The Smithsonian Folklife Festival: Jewish Life in Unusual Places

Irene Danner escaped to the circus after Kristallnacht / photo courtesy of Jewniverse

The Smithsonian Folklife Festival takes place every summer, bringing amazing world cultural events to the National Mall! Every year has a specific theme and in 2017 is the 50th anniversary! :0 Instead of highlighting other countries, they’ve been focusing on circus arts and American immigration and migration.

Doubtless the Festival has done a great job in covering many aspects of these topics. But allow me to expand on their efforts! For the last several years, inspired by our local Folklife tradition, I have researched and brought attention to the widely diverse world Jewish communities. Jewish culture has touched almost every region of the world, and of course vice versa. So let us begin.

Jews and the Circus

From the earliest days of the circus, in Greco-Roman times, Jews had a relationship with them. Rabbinic ordinances in the Talmud go so far as to denounce circus attendance, according to the Jewish Encyclopedia:

He who frequents the stadia and the circuses, and sees there the magicians, the tumblers, the ‘buccones,’ the ‘maccus,’ the ‘moriones’ the ‘scurræ,’ and the ‘ludi sæculares’—this is ‘sitting in the seat of the scornful'” (Tosef., ‘Ab. Zarah, ii. 6: Yer. 40a, Bab. 18b; Yalḳ., Ps. 613).

However, even an important contributor to the Talmud, Rabbi Judah I, acknowledged some, er, “positive” aspects of the circus:

“We must thank the heathens that they let mimes appear in the theaters and circuses, and thus find innocent amusement for themselves, otherwise they would be constantly getting into great quarrels as soon as they had anything to do with one another” (Gen. R. lxxx. 1).

Fast forward to the 19th century, and the more modern rendition of the circus was sweeping over Europe. Aish highlights a few specific examples of early Jewish performers, like “Takhra Bey” of the Warsaw Circus, aka Moyshe Shtern, who pierced his body and face with needles and hung weights from them. And two tightrope walking sisters, Pese and Leah Rozentsvayg, married other performers from the tribe–clown Itsik Gayler and acrobat Yankev Birnboym, thereby starting a little bit of a family dynasty. The Lorch family was another prominent Jewish circus outfit, operating in Germany until 1930.

The circus took on new macabre dimensions for Jews during the Holocaust, according to Aish, for good or for evil. Some Jews were able to hide from Nazi detection, as family leader Alfred Althoff said: “Circus people don’t ask if you are Christian, Jewish or heathen.” Jewniverse did a profile on half-Jewish Irene Danner, a dancer who, after Kristallnacht, hid in the circus along with other members of her kin. But the Ovitz family in Romania suffered a worse fate. Many of their members were affected by dwarfism and performed some circus arts, attracting the attention of Nazi doctor Josef Mengele. They were taken to Auschwitz where he performed experiments on them. Some of the family survived, and moved to Israel.

Earlier in 2017, The Ringling Brothers Circus shut down after a 146-year run. Though the Ringlings were gentiles, the most recent owners of the circus were the Jewish Feld family. Modern day opinion of circuses has swung back to the negative in part, this time due to concerns over animal treatment. But the Folklife Festival seems primed to showcase some thriving circus arts!

Jewish Migration in America

MyJewishLearning highlights the three most well known Jewish waves of immigration to America–the Sephardic settlers who arrived in the 17th century, the Germans who arrived a century later due to economic reasons or to escape persecution, and the Eastern European Jews who immigrated in the late 19th through early 20th centuries, mostly due to the pogroms. Up until World War II, there was a bit of a schism between the secular, assimilated German Jews and the newer, more numerous, more poor, Yiddish speaking and religious Eastern European Jews.

The United States, unlike Israel, is pretty uniformly Ashkenazic, aka the Jews with ancestry in Europe between Germany and Russia. But there are also some non-European enclaves, like Iranian Jews, many of whom fled after the Revolution and started a little subculture in Hollywood; check out 30 Years After for where some of their young professional community stands now. You can also find Ethiopian Jews through the Beta Israel of North America.

Post-Soviet Jews are some of the most recent arrivals to the Americas, and man do they write a lot of novels about their modern day immigrant experiences. 😛 Here’s just a few that I’ve read recently: The Cosmopolitans by Nadia Kalman, Panic in a Suitcase by Yelena Akhtiorskaya and (short stories) One More Year by Sana Krasikov.

Also contrary to popular opinion, not all American Jews live in New York. 😛 The Jewish Historical Society of the Upper Midwest chronicles migration there. I’m partial to Kansas myself, as that’s where my Jewish family ended up, so check out this article about 19th century Jewish farming communities in the state. Indeed with overcrowding back east, nervous assimilated Yids started sending the greenhorns westward, lest their numbers stir the ire of the nativists.

The southwest United States is largely known for its crypto Jewish community, aka Jews who were forcibly converted to Catholicism but for centuries have secretly practiced some old traditions. Check out my LibGuide for more. And on the subject of book recommendations (I haven’t read it, but want to!), An Empire of Their Own by Neal Gabler highlights the Jewish immigrants who helped shape Hollywood.

Finally, for a comprehensive look, PBS did air The Jewish Americans documentary series a few years back. Their webpage has more!

The Smithsonian Folklife Festival continues until July 9. Check out my past coverage of Jewish life in unique places under the “Annual Events” tab.

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