Walking the tightrope

The Jerusalem Circus brings together kinds of all stripes - Arab and Jewish, religious and secular.

acrobat unicycle circus  (photo credit: )
acrobat unicycle circus
(photo credit: )
There's nothing like bouncing on a trampoline, hurling yourself through a hoop or juggling four or five balls to focus your concentration. The performers at the Jerusalem Circus come from varied cultural and ethnic backgrounds, as one might expect from their multicultural city. However unlike in the rest of the Middle East these young people stay focused on each other as human beings. "When I'm performing or practicing with the circus, I don't think about the background of the other kids, whether they are Jews or Arabs, or observant or secular Jews," says 14-year-old Yair Rozenschein, who comes from an Orthodox Jewish family and has been with the circus since he was nine. "We just get on with what we're doing, and it's really fun." The Jerusalem Circus was established in 1994 by Elisheva Jortner, a Tunisian-born art teacher with a background in multicultural education. Her motives were both expansive and personal. "I was looking for something for my children to do," she says, "So I started the circus. But I also saw it as a way of bridging social and cultural gaps." She certainly has kept her four children occupied over the past 10 years, and the circus has generated a mutually dependent, creative environment for all sorts of kids. "It's quite simple really," Jortner explains. "In a circus people work together and support each other, literally and physically. They have to get along." Since its creation the circus has provided Arab and Jewish kids, aged nine to 19 and from different social and religious backgrounds, with a way to express themselves artistically and athletically. The language of instruction is Hebrew, but since so much of the work is based on movement, there is often little need for words. Jortner works with highly experienced trainers, like Russian-born Slava Oleinick and Jerusalemite Shadi Zamorad, who has taught circus arts in Tunisia, Berlin and Ramallah. Twenty-year-old Abdullah Taha (Palestinian) and 12-year-old Jamie Bregman (Jewish), for example, enjoyed a healthy and successful friendship before Taha left to start his own circus in the Ramallah. He joined the Jerusalem Circus in 1991. "I heard about the circus from a teacher at my school. I liked the idea of learning circus tricks and the interaction between Jews and Arabs appealed to me. It was also an opportunity to improve my Hebrew." The Jerusalem Circus also seems to cartwheel over the divide that often leads to misunderstandings between observant and secular Jews. "I don't think about whether the other circus performers have religious beliefs or not," says Rozenschein. "They're just my friends." The religious 14-year-old has no problems with coming into contact - literally - with members of the opposite sex either. "That's fine. When we perform publicly we wear costumes that are modest. Some of the girls wear leotards when we practice but that doesn't bother me." The 20 members of the circus are training hard for a performance at Jerusalem's Gerard Behar Center downtown. Walking into their rehearsal space at the Denmark School, one is confronted by whirling bodies in confusing configurations - people walking on their hands, jumping incredibly high on a huge trampoline and performing all sorts of dare-devil, gravity-defying feats. Fifteen-year-old Yonatan Dekel is certainly enjoying himself as he hurtles down an improvised running track and somersaults in the air onto a pile of thick mats. Dekel says he enjoys the circus for all sorts of reasons. "I enjoy the physical side of the stunts and tricks we do, and it's great meeting other kids that I wouldn't normally have contact with. I also think the circus is a good representation of Jerusalem as a city, and maybe of the whole of Israel. It feels like we're all in it together, for each other. That's a good feeling." Dekel's pride in his circus exploits shines through brightly, as does Jortner's pride in her circus. "We've performed here and in Europe and the US, and are warmly received wherever we go," she says. "The arts are a universal language and I see this when our kids meet kids from other countries. There are no language barriers or politics. They are open to each other and share their experiences in a healthy way." "Yes, we all know what we're talking about," Rozenschein agrees. "For example, there's a sort of jump which we call a 'rondat.' Everyone knows what that is, wherever you go, anywhere in the world." While the small circus clearly succeeds in teaching high-level circus arts and building bridges, there are still land mines to be navigated. "Although the circus started out well, the outbreak of the [second] intifada made things difficult for a while," says Jortner. "Some of the Arab children found it hard to come to rehearsals after someone from their village had been killed, and it was hard for the Jewish children to come to the circus on a day when there was a terrorist attack and Jews were killed." For the past few months, when political tensions were high, the Arabs stopped coming, but Jortner is sure it's only a temporary setback. "We're in touch with a community center in east Jerusalem where Arab kids train, and many of them and their families will be in the audience at the Gerard Behar Center show. Things will return to normal soon, I'm sure of that." The Jerusalem Circus will perform at the Gerard Behar Center on March 18 at 5 p.m. and 8 p.m. as part of the Jerusalem Arts Festival.