The news that the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus is closing after 146 years of business in May sparked a mélange of memories that attached the circus to, of all things, Passover.
Each Passover, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, my family would traipse from our home in New Haven to my grandparents’ house in Far Rockaway, New York. Seders there were a raucous affair: not only because of us unruly cousins, but because of my grandparents. Sarah and Harry Effron always had a contentious relationship. They disagreed on everything—the last movie they saw, which subway train was faster, how old Aunt Dora really was. And these were no polite disagreements a la Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night; these were full-throated screaming matches in Yiddish, the guttural Yiddish of the street. She might make some allusion to his manhood, and he would respond by telling her how she could caress his behind with kisses but from the inside, “Kushmir in tuchas—aryn!”
Even after he passed away, she would visit his grave in New Jersey and continue the argument, though now there were no retorts.
But despite the fighting (or perhaps because of the thrill of it), those nights are embedded in me in a way more positive than negative: too many of us crowded around their dining room table, elbows touching, the sweet and sour brisket gravy on my shirt, the whole room enveloped in a haze of chicken soup memories.
I loved those Seders, but I loved what came after even more. At the end of the Seder, after the afikomen had been found, my grandfather would reach into his sport coat and take out a handful of tickets, which he would fan out like a regular card shark. I could make out the distinctive logo of The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. The next day we’d all pile into his Buick and head for Madison Square Garden. He’d usually let one of us sit in his lap as he drove; one of us, a lucky grandchild, would also be the one to hand the nickel to the tollbooth guy.
Because it was Passover we couldn’t gorge on cotton candy or popcorn or drink the soda. (These were decades before the circus became savvy to the size of its dietary law-observing audience, and added kosher food to some of its New York shows.) Instead we ate the lunch my grandmother packed for us: matzo and hardboiled eggs. (To this day when I peel a hardboiled egg, I think of the circus.) Though we were forbidden from eating the circus foods, we didn’t feel deprived because, after all, we were with each other, and with our grandfather, who when separated physically from my grandmother turned out to be a rather benign presence.
I thought those years of the two Seders followed by a three-ring circus would go on forever…
I hadn’t thought of the connection between our Passovers and the circus until I read about the Ringling Brothers closing. I don’t mourn for the circus; it always felt slightly ghoulish and sad. But I do miss that era, before digital devices, when family was in your face, and you had nowhere to retreat. Except to the circus.
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Mark Effron, a veteran television executive, now teaches journalism and television and digital media at Montclair State University in New Jersey.