Jewish Journal

Casting apes as Jews in the Russian circus

by Brad A. Greenberg

March 26, 2009 | 1:41 pm

Jew-hatred never really disappeared from Russia. But is the circus guilty of anti-Semitism or just bad taste (or none of the above)? JTA offers this story:

A man dressed in Chasidic regalia speeds in a go-cart around Moscow’s one-ring Circus Nikulina. Aziz Askaryan then dismounts and leads two gangly orangutans—one in a suit and kipah, the other in a full bridal gown—on a lurching matrimonial march toward a hastily constructed chupah in front of a guffawing audience.

The mock Jewish wedding between two orangutans has been the closing number for weeks in Act I of the famed Moscow circus, whose theme is “Empire: A Magical Show with Bright National Flavor.”

It has stirred some conversation among Jewish leaders here. But most say that the act, which might raise eyebrows in the West, is met in Moscow with giggles or yawns.

“I think it’s maybe in bad taste, but you must know that Russia is different than Western nations in its humor,” Baruch Gorin, a spokesman for the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia, told JTA.

Russians see the act through the prism of a longtime love of the circus with a pinch of Russian humor that often makes light of minorities, including off-color jokes about “Yids,” among others.

If anything, the show is a nod to an array of ethnic groups that comprise the Russian empire: a magician is dressed as Caucasian mountain man, acrobats are dressed as Cossacks and other performers are dressed as Ukrainians.

The only difference in the Jewish number is that Askaryan, wearing fake sidecurls and a tallit, has primates playing the roles of the Jews. The scene evokes a visceral reaction—laughter for most, shock for others.

At least publicly, Russian Jews aren’t bothered by the display. Frankly, I’d like to see a bunch of apes dance and drink “to life.”

(Hat tip: Jeffrey Goldberg)

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