St. Louis circus director pens chapter in Jewish big top history


Bill Motchan, Special to the Jewish Light

From vaudeville to movies and TV, the entertainment business has frequently been linked to Jewish performers and producers. What may be less familiar is the connection of Jews and the circus. In fact, Jewish artists were largely responsible for building the circus industry in the late 19th century.

A new book published by Ben Yehuda Press examines that connection. “Under One Tent – Circus, Judaism, and Bible,” investigates that history and includes a chapter written by Jessica Hentoff, artistic and executive director of the St. Louis-based social circus known as Circus Harmony.

Hentoff, a member of Central Reform Congregation, also has a direct connection to Jewish circus history. According to a circus historian, her daughter Eliana is likely the first Jewish human cannonball. Circus Harmony uses the circus arts to motivate social change, so Hentoff’s contribution to “Under One Tent” focuses on tzedek and tikkun olam.

“Circus arts have long been recognized as a tool for making the world a better place,” she writes, citing sources as varied as Ernest Hemingway (who said the circus is one of the few things in life that’s inherently good for a person) to the Talmud. The latter includes the story of Rabbi Baruka who asked two worthy men their occupation. They answered: “We are clowns. . . when we see two people quarreling, we try to make peace between them.”

Hentoff is also quite familiar with the concept of tikkun olam as the daughter of longtime Village Voice writer and social justice warrior Nat Hentoff. Her contribution to “Under One Tent” describes her own work to support social change. It includes Circus Harmony’s “Peace Through Pyramids: Ferguson” initiative in the aftermath of the 2014 violence in north St. Louis County.

“The whole point of tikkun olam is as Jews, as humans, you’re supposed to repair the world where you are, whatever glue you have, whether that is music or journalism or medicine,” Hentoff said. “I just use the circus. And if I can just help a child to make better choices, to have more opportunities, that’s something that hopefully ripples out and helps to repair the world.

“The circus to me is always a perfect analogy for life,” she said. “I use circus terms all the time, like ‘juggling my responsibilities,’ ‘balancing my priorities.’ I teach children that when you’re walking a wire, it’s like in real life. If you’re having a problem, you just don’t stand there and panic. You take your next step forward on the wire. That’s how you regain your balance.”

Circus Harmony will present “Sail Away With Us,” a pirate-themed performance and dinner-dance fundraiser April 1 at City Museum. Details are available here.