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August 30, 2015 | 15th Elul 5775

An island of happiness

Galilee Diary #343, June 24, 2007

Marc J. Rosenstein

One who has not seen the joy of the water-drawing festival has not seen joy in his life.

-Mishnah, Sukkah 5:1

In describing the great joy of the public observance of Sukkot in the Temple in Jerusalem, the Talmud depicts a kind of carnival in the Temple courtyard, where, amid the music and dancing, Rabbi Shimon ben Gamaliel is said successfully to have juggled eight flaming torches – while other rabbis tried to juggle eight goblets of wine, or knives, or eggs – apparently with less success (Babylonian Talmud, Sukkah 53a). It’s interesting how juggling and acrobatics, contortion and balance – simple and ancient forms of entertainment – continue to fascinate us.

Six months ago, I wrote here about the “Galilee Circus,” a youth circus comprising an equal number of Jewish and Arab children from this area. I have just returned from touring the country for two weeks with the “Galilee Arches Circus,” a troupe made up of 13 kids from the Galilee Circus, and 11 young performers from the St. Louis Arches, part of the large youth circus operated by the Circus Day Foundation in that city. The combined troupe included Jews and Arabs, Afro-American children from the inner city, middle class suburban kids, children of immigrants, boys and girls, ages 10-17, kids who, of course, couldn’t speak each other’s languages. At our first encounter, in a parking lot in Karmiel, juggling balls came out, and the language of circus became the lingua franca for two weeks. On the first day the groups built a show together (with the help of both troupes’ coaches) – by the end of the second day they had already performed for our host kibbutz (Sasa, near Mt. Meron in the far north). After a few more days of practice, we toured the country, giving nine performances in community centers, facilities for the handicapped, an Arab-Jewish day camp at the Jerusalem YMCA, and on the boardwalk in Tel Aviv. In between, we toured and hiked, camped and swam, and ate a lot of ice cream. One of the greatest sources of trepidation for the Americans was the prospect of a home hospitality weekend with their Israeli peers – but it soon turned into a high point of the trip.

Of course our unlikely combination of colors and costumes and cultures attracted attention from passersby – Iking with his dreadlocks, Manar with her headscarf, Noam always juggling, Lemond doing handstands on public sculptures… But there was also something about the chemistry of the group that attracted positive attention and energy everywhere we went, from tourist shops to holy sites. There was a harmony, a calm security in just hanging together, that was remarkable to all of the adult chaperones from the very first day. We found ourselves a bit incredulous that our theory was really being borne out by reality: the theory that circus provides a common culture that could transcend the hugely disparate cultures of these kids, and bond them into a kind of instant family. Of course we had our personal spats and trying adventures (too-long bus rides, too-hot hikes, too-late dinners, too-spartan accommodations…), but the spirit of the group overcame all – which I have to say, having traveled with dozens of youth tours in Israel, I found remarkable.

The St. Louis troupe were far more experienced and well-trained than we – but they had also learned to be gracious and modest, and there were no “issues” of ego in building a combined show that gave everyone a place in the spotlight. The crowds loved the shows. The children, of course cheered – these kids are, in fact, really good at what they do. The adults’ response, on the other hand, was often to get tears in their eyes. I don’t know why this is: are we moved by their innocence? by their skill? by their courage? by their harmony? by the experience of, as one fan commented, “an island of happiness?” by the vision of a world we wish we could live in?

So I ran away with the circus for two weeks and now I’m back at my desk. And when people ask how it was, I feel like an inarticulate teenager - all I can find to say is “amazing.”

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