Magic Jewball

all signs point to no


Jew & A – At the Circus

Filed under : Jew & A,Judaism,Reasons to be cheerful
On February 28, 2012
At 11:45 pm
Comments : 6

It’s late and I need to remain cheerful so let’s get to it!

Friend of JBall (but not Derek & Alex) Elena asks:
Becca, I’m cataloging a book on the history of Jewish theater in Gdansk, Poland, and the English summary says the Talmud “directly forbids going to theaters and circuses because they are places of sinful idolatry and blasphemy”. Do Orthodox Jews still follow this instruction? Or it is considered a very old-fashioned viewpoint? I always knew clowns were evil!

OMG, this happened to me last time when I was at the Ringling Brothers when all around me, vendors were hawking cotton candy and fresh, hot idols. And the kids! What blasphemers. No, actually, the Talmud is referring to the types of circuses they had back then, which, when combined with theaters, were the kind of entertainment you’d leave your home for in the evening. Circuses and theaters of the Talmudic period did indeed often involve a ritual sacrifice (I guess it was the national anthem of its day). Plus, the rabbis of the Talmud were extremely wary of anything that might bring Jews into contact with idolators and their ways, which is why Judaism can be so strict and probably why it has survived all this time. Hannukah, as we’ve discussed a few times, is about the struggle of Jews to resist the influence of another culture… one which prized theaters and circuses. So the prohibition was twofold: to avoid the sacrifices to idols and foreign gods that took place at circuses and theaters of that period and to avoid mixing with the wrong element and taking on their ways.

Nowadays, the ritual sacrifices have mostly gone away, what with all the coming attractions they have to squeeze in at the multiplex and the way it kept reducing the number of performing animals in the circus. As I’ve mentioned, “Orthodox” can mean a lot of things, from someone who keeps mostly Kosher to people who dress in the garb of the 18th century and won’t sit next to the opposite gender on the bus. This latter group, the ultra-Orthodox, still avoid entertainments such as theater and circuses, but also TV and radio. On the other end of the scale, it’s recognized that our pastimes of today bear little resemblance to those of which the Talmudic population were fearful. So yes! And no! But I do wonder whether the Jews of Gdansk were strict about it. And whether clowns are evil because they secretly worship Baal.

Here is my favorite circus memory, because I know you meant to ask but just ran out of space. Mmm hmm. When I was in my early 20’s, a cousin and I took my nieces and nephews, all under 10, to the circus. We bought them treats (no idols). We saw acrobats. We saw clowns. We saw animals do tricks. It was (and this is totally my own phrase) the greatest show on earth. Afterwards, we returned the children to their parents and Sister1 asked them, “did you have a good time? What was your favorite part?” My nephew didn’t hesitate and answered, “it was the best thing ever! When the elephant peed right in the middle of the ring!” Wow, was I glad I had spent that money.

Thanks for writing in, Elena! If I can stay awake then, we’ll get to another Jew & A question from another of my favorite people tomorrow.

If you were looking for the happy thing in this post, it was right there! The circus. It’s almost circus season! And if you can’t be happy at the circus, there’s something wrong with you. Or you’re a Hasid. Or you’re afraid of clowns. Could even be both.

If that didn’t make you happy, the title comes from a Marx Brothers movie. Go watch it! We’ll still be here counting down the happy tomorrow.

Wow, I haven’t heard this song in a million years. I can’t believe I threw this cassette out in the mid-90’s.
Erasure – The Circus


6 Comments for this post

  1. Pammy says:

    Is that why there hasn’t been aJewish American Idol?

  2. Melanie says:

    Hey, I’m taking my niece and nephew to the circus in a couple weeks! I will hope for a better lasting memory than peeing elephants!

  3. Becca says:

    Pammy, ha! Rimshot!

    Melanie, I send all good vibes that they will actually notice the parts of the circus that don’t involve bodily functions of animals.

  4. Alex says:

    “And if you can’t be happy at the circus, there’s something wrong with you. Or you’re a Hasid. Or you’re afraid of clowns. Could even be both.”

    I guess I better go shopping today for my black suit and black hat.

    But in your nephew’s defense, I do remember discovering once at a zoo that an elephant is capable of truly astonishing, prodigious output.

  5. Elena says:

    Thank you, Becca. This clears up a lot of questions. I have relatives who are Holiness Church/Pentecostal and they didn’t allow TVs in their house. Though even as a very young child, I was puzzled that they very much enjoyed watching TV at OUR house. But they did not worship idols or make ritual sacrifices. At least not in my presence.
    And my only circus memory, not that you asked. It had to be a VERY small circus to come to our town, population 250. It was set up on the gradeschool baseball field. My father took my younger sister and me, about ages 6 and 8 at the time. It was rare we got to go somewhere without all the other kids and mother. He bought us each a tiny teddy bear on a bamboo pole. I named mine Stan Musial. The end.

  6. Becca says:

    Thanks for putting that image back in my head after all these years, Alex! 😛

    That is a nice memory, Elena. I hope Stan Musial the teddy bear is as long-lived as Stan Musial the player.

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