July 26, 2007
Big fun under the big top
(Page 2 - Previous Page)The circus is generally thought to have started in Roman times ("pane et circum"), when Jews were free in Rome -- but Jews avoided performing then whenever possible, as the original lion acts led to a high attrition rate among the human performers. In the Middle Ages, there was no formal circus but rather itinerant troupes of entertainers who often accepted Jews into their ranks. It was not until the 19th century in Europe that circuses as we know them today became popular -- and Jews were often owners and performers. One of the most famous Jewish circus operators was Albert Solomonsky, who founded the Nikulin Moscow Circus in 1880, which exists to this day. In 1888, he built the Riga Circus in Latvia, featuring the weight juggler Mifort Treyem (born Treyfem Meyer).
According to Marline Otte's "Jewish Identities in German Popular Entertainment, 1890-1933" (Cambridge, 2006), circuses provided Jewish performers and businessmen social mobility out of provincial ghettos, and many circuses came to rival leading theaters in their opulence. It was, in two simple words, "show business."
For many Europeans the circus represented a popular art rather than an elitist one. Its performers were regarded as artists, and some of its showmen were legendary.
William Breitbart, a prominent psychiatrist at Sloan-Kettering in New York, speaks proudly of his forebear the Polish circus strongman Siegmund (Zishe) Breitbart, known as "the modern Samson," and has even written an essay in an academic journal about visiting Zishe Breitbart's grave in the former East Berlin.
The Moscow Circus was so impressive that Lenin would come to hail the circus as one of the most important "arts" in revolutionary Russia (along with film).
In this country, carnivals and circuses attracted Jewish performers and entrepreneurs from both immigrant and established families. There was Paul Lewis (born Rosenberg) of the Lewis Bros. Circus in Michigan and Sy Rubens of Rogers Bros. Circus. Among circus performers, Abe Goldstein, who worked for Ringling Bros. and a number of other circuses, was regarded as "the Greatest Irish Cop Clown" in the business.
Finally, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey has its own Jewish history. Brothers Irvin and Israel Feld, who were more popularly known in their hometown of Hagerstown, Md., as Irv and Izzy, began their careers opening their Super-Cut Rate Drugstore in 1939. According to a 1954 Time magazine article, putting a record department in their store was such a success that it led them into the record business, and from there into the booking and concert business.
Beginning in 1957, The Felds were the booking agents for Ringling Bros. and in 1967, the Feld brothers purchased "The Greatest Show on Earth." In 1971, they sold it to Mattel, who struggled with the circus and their own financial problems, attempting at one point to sell it to Gulf Oil, before selling it back to the Feld Family in 1982. Since then it has remained in the Feld family, run by Kenneth Feld (Irvin's son), and Ken's daughter, Nicole Feld.
My research did turn up some important current Jewish circus performers of note, including foremost, Paul Binder, co-founder, ringmaster and artistic director of the Big Apple Circus. "Jews in the Circus," a 2003 article by Dan Pine from J. -- the Jewish news weekly of Northern California, profiled the San Francisco Circus Center, mentioning current Jewish performers and owners such as aerialist and coach Jenn Cohen; Peggy Snider, co-founder of the Pickle Family Circus; as well as the Bronett family's Circus Scott in Sweden, once billed as "the most famous in Europe."
The circus delights and engages because it requires a suspension of disbelief -- our normal expectations are confounded in a thousand ways -- in a live show rather than on a flat screen that continues to amaze and delight "children of all ages."
For me then, history aside, it is wonderful to pass along a love for the circus from one generation to another. To that end, here is a report from my special correspondent, Natasha Teicholz, age 9:
I thought that the circus was absolutely the best show on earth. I'd give it a 10 out of 10 scale because it's funny. The sound effects were great and all the animals were amazing, mostly the tigers and the elephants. I can't wait to see the circus again with all of my friends.
Thank you, Daddy, for taking me to the circus!
Tom Teicholz is a film producer in Los Angeles. Everywhere else, he's an author and journalist who has written for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Interview and The Forward. His column appears every other week.
For more information, visit http://www.ringling.com.
Ringling Bros. details their conservation efforts at http://www.elephantcenter.com
1 | 2