Embodying the stories

Embodying the stories

At Academy for Jewish Religion, sacred arts include circus

Circus performers at work. (Libby Martin @ libthrualens)
Circus performers at work. (Libby Martin @ libthrualens)

Judaism and circus arts.


At first, those two concepts appear to have nothing in common; if they’re linked together, it would be in Mad Libs. They’re three abstract nouns, one standing alone, a second acting as modifier to the third. Unconnected, right?

Circus is flying or balancing or juggling or doing something else intensely physical; it’s likely to be either very silly or extremely dangerous, and it might be both.

Judaism – well, being Jewish is intense, and parts of being a practicing Jew are intensely physical — but circus? It sounds rude, doesn’t it?

Well, it’s not. In fact, Ora Horn Prouser of Franklin Lakes, the CEO and academic dean of the Academy for Jewish Religion, and coeditors Cantor Michael Kasper and circus artist Ayal Prouser have put together an edited book, “Under One Tent: Circus, Judaism, and Bible,” that looks at the historic, emotional, spiritual, and practical connections among Judaism, circus arts, and circus itself.

AJR students form a human pyramid in the school’s library.

The book is being launched on Sunday.

The book’s contributors “are an international group, including people from Israel, the UK, and the United States,” Dr. Prouser said. “It stems from our sacred arts work at AJR, where we have been involved in studying texts through the arts, and valuing the arts as a strong, legitimate tool for processing biblical text.

“The book brings together authors who write about a variety of areas,” she continued. “Some talk about their own use of movement; some write about their experience teaching preschool, elementary school, high school, or graduate school.

“Some write about the theory of embodiment and how it works. Some write about the history of circus, and particularly the history of circus as it pertains to Jewish life, from juggling in the ancient world to Jewish circus families in Europe. Some write about what happened to Jewish circus families during the Holocaust. And they’re not only tragic stories; there also are stories of Jews in circus families who were saved by other circus families. They were hidden in plain sight in other circuses.”

The Yonkers-based Academy for Jewish Religion, a pluralistic, post-denominational seminary that trains and ordains rabbis and cantors, bases its education on Jewish texts, just as other seminaries do. But the school, which took the challenges and opportunities the pandemic presented to become mainly online, and which enrolls many students who already are in midcareer but are interested in learning more and possibly changing their lives as a result of that newly acquired knowledge, constantly works to make the education it offers as deeply felt, emotionally connected, and authentic as possible.

Authenticity, to some extent, is in the eye and the brain of the beholder, but tapping into the arts helps bring aspiring rabbis and cantors more deeply into the texts they read.

AJR is creating what it calls the Institute of Applied Pluralism, Dr. Prouser said. The goal is to open a new center in that institute every year for at least five years. Last year, the first one, the Center for Science and Judaism, was inaugurated. This year, the book launch will also launch the next center, for sacred arts. The next three will be centers for Jewish pluralism, for peace studies and conflict resolution, and for interfaith work. That last center will focus on working with Christian seminarians; that work already has begun.

From left, Ora Horn Prouser, Michael Kasper, Ayal Prouser

“We have been doing all of this internally,” Dr. Prouser said. “The Institute for Applied Pluralism is meant to bring the beauty and depth of the Academy for Jewish Religion to the larger community, and to share the important work we’re doing with the community.”

The Center for Science and Judaism already is working with the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at SUNY Stony Brook, on Long Island. “This year we did a program in collaboration with Americans for Ben-Gurion University,” she added. “We want to continue to bring valuable programming from our centers to the larger community. And as it grows — it’s still in its infancy now — we are very excited to see all the possibilities.”

The Center for Sacred Arts includes not only circus art but also music, literature, dance, and movement; AJR is open to including more.

Creating art is never the point of the work students and teachers do at AJR, Dr. Prouser stressed. “We do not use the text as a jumping-off point to do artistic work, but rather we use the arts to process the texts. One of the things we have done in our coursework has been to give equal respect to the art and to the sacred literature.

“When we teach a full-term course on studying through circus, as opposed to a one-shot workshop, we spend time not only studying the biblical text but also understanding how circus works.” The point of that is not to create graduates who can decide between a career as, say, a rabbi or a trapeze artist; it’s to make sure that students understand what they’re doing.

“For example, we don’t just have students walk on a tight wire,” Dr. Prouser said. “We have them read material about circus artists and circus theorists talking about what it means to walk on tight wire, and how it works.”

Professional circus artists rehearse.

Students might read a text and then learn to create a human pyramid. “We use it to think about and process the structure of the text, and the relationship between the characters in the text,” Dr. Prouser said. “We deal with concepts such as balance and trust and who is supporting whom. Do they know they are being supported? Do they look at the person supporting them, or are they looking away? Do they feel comfortable or uneasy at being supported?

“All of that is embodying the text; it’s thinking with our bodies, not only with our minds.”

She became more specific. “Think of the text about stealing the birthright.” (That’s the story in parashat Toldot, which begins in Genesis 25, when the famished Esau sells his birthright that he held as the firstborn son to his brother, Jacob, in return for stew. Later, in chapter 27, the dying Isaac gives his blessing to Jacob, who with his mother’s help masquerades as his brother.)

“Think about the characters in it — Jacob and Esau, Rebecca and Isaac,” she continued. “Who is holding up whom? Is Rebecca supporting Jacob? Is Rebecca supporting Isaac? Does Isaac know that he’s being supported by Rebecca?

“If we’re asking those questions, we’d have people build a human pyramid and examine for themselves how they want to embody the text. It’s student-centered. They experience the embodiments. Let’s say they decide that Rebecca is supporting everyone. Jacob knows that she is supporting him, but Isaac doesn’t know.

“They go into a circus pyramid, and they know what it should look like, and they experience it in their bodies. Then they come down from it, and every time they say something like, ‘Wow. I thought I would feel really supported, but actually I didn’t feel that the person underneath me was strong, and I felt nervous the whole time.’ Or they might say, ‘I actually thought that I was flying. I didn’t feel like anyone was holding me up as all.’

An AJR student walks on a tight wire as Ayal Prouser guides her.

“And then the question is what does that mean in terms of the text? In terms of what each character was experiencing?

“When Isaac and Rebecca come together, and he brings her into his mother’s tent, people often think that it’s a little Freudian. They have questions. We had someone who wanted to experience that text. It turns out that it was a few women in that group who ended up doing that pyramid together, imagining Isaac bringing Rebecca into Sarah’s tent. After they came down from the pyramid, the woman who was Rebecca said, ‘I felt that I was being held up by generations of women.’

“That was not the plan. She hadn’t gone into the pyramid thinking she’d feel that. And maybe that was the point. By bringing her into the tent, maybe Isaac was giving her the experience of feeling the support of generations of women.”

The class worked with other pieces of equipment, including a rolla bolla — a piece of wood that balances precariously on a ball. “We asked people to use apparatuses that made them feel less balanced,” Dr. Prouser said. “And then we had them read texts that were difficult, and asked how feeling unbalanced in your body impacts your reading.”

Dr. Prouser doesn’t ask her students to do things that she doesn’t do herself. “I have always read the wife/sister stories as negative texts,” she said; she’s talking about the two times that Abraham claims Sarah to be his sister, not his wife, and the time that Isaac did the same thing with Rebecca. The patriarchs made that claim to escape what they saw as danger to themselves, it seems. “How could Abraham do that to Sarah?” she continued. “How could he treat her that way? I always saw it as somewhat abusive.

“And then I went on the rolla bolla, and I read the text while I was on it. And all I could feel was what other choices did Abraham have? He was stuck in that situation, and he was scared. I’m not defending him, but for the first time, I had a level of empathy for him that I’d never had before. That’s because my body was unbalanced, and I was thinking with my body, not just my mind.

“The experience of embodying led to insights that we didn’t have before.”

Ayal Prouser balances his nephew Noam Kravitz on his palm as a friend, Mary Schindler, looks on.

Students at AJR are not required to take a class in circus art. The requirement is “to take a sacred arts class — we also have classes in writing, storytelling, and other sacred arts.

“Anyone can do it. Everyone can be involved. There are no physical requirement to take the circus arts class. I don’t want to give the impression that this class is only for people who have studied circus, or yoga, all their lives.

“And the class is exciting, and that excitement is part of what makes it work so well. It’s not only that we come to such great readings through embodying the text, but circus is just fun. There are things that I never imagined myself doing — and look at what I’m doing!

“It builds community in the class, and that is very special. You can rest assured that people walking on the tight wire never, ever thought that they would be walking on that wire. There is joy in that. It is wonderful.”

Michael Kasper is AJR’s dean of cantorial studies and student life. Before he went to AJR, in 2008, he was a dancer and choreographer; he first joined the school as student, was ordained as a cantor, and then stayed as a teacher and administrator.

“AJR is a place that really takes learning and pedagogy seriously,” he said. “Although we have not by any stretch of anybody’s imagination figured out how to teach all things well, we are always in the process of finding out how to teach things better.

Professional circus artists at work. (Libby Martin @libthrualens)

“And so, with that in mind, a number of years ago I started a program we call Sacred Arts as an attempt not only to bring art in all its forms to AJR — theater and writing and movement and music and Bibliodrama — but to allow students who might really connect to those art forms to use them to learn text.

“That’s what we’re here for, to teach Bible and Jewish content. So the sacred arts program has been incredibly successful.

“Our purpose is not to make artists out of our students, and not even to create art, but to use art as a research vehicle and study tool for the text.”

Cantor Kasper is deeply proud of AJR. “We are the oldest Jewish pluralistic institution in the country, and we take pluralism very seriously,” he said. “We have a deeply held belief in what we think pluralism is, and we think about what it can accomplish and what it can’t.

“We are not laissez-faire,” he said. “The main piece of our pluralism is that we don’t just tolerate things that are not like what we do, but we embrace and cherish them.”

Being pluralistic isn’t exactly the same thing as being post-denominational. Students who come in identifying as part of a Jewish stream leave with that identification, except, of course, when they don’t. But they’re exposed to the streams to their left and their right, and the choice of where to go or stay is theirs. “We don’t just tolerate each other,” Cantor Kasper said. “We hope that you will leave AJR cherishing the other person’s point of view.

“Members of different movements train together, so if you are learning how to do a wedding you will learn how to do it from a Reform, a Conservative, and an Orthodox perspective. You will learn the scholarship involved, and you will make a decision about where you feel most comfortable, and where you belong.”

This is a 1951 circus program from Israel.

When students go to a minyan, “our pluralism involves allowing the leader of that particular service to make a decision about what the service will look like, and what siddur will be used.

AJR also trains rabbis and cantors together; it hopes to break down the hierarchies that often separate them.

Cantor Kasper doesn’t teach circus arts, but he does teach a class in movement as a sacred art. “There’s a phrase that we all use,” he said. “We talk about God as the breath of life.” And breathing and then moving are the first things that newborns do. “Before cooing, before smiling, before singing, there is movement. It is embedded in our physical lives in powerful ways.

“When you think about Jewish learning, you think about sitting, not about embodying, but there is a historic record of Jews moving a lot,” he said. Davening involves movement — shuckling, bowing from the waist, bowing with the knees, to the side, taking three steps forward and back, for starters. Many Jewish holidays involve physical activity — building a sukkah, shaking a lulav and etrog, blowing a shofar. Many involved embodying — at the Pesach seder, we imagine ourselves as slaves leaving Egypt, and some Jews march around the table to do so.

And of course one of the first demands God makes of Abraham — or Abram, as he was then — is Lech Lecha. Go! Move!!! Get out of here.

“So Jews do move,” Canter Kasper said.

AJR students embody a text as Ayal Prouser helps them.

He uses movement in his sacred art class, but although he has been a choreographer, “when I use movement in teaching texts or as a vehicle for studying texts, my aim is not to make dances. My aim is to use movement as a tool to give people the opportunity to see the text in the movement.

“But it’s not to comment on the text. I am not asking people to make a dance about the text. It’s not ‘There was a relationship between Sarah and Hagar, so why don’t you make a dance to show the relationship?’ That is absolutely not what I am doing.”

But, Cantor Kasper said, “once you do the movement and think about the text in the same breath, then you feel something about the text that you would not have felt had you not done the movement.”

That means that ARJ students who take this course — which, remember, is an elective — move from observing to being. When it works, they are feeling — and thinking, too — from the inside out, rather than only thinking from the outside in.

Students often start feeling self-conscious, Cantor Kasper said, and he works to dispel that feeling. “I try hard to make the movement as easy as possible,” he said. “I never try to make anybody into a dancer. This is movement, not dance. This is not about a collection of French words in a dance class.

“There is no exercise that I have ever given that cannot be done sitting down, so in terms of disabilities, that is not a factor,” he continued. “And AJR is a school that has middle-aged and older students and students with physical issues. That’s never a factor, even in movement workshops.

“Very rarely do I ever choreograph any steps. I never say that these are the steps that I want you to learn. Instead, I say, ‘Here is a problem. How are you going to solve it, using your body rather than your words?’”

Because the movement classes are not mandatory, “you could end up never doing any of this,” he concluded. “But people don’t realize how much they’d like it until they try it, and then they come away loving it.”

Learn more about the Academy for Jewish Religion at ajr.edu.

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