (part of the Five Towns). Lucky for us,though, they’re online, which means you can still gloat about the weather toyour relatives back East, while enjoying their radio station.
Decked out in contemporary clownwear and natural spiky red hair, Elliot Zimet is the host of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey’s “Three-Ring Adventure” — and he’s also an MOT. Let him entertain you. The circus comes to Anaheim today.7:30 p.m. Through Aug. 8 (show times vary). $13-$75. Arrowhead Pond, 2695 E. Katella Ave., Anaheim. (714) 704-2500.
Together, Arab, Jewish and Muslim singers and musicians from Nazareth and Galilee form the Arab-Israeli Orchestra of Nazareth. The group promotes the appreciation of Arab music throughout the world, and today makes its U.S. debut at the Skirball Cultural Center. Resident singer Lubna Salameh takes centerstage, reinterpreting Arab standards, including songs by the late Egyptian diva, Oum Kulthum, as well as film stars Layla Mourad and Ismahan.8 p.m. Free. 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 440-4500.
Go beyond “Where the Sidewalk Ends” today, as GuerriLA Theatre presents “Signs of the Times: An Evening of Shel’s Shorts,” an 80-minute seriocomedy of nine short plays written by Shel Silverstein. You’ll be introduced to characters including one woman who tries to convince a beach resort manager that a “No Dogs Allowed” sign doesn’t apply to her (the dog is her husband), and a waitress who won’t explain the curious sign she holds, which reads, “No Skronking.”8 p.m. Runs Fridays and Saturdays through Aug. 28. $20. The Kutting Room, 1221 Second St., Santa Monica. (323) 650-2493.
7 Days In Arts
Clowning Around With Cancer
After Stanford University graduate Jonna Tamases survived two different cancers in the 1980s, her life took an unexpected turn: She ran off to join the circus.
She recounts her experience in her quirky, one-woman show, "Jonna’s Body, Please Hold," now through Sept. 28 at the Odyssey Theatre.
Don’t expect a straightforward comic narrative like "God Said Ha!" Julia Sweeney’s 1998 monologue about her cervical cancer.
"The play is the story of my body as a hotel-like entity filled with these darling characters who are my body parts, personified," said the winsome Tamases, 37.
Drawing on her two years with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, the ex-clown uses exaggerated physical comedy to characterize each limb.
"What I really hated about having cancer was watching my identity narrow down to just being sick," she said of her inspiration. "So I didn’t want to create a ‘woe is me,’ kind of play."
Although Tamases loved playacting while growing up in a culturally Jewish home in Palo Alto, the assumption was that a nice Jewish girl should "go to an Ivy League college, get a fancy-schmancy degree and become a professional."
She was planning to do just that as a Columbia University freshman when a routine X-ray revealed Hodgkin’s disease. A year later, other tests showed a large-cell lymphoma. Radiation treatments later caused her to develop a third type of cancer and to undergo a double mastectomy.
"We all know the cliché that life is short, but experiencing cancer really puts that knowledge in your body," she said.
Tamases scrapped the professional job route to return to her childhood love, playacting; eventually she applied to Barnum’s Clown College with a letter featuring her face superimposed on a daisy and the words, "pick me." One of 30 people selected among 2,000 hopefuls, she learned circus requisites such as stilt-walking and was hired in 1994.
Tamases, who brings her goofy, innocent clown persona to "Jonna’s Body," said "the pressure and the possibility of death is still with me. I’m a lot more anxious than other people. The flip side is that I’m acutely aware of the preciousness of life and how much I love it. And I want that joy to come out in the play."
$22.50-$25. 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. For tickets, call (310) 477-2055.
7 Days In Arts
Political Pot Boils Over
On a cool and drizzly night in this Indian Ocean port city, a vast white tent standing in the middle of a cricket field seemed to fit in with the circus atmosphere of the U.N. World Conference Against Racism, one Jewish observer said.
This was no regular circus that had come to town, however, but a viciously anti-Israel, anti-Jewish circus that had carried on all week and was about to reach its apex.
It got so bad on Monday, just halfway through the official governmental conference that began Aug. 31 and ends Sept. 7, that the United States and Israel recalled their delegations.
The U.S. delegation said it would not continue working in such a "racist," anti-Semitic atmosphere.
Speaking in Israel, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres announced that Israel had decided to withdraw following a "unilateral and ugly proposal by the Arab and Muslim leagues that are united against peace and for the intifada against Israel.
"We have instructed our delegation in Durban to come back home. We regret very much the very bizarre show in Durban," Peres said. "An important convention that is supposed to defend human rights became a source of hatred."
By Wednesday, France was threatening that the European Union could walk as well if South Africa did not remove references to Israel as a racist and apartheid state.
Thus, the walkout may have had the intended effect: Final documents might not include any mention of the Middle East issue — if a compromise languageon the subject cannot be reached.
But even with efforts to continue the conference despite the walkout, the events leading up to the walkout marred the forum.
Last Saturday night thousands of nongovernmental organizations from around the world had gathered in the white tent to hammer out a final declaration after a weeklong preliminary portion of the racism conference. Thanks to Palestinian-led efforts, one issue dominated discussion — the Mideast conflict.
After a week spent enduring hate-filled chants, insults, pamphlets, posters, marches and demonstrations, some three dozen Jewish activists huddled in the first rows under the great tent.
To their right sat their nemeses — large delegations of Palestinians and other Arabs who waited excitedly, most dressed in secular garb but some in chadors and others with kaffiyeh scarves draped around their necks. The document to be considered included a litany of alleged sins to be laid at Israel’s door — including genocide, ethnic cleansing and apartheid — and the Jewish contingent was split on strategy.
After a chaotic start with procedural disputes that lasted more than an hour, it was the fourth speaker, an African woman from the Ecumenical Caucus, who first broached the Jewish issue.
The speaker wanted to strike from the declaration a passage that the Anti-Semitism Commission had inserted: that anti-Zionist rhetoric over the past year had incited violence against Jews and Jewish institutions around the world and should be considered a new form of anti-Semitism.
"I am against anti-Semitism, but I am also against the genocide of Palestinians," the woman said. And she wanted the declaration to name names — that is, to castigate Israel.
The Jewish delegation immediately challenged, but the chairman called for a vote of the 43 caucus representatives.
All in favor? Forty-two hands shot into the air, holding aloft yellow voting cards. All opposed? The solitary hand of the startled Jewish representative.
With that, the members of the Jewish caucus rose from their seats. As they made for the exit, they chanted "Shame, Shame, Shame!"
The pro-Palestinian group erupted with a rejoinder: "Free, free, Palestine! Free, free, Palestine!"
After a full week of such treatment, they could stomach no more, the Jewish delegates said afterward.
"This is the first time I’ve ever felt anti-Semitism this personally, at such a level of intensity," said David Matas, the senior counsel for B’nai Brith Canada and holder of the Jewish Caucus’ yellow voting card.
"It’s a kind of collective guilt," said Matas, a Winnipeg-based refugee lawyer, "but instead of saying that the Jews killed Christ, they’re using the modern-day language of human rights to accuse us of some of the worst sins known to humanity."
As the Jews vacated their seats in protest, the Palestinians and their colleagues swooped in to occupy them. There were smiles and hugs and handshakes all around.
For months, Jewish leaders and activists have warned that Palestinian and Arab diplomacy has been aimed at "delegitimization of the State of Israel."
In the weeks leading up to the Durban conference, Jewish activists had pushed frantically to prevent the Arab world from reintroducing a resolution denigrating Zionism as racism; minimizing the uniqueness of the Holocaust; and diluting the definition of "anti-Semitism" by expanding it to include discrimination of other "Semitic" peoples, like the Palestinians.
Those issues, it turns out, were mere "decoys," said Shimon Samuels, the Paris-based director of international liaison for the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the head of the Jewish Caucus in Durban.
With the approval of the NGO declaration, a blueprint for the conference’s real agenda has come into focus, Jewish delegates said.
Call it the South Africa strategy.
Durban has given birth to a declaration that denounces Israel as a "racist, apartheid state" and calls for the world to use the same tactics against Israel that ultimately dismantle South Africa’s apartheid regime. The declaration calls for "mandatory and comprehensive sanctions and embargoes, the full cessation of all links (diplomatic, economic, social, aid, military cooperation and training) between all states and Israel."
It also demands the "launch of an international anti-Israel Apartheid movement" through "a global solidarity campaign network of international civil society, U.N. bodies and agencies, business communities, and to end the conspiracy of silence among states, particularly the European Union and the United States."
A pro-Palestinian activist at the conference said there is no overarching plan to dismantle Israel itself, only to revamp its political system.
"This is a paranoid kind of thinking," Jamil Dakwar, an Israeli Arab lawyer with Adalah: The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, told JTA. "The people I know who criticize Israel say it can’t continue as a religious- and ethnic-based state, simply because it contradicts democracy."
The NGO document also calls for creation of a U.N. war crimes tribunal to prosecute Israeli "war crimes, acts of genocide, ethnic cleansing and the crime of Apartheid"; a U.N.-sponsored education and media campaign to counter those who support Israel and to promote the Palestinian cause; and elimination of the Law of Return which guarantees citizenship for any Jew who wishes to settle in Israel — coupled with the Palestinians’ own "right of return" for all refugees of Israel’s 1948 War of Independence, and their descendants.
As always, Jewish activists said, Israel will count on the United States to defend it through lobbying or, if necessary, by wielding its veto on the U.N. Security Council.
Yet some activists noted that "apartheid" itself is now a recognized legal term that might be prosecuted if — as many activists hope — the International Criminal Court is established in the near future.
Regardless, the Palestinians already have won a conviction of sorts against Israel in the propaganda war being waged here in Durban. Incessant Palestinian rhetoric, dutifully reported by the world media, whipped the crowd here into a virtual frenzy.
"They scream at you and shake their finger in your face; you can feel scared and embattled," said Judy Palkovitz, chairwoman of government relations for Hadassah: The Women’s Zionist Organization of America. "Whatever dollar amount they spent to organize this, it was well worth it. They’ve gotten very good bang for their buck. They may not win the war, but they’ve won this battle."
Presumably it was no accident that the new mantra "racist, apartheid" was unveiled here in South Africa, where those words are most inflammatory. Such propaganda helped foster what Jewish activists described as a "lynch mob" atmosphere that won "kangaroo court" validation in the NGO declaration.
The most prominent featured speakers at the NGO conference were Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat — who lashed out at Israel in a vicious speech, even as Peres was courting him for new peace talks — and Cuban President Fidel Castro.
After the walkout, the pro-Palestinian activism had died down somewhat and the official Arab delegations took a more moderate tone, reportedly expressing a willingness to sign off on a final governmental declaration that didn’t refer to "Zionism" or "racism."
But Jewish delegates concluded that the stance was a tactic to appease the West — while leaving the Arab states leeway to trumpet the NGO document as "the voice of civil society" around the world.
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