R. Samuel bar Nahmani, in the name of R. Yohanan, said: We can to go theaters and circuses and basilicas to deal with public welfare on Shabbat.
-Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 150a
Four years ago we had the idea that a youth circus might be an interesting way to get Arab and Jewish kids to find a common ground here in the Galilee, so with a grant from the Abraham Fund we started recruiting 5th-8th graders from Karmiel and the neighboring Arab villages. Arab kids were eager to join; finding Jewish participants in equal number proved more difficult, and the first two years we didn't manage to attain equal numbers, limiting Arab enrollment to about 15 and praying we'd get up to 10 Jews. But most of those who joined found it rewarding, a bond was formed in weekly practices, and the end-of-the-year performances were really impressive, with juggling, unicycles, stilts, tumbling, clowning fun for the performers, fun and moving - for the audience.
Suddenly, the third year, apparently the word got out, and we were swamped with Jewish applicants, enabling us to grow to 25 and 25; and we had no trouble retaining those numbers for a fourth year, even after the war with a core of about 15 who have stuck with it for all four years, increasing their skills year by year (we now have tight rope too; trapeze is next ). Along the way I have learned some things (both by watching and by reading) about circus and its special qualities that I had never thought about previously:
· Non-verbal communication (doesn't matter if you speak Arabic or Hebrew)
· Athletic prowess, but non-competitive
· Mutual trust, absolute necessity of cooperation
· Controlled risk-taking; overcoming or laughing at our fears
· Multicultural tradition
· Making people smile
· Personal achievement = group success
All of these of course make circus uniquely suited to helping create common ground between Jews and Arabs. Which led me to realize what is really important about this seemingly trivial activity: We live together in this land, citizens of the same state and yet our shared cultural content is very thin. We don't speak the same language, we don't listen to the same music, we don't worship together, we don't live in the same communities, we dont go to school together, we know appallingly little about each other. There are remarkably few cultural and social events that we can share symmetrically, as equals as participants and/or spectators. Even soccer, which is supposed to be universal, conjures up memories of gladiatorial contests, especially when the crowd starts chanting "Death to the Arabs."
Circus, on the other hand, is indeed truly symmetrical, non-combative, and language-neutral. We really can do it and enjoy it together as equals, and perhaps, based on the experience, begin to build some trust and the beginnings of a cultural common denominator. What if we went from 50 kids to 500 with troupes in different communities? What if there were an annual national festival? What if we expanded into music and set-building, riding, street theater, a clown school? What if joint Arab-Jewish youth circus troupes toured the world? What if kids who spent their entire adolescence flying through the air and being caught by The Other would grow up to be the architects of an Israeli identity that could include us all without making us give up our Otherness? What if we all ran away to the circus?