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(photo credit: Courtesy)
Herschel Krustofski, aka "Krusty the Clown," was disowned by his rabbi father for choosing to become an entertainer rather than follow in his father's footsteps. "If you were a musician or a jazz singer - this, I could forgive," his father told him. "But a clown is not a respectable profession for a Jewish boy." This biting satire from The Simpsons aside, Jewish parents' attitudes about their children becoming clowns and about circuses in general seem to have remained very much the same.
"We simply do not have a history of circuses," says Doron (Kofi) Etzioni, one of the producers of Israel's Dorola Circus. "As opposed to countries like Germany, where people visit the circus twice a year, circuses are not part of the Israeli cultural mix."
Circuses used to come to Israel. The French Medrano Circus used to perform here almost every year. But in 2005, Israel made animal acts illegal, and the animal-based Medrano stopped performing. Various acrobatic acts, including the Chinese Circus and the Circus on the Water, continue to perform here on occasion.
Although founded and run by Israelis, the Dorola Circus is not exactly "Israeli." Etzioni and his production company have assembled acts from all over the world. There are Chinese jugglers, Russian acrobats, and a Hungarian bicycle artist, but only one Israeli clown. "There are many great performers in Israel, but it takes years of practice for artists to become on par with international circus acts. Boaz, our clown, is on that level and he's created a high-caliber show," Etzioni explains.
"Boaz" is Boaz Nir Shalom, aka "Dr. Bubbles." Nir Shalom studied behavioral science and later medical clowning at the Kibbutz College of Education in Tel Aviv, honing his craft while a student, performing in street acts and in clown shows.
"I love being a clown," he says. "Once I put on that red nose, everything is acceptable. The world is my playground. It's very naive and innocent. And it brings spontaneity out of the people I play with. I give the idea and the person plays along with me and continues by himself."
During his clowing studies, Nir Shalom attended a bubbles workshop, which he says "opened up" the world of bubbles for him. "I discovered I could insert one bubble into another, and the rest followed."
Today, his act includes an amazing display of tricks - making a chain of soap bubbles, juggling with bubbles, and playing ping-pong with bubbles. "There's a surprising element to dealing with bubbles, but it's also a great soothing medicine for the Israeli temperament. I give workshops with bubbles, and it forces people to concentrate on their sensitivity, their breaths, their body awareness, instead of always rushing around, getting angry."
Unlike the Dorola Circus, the Florentin Circus is comprised entirely of native Israelis and new immigrants. "There is a problem with having a circus in Israel," Nir Shalom admits. "The Science, Culture, and Sports Ministry doesn't support us, so it's very difficult to keep it running. But our artists are as good as international artists and our show is on the level of [the] great international shows."
Nir Shalom believes that people in Israel are more open to circus art today than in the past. "I studied in France. There are over 60 schools for circus arts there and the government supports them. Still, when I told people there that I work in a circus, eyebrows were raised. In Israel people are more accepting, and except for the common 'how will you make a living of it?' questions, people here tend to believe in 'do what makes you feel good.'"
Nevertheless, Nir Shalom says it's hard to attract audiences. "We've grown over the years. We started in a gym in the Florentin neighborhood in Tel Aviv, moved to Jaffa, and now we're in a circus tent we bought from Germany in an open field near Ramat Hasharon. But Israelis still don't see circuses as a common leisure activity."
Etzioni's Dorola Circus does get big audiences but, Etzioni claims, they are mostly new immigrants. "The Anglo community and the Russian new immigrants are more familiar with circuses and they come, enjoy it and give great feedback. Israelis also come, but in smaller numbers." Consequently, Etzioni is planning world tours with his show to Malta, Italy and Russia.
Meanwhile, for those daredevils who remain undeterred in pursuing their Big Top dreams, the Florentin Circus is also a school for circus arts. Another circus school, the Israel Circus School in Kfar Yehoshua (20 km east of Haifa), was founded in 2000.
Perhaps in time, a family outing to the circus will be as common as going to the movies. "We're the pioneers," says Nir Shalom. "Only in another two generations will we be able to see if circuses have caught on."
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