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The traveling others

Ayal Prouser and Time Flies bring Jewish circus to New Jersey

Circus and Jews.

Oddly, maybe counterintuitively until you start to think about it, they go together.

Historically, Jews have joined, owned, and even created circuses; they traveled around Europe performing, their status as odd, unclassifiable people, perhaps outcast but most likely beyond class or caste, allowing them freedom they wouldn’t have had otherwise.

What about circus in our edging-toward-post pandemic world?

What about circus and trust?

What about circus and fun?

Time Flies Circus demonstrates its art at the Alexander Hamilton School in Glen Rock.

Yes to all those things, Ayal Prouser says.

Mr. Prouser — the son of Rabbi Joseph Prouser of Temple Emanuel of Franklin Lakes and Dr. Ora Horn Prouser, CEO and academic dean of the Academy for Jewish Religion — has studied circus arts to earn a masters degree at Columbia, and he’s practiced them for most of his admittedly still young life. He teaches and performs; now, with a friend, Claire Vercruyssen, he’s started a company, Time Flies Circus.

He’s taught and performed in Bergen, Essex, and Westchester counties, and he and Ms. Vercruyssen will be at Temple Emanuel, juggling with light, to celebrate Chanukah. (See below.)

Ms. Vercruyssen is the second generation of a circus family; both of her parents have worked in the Big Apple Circus, and so has she. “Both of us have been in the circus business for a long time, so we thought it was time to take it to the next level and start our own company,” Mr. Prouser said.

That would have been a great move — risky, yes, but if you’re a circus performer, you’re used to risk and know how to assess it — but then there was covid.

And they managed, because people who were stuck at home were desperate for entertainment.

“We did all sorts of virtual shows and workshops, where people could learn different circus skills, using a range of household items” Mr. Prouser said. “Juggling plates, or socks, or fruit, or whatever. They could learn some clowning.

“We were getting our name out there a little bit.”

Alexander Hamilton students learn to balance feathers.

When the world started opening up a little bit, after the covid vaccine was available, things started to change for Time Flies (which is a perfect name for a circus, when just about everything soars through the air. With, needless to say, the greatest of ease).

“Our year really began this summer; we did circus camps in four states, all in person,” Mr. Prouser said. “The camps mainly were for kids, but we also did a Jewish adult summer camp, Camp Nai-Nai-Nai, for Moishe House.” (According to its website, “Moishe House is an international non-profit organization made up of a collection of homes throughout the world that serve as hubs for the young adult Jewish community.” There’s one in Hoboken.) There was a real range of camps; I went down to North Carolina to codirect a circus production of ‘The Tempest.’”

The company also performed in backyard camps in Teaneck and did virtual work in Montclair, he said.

The reason for this interest in circus arts is “because circus has a way of making people feel good about themselves.”

What does that mean?

Mr. Prouser talked about circus workshops. “You watch someone do something that is absolutely out of the ordinary for you, and you see it, and you think that it’s impossible,” he said. “And then you try it, and you can it do.

Children gaze way upward to a stiltwalker.

“And it can elevate you.”

Then he became philosophical.

“Inherent in circus art is the need for proximity and safety at the same time.”

That’s always true, but even more true and probably more important as we come out of a pandemic, when physical closeness to most other people, everyone outside our own household, was banned, and we came to see the closeness — with good reason — as dangerous. So circus workshops “was a way to help people navigate personal space and safe touch, which had been points of anxiety for so long.”

Now, Time Flies works with schools, synagogues, and other institutions, Jewish and otherwise. The company did an in-school residency at the Alexander Hamilton School in Glen Rock, and it’s doing afternoon programming at SAR in Riverdale. The afterschool SAR class meets every week. “The kids — they’re in elementary school — learn a range of circus skills,” Mr. Prouser said. “The first half is a sampler, and then, in the second half, they pick one or two skills and hone them. At the end of the semester, they do a performance.

“Now, with covid, the kids are doing their performance on Zoom.”

Why are so many of his programs in Jewish institutions? Mr. Prouser laughed.

Ayal Prouser leads a workshop at a backyard camp in Teaneck.

“You use what you got,” he said. “I’m Jewish. Jews talk to Jews. We have good word of mouth in the Jewish world.”

But it’s more than that. “I care a lot about the arts being in Jewish settings, and providing good training in the arts. It shouldn’t be ‘Let’s do a little Purim spiel,’ and that’s it. I want to elevate the arts in the Jewish world.

His company tailors performances and workshops to holidays, including Purim — carnivals and lots of clowning — Lag B’Omer and Chanukah— fire — and Pesach — wait for it… a human pyramid. Time Flies also performs for secular holidays, including Valentine’s Day and Halloween, which is a peak time for circus.

For Chanukah this year, “we’re doing a combination of performances and workshops,” Mr. Prouser said. “At my dad’s shul, it will be performances, with a stilt walker with an LED costume and a fire juggling act.

Aside from performing and teaching, Mr. Prouser also leads discussions “about the connection between circus and Judaism, the social and emotional benefits that come from circus arts, and contextualizing circus with the perspective of tikkun olam,” he said.

“The social part of circus is elevating a marginalized group or using circus to break social barriers. In Israel, I worked with a social circus, the Galilee Circus, which works for coexistence with Jewish and Arab Israelis.”

Ayal Prouser and Claire Vercruyssen juggle with fire.

Social circus is a thing, he said. “My partner and I both come from a social circus background, and we try to do good work.” Some of it is Jewish. “The connection between social circus and Judaism is tikkun olam.”

But it goes back far longer than that.

“There are references to jugglers, acrobats, and clowns in the Talmud,” Mr. Prouser said. Reish Lakish, one of the most unusual of the talmudic rabbis — who were an unusual bunch of men, so to stand out among them for personal oddness isn’t easy — was a circus gladiator, he pointed out. When circus as we know it today began, Jews were involved in it; during the Holocaust, many circuses sheltered and saved the Jews who were part of their communities, and therefore part of their families.

“We talk a lot about the social circus idea of the traveling other,” Mr. Prouser said. “The Jewish identity is about wandering, about the peripatetic nature of the Jewish people, about exile and the longing for the East, for Jerusalem, and about Jews’ perpetual state of otherness.

“It’s the same thing with circus people. They’d wander from town to town, and women would show their legs.” They’d be considered immoral, scandalous, wild, and dangerous.

But people who are defined as other define themselves by their own communities, by the families and friends who accept them, who wander with them, who share their risks.

Here, kids learn to form a human pyramid; that’s a structure that often is part of a Pesach circus.

That’s how circus people know how to help us come out of a pandemic. They understand the relationship between risk and safety; about how it’s necessary to learn how to stay safe, but it would be deadening never to take risks. Circus helps people figure out that balance.

What’s it like to perform right now?

“It’s in a weird place right now,” Mr. Prouser said.

“Nobody knows what anything will look like, but now, with kids being vaccinated, we have some requests for longer-term partnerships.

“We are all learning how to be safe and how to have fun. Circus is such a safe place, because it lets you take risks in a controlled environment. It teaches you a combination of goal- and limit-setting.

“Say I can’t do a backflip yet. I need someone to keep me safe. Or say I can’t juggle three balls yet. Or I can juggle three balls, but I can’t do four. If I try to do four, I may drop all of them.

How do you learn to twirl plates? By starting at the very beginning, as these kids are doing.

“I’m learning my limits and working my way up, pushing my limits.

“The biggest thing for me is trust and communication. It is different when someone’s life is literally in your hands. I have been hanging upside down 20 feet in the air, with someone else hanging off me, and I’m holding her foot in one hand. We know how to do that safely, but someone’s life is in my hand.

“That teaches trust and communication, in a way that happens naturally. It’s inherent in the art.

“And so is strength and flexibility, both emotional and physical. We really believe in teaching life skills through circus — while — and this is important! — having fun.”


Who: Ayal Prouser and Claire Vercruyssen of Time Flies Circus

What: Will celebrate Chanukah

Where: Outside Temple Emanuel of North Jersey, 558 High Mountain Road in Franklin Lakes

When: On Monday, November 29, at 6:30 p.m., for the second night of Chanukah

How much: It’s free

For more information: Call the shul at (201) 560-0200 or email info@timefliescircus.com

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