“Shalom! Ma Nishma? Welcome to the Barclays Center.” That’s how a courteous usher greeted me yesterday at the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus—a sign of what was to come over the next four and a half hours. Thanks to the Yeshiva Birchas Shmuel, a special-education school located in Midwood, Brooklyn, 20,000 giddy Jews, almost all Orthodox, got to enjoy the “Greatest Show on Earth!”—kosher style. Clowns, animals, dancers, Uncle Moishy, and the Yeshiva Boys Choir put on a high-energy spectacle, which brought two unlikely themes, Judaism and carnies, under the same roof.
“This is our first time to the Ringling and Yeshiva circus. We haven’t had many opportunities to come before!” said Jaylee Stein, an Orthodox mother from Brooklyn, who brought her young son to the show.
The pairing is the brainchild of Rabbi Raphael Wallerstein, the principal at the Yeshiva Birchas Shmuel, who first contacted Ringling producer Nicole Feld at the beginning of the millennium in hopes of merging the two entities. What was at first met with hesitation from Feld transformed into a circus fused with Passover spirit and halachic accommodations at Madison Square Garden in March 2004. Nine years later, they decided to bring it back, this time in Brooklyn.
“Ringling asked us what must be done, and we went over the entire script together so the show would be nice for the whole community. Today’s entertainment is not clean, so we wanted to have some clean entertainment for our children,” said Rabbi Wallerstein.
The most significant accommodation of all was removing every female performer from the show, with the exception of the lady elephants. Feld held rehearsals to find more men for the show and cooperated with Wallerstein to eliminate certain phrases that may have been controversial. A big part of the classic Ringling Brothers circus includes a rivalry between boys and girls, which was completely altered for Thursday’s show. Otherwise, Ringling was able to present most acts in their entirety, with the addition of the Yeshiva Boys Choir and the crowd’s favorite, Uncle Moishy.
“It’s an experience the Jewish Orthodox community couldn’t ordinarily have, and for us to provide them with a place to make family memories is an honor and a privilege,” said Feld.
This isn’t the only time Ringling has agreed to alter its show to accommodate special groups: They provide a tactile circus experience for the blind community and are currently creating a show in Mexico that will be fully translated to Spanish.
Barclays, which opened seven months ago, made headlines in February when it offered separate gender seating for a Itzhak Perlman concert. But the circus took Jewish accommodations to the next level for the yeshiva circus. The Barclays Center’s food stands had never been shut down for a show—until yesterday. In observance with Pesach, all patrons were told to bring their own lunch and snacks. Almost every audience member toted plastic bags and lunch boxes filled with matzah, fruit, and veggies for their families to enjoy throughout the performance.
When asked what was in her family’s lunch box, Micah Silber, a mother of six, told me: “Lots of matzah!” Passover was definitely in the air, as many overheard conversations began and ended with “Good Yontif.”
The show included silly clown skits, standing tigers hopping like rabbits, and tight-rope dancers who gracefully jumped roped and bicycled while perched on a tiny string in the air. Strobe lights and smoke highlighted the performance, as a “men’s basketball team” on unicycles shot hoops and made purposefully clumsy mistakes, to get the audience riled up.
Some lucky members of the audience were chosen to sit in tea-cup like saucers on the main floor while they got to witness acrobats seemingly floating in the sky and a parade of elephants hooked nose to tail as they trotted throughout the room. Gymnasts did flip upon flip and male dancers clapped to American Club friendly instrumentals of “Party Rock Anthem,” by LMFAO and “Let’s Go,” by Calvin Harris.
Although the Yeshiva Boys Choir put on a great performance, there was no doubt that Uncle Moishy stole the audience’s heart. When the YBC asked the audience to clap along, most kids could hardly raise their hands together. When Uncle Moishy asked for a clap-a-long, children were standing in the chairs, applauding in unison along to “Dayenu.”
Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.