A life in circus


Jessica Hentoff, 53, is the artistic/executive director of Circus Harmony, St. Louis’ only year-round circus school and social circus program based in the City Museum. She also co-founded the Big Apple Circus in New York in 1977 and Circus Flora in St. Louis in 1986. Recently, Hentoff sat down with the Jewish Light and discussed her obsession with the circus, its place in Jewish history and how it’s never too late to join (and you don’t even have to run away).

This is one of those questions I just have to ask: What’s a nice Jewish girl like you doing in the circus?


I took circus classes in college (at the State University of New York at Purchase) because I thought they would be fun. That was over 30 years ago and it is still fun.

What intrigued you?

A big part was that it never occurred to me that I could do any of the things circus performers do. I grew up on the Upper West Side of New York City attending private school. I couldn’t even climb a tree until I was 10-years-old.

Don’t you have to grow up in the circus and be from a circus family to be any good at it?

That’s a myth. I work with all ages, from 5 to an 82-year-old aerialist. I’ve taught children of all labels — autistic, ADD, LDD, BDD, deaf, Down syndrome, physically handicapped. Circus arts doesn’t require one skill set. Maybe you can’t juggle but you can flip, or you can’t flip but you have great balance and can walk the wire. We have kids with severe and obvious disabilities and they find something they can do in the circus. We had one girl who did not have any legs. She was great on the trapeze because she had phenomenal upper body strength. Another performer is missing most of her fingers on one hand. She does aerial work and contortion. The audience sees her ability rather than her disability.

What brought you to St. Louis?

My trapeze partner was from here. She convinced me it would be easier to tour logistically if we lived in the middle of the country.

How did your family back in New York react when you told them you were moving to St. Louis and joining the circus?

Throughout college they had seen me in and out of clown makeup, on a unicycle, eating fire. I even spent summers touring with a youth circus. All along they thought it was a phase. Then I went to a circus school. They kept thinking the phase would end but it hasn’t. My father was actually quite concerned when I started aerial work. In fact, after I fell from the trapeze but refused to quit the circus, we didn’t speak for over a year. My father finally conceded that he could understand obsession — as I clearly was obsessed with circus from almost the moment I started doing it.

Your father is Nat Hentoff, syndicated columnist, novelist, historian and jazz critic who worked for the Village Voice for more than 50 years, correct?

Yes, and the Voice just laid him off a few weeks ago, if you can believe that. He’s 83-years-old. Couldn’t they have waited a little longer?

That seems to be a sad but familiar refrain at newspapers these days. Right now though, I want to ask you about social circus. What is it?

Social circus goes beyond just entertainment. We’re teaching children a lot more than flipping, flying and juggling. They’re learning important life skills like focus, persistence and teamwork. These are ordinary children of different ages, races, religions, ethnicities, backgrounds and neighborhoods doing complex tricks with real artistry. So, we inspire the participants but we also inspire the audience when they see what these children are capable of and how amazingly well they work together. At the same time, we are helping the children to build character and expand their own sense of community.

You and your circus group, the St. Louis Arches, have collaborated in St. Louis and in Israel with Gailee Circus, which is comprised of Jewish and Arab children in north Israel. Is that an ongoing effort?

We hope so. We have been doing this collaboration for the past two years. In the summer of 2007, we first went to Israel and this past summer, the Galilee Circus children came here. We are currently looking for sponsors so we can go back to Israel this summer to continue to promote “Peace through Pyramids and Harmony through Handsprings.”

What about the experience stands out most?

It has been amazing not just for all the children involved but also for the audiences who have witnessed them. They show the world what can happen when you focus on your similarities instead of your differences and work on building something together. They are only children but they have a lot to teach the rest of the world.

Is there anything in Jewish dogma that connects the religion with circus arts?

Absolutely: Tikkun olam. This is the concept that the world shattered into a million pieces years ago. It is our job, as humans, to repair the world. My theory is that everyone uses their own kind of glue. Some use music or theater or medicine or journalism. I use circus.

Have there been any Jewish people who have made it big in the circus?

Actually, the owner of Ringling is Kenneth Feld and he is Jewish. The soon-to-retire artistic director of the Big Apple Circus, who used to be a comedy juggler, Paul Binder, is Jewish as is Big Apple’s main clown, Grandma, a.k.a. Barry Lubin. I can think of a number of Jewish clowns and jugglers including Karen Gersch, The Flying Karamazov Brothers, Allan Jacob, Karen Quest, Cindy Marvel, Avner the Eccentric, Kazia Tannenbaum, Jay Green, Gena Shvartzman and Jeff Raz.

You have three children, each of whom is very involved in Circus Harmony. You also are a member of Central Reform Congregation. Did any, or all of your children, combine their bar or bat mitzvahs with the circus?

Everything we do seems to have a circus theme. At my now 16- year-old daughter’s and 14-year-old son’s bat and bar mitvahs there was certainly a lot of juggling and acrobatics. In fact, my son’s teaching was on balancing so that was demonstrated during his service, as well. My youngest son is a great juggler and he is preparing for his bar mitzvah now. I’m sure there will be some circus aspect to it.

What is the best part of teaching circus skills?

That moment when someone can first actually juggle or first sits on a trapeze and realizes, “Wow! I can do this! I can defy gravity!”

So are you saying that if my job at the Light doesn’t work out I can run away and join the circus?

Or you can moonlight as a circus performer. Spring classes start at Circus Harmony Center (www.everydaycircus. net) on Feb 2.