It was told of Rabbi Shimon ben Gamaliel that in the Feast of the Water Drawing [part of Sukkot observance in the Temple] he rejoiced by juggling eight flaming torches.
– Babylonian Talmud, Sukkah 53a
I recently retired from my position as executive director of the educational center at Shorashim. The board decided to "exploit" this transition to hold a benefit evening for the center, featuring a performance by our Jewish-Arab youth circus, the Galilee Circus. This was to have two purposes: a) to invite friends, colleagues, supporters, and family to contribute to a tribute site, to provide a material boost for the center and its projects; and b) to give the circus project major public exposure in the area and to honor the participants, their coaches and families.
The first part was the easy part: Even though the concept of a tribute book, so routine in American Jewish life, is totally foreign to Israel, today it is not very hard to create one, involving donors from around the world. Using email communication exclusively, and an environmentally friendly and essentially free on-line slide show in place of a printed book, we were able to carry out the whole tribute project with minimal cost and labor – and the result was moving (to me) and helpful (for the center).
The hard part was the gamble on filling a serious venue for a youth circus performance. We rented the Karmiel Culture Center, the only serious cultural venue in town, a well-maintained and esthetic 700-seat theater that hosts national repertory theater companies, dance troupes, orchestras, etc. We recruited a band and several circus professionals to donate acts to the show. We publicized the show by social media and ads in the local press, distributed books of tickets to be sold by circus families, staff, and friends, and solicited donations of blocks of tickets to be given to special education institutions. And then we held our breaths, wondering how many seats we needed to fill in order for the event not to feel depressing.
To our surprise, we sold out the house. The show went perfectly, was very professional in production values, the kids were amazing as usual, and the crowd loved it all. The audience seemed evenly balanced between Jews and Arabs. The vast majority of the Arabs, all of whom live within a 15 minute drive of the culture center, had never visited it before. Often it seems we have convinced ourselves that we are an outpost of Western civilization here, consuming the culture of the West almost exclusively, from Shakespeare to Rihanna. However, we in fact live in the Middle East, where most people speak Arabic and listen to Fairouz and read Mahfouz. The Arabs don't stay away from the Karmiel Culture Center because they are unwelcome there, but because the events staged there have little to do with the cultural programming they naturally consume. The magic of circus is that it transcends these differences, representing a cultural common denominator that seems universal (there are youth circuses everywhere, from St. Louis to Amsterdam to Addis Ababa to Kabul).
We will, sooner or later, make peace with the Palestinians. It seems to me that the harder challenge is to create a sustainable state here, in which the children of the indigenous Arabs and the children of immigrant Jews from Europe/America, the Middle East, and Africa can all preserve their cultural roots while at the same time finding a shared set of cultural assets, social norms, and values that together will constitute an unhyphenated Israeli identity.