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Jews and the Circus: 7 Fascinating Facts

January 18, 2017 | by Dr. Yvette Alt Miller

Did you know that Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus is owned by a Jewish family?

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus has announced it will close in May 2017, after 146 years of operation. The owners, Feld Entertainment, a family firm, disclosed that declining ticket sales and high operating costs had made the circus unsustainable, particularly after they phased out the use of elephants because of concerns about animal welfare, in 2016.

Many fans were surprised to learn that Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus has been owned by a Jewish family for nearly 50 years, longer than it was ever owned by the Ringling brothers, or by Barnum and Bailey themselves. Bought in 1967 by Irvin Feld, the father of current CEO Kenneth Feld, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus has been a family affair, with Kenneth’s three daughters, Nicole, Alana and Juliette, serving as executive vice presidents.

Kenneth Feld, CEO of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus

Jews have a long history in circus extravaganzas. Here are six other little known facts about Jews and the Circus.

Bloody Origins

“Circus” means circle in Latin, and some elements of modern-day circuses can be traced back to the spectacles held in huge, circle-shaped amphitheaters throughout the Roman Empire, such as chariot races, mock battles, and gladiatorial combat. The Circus Maximus, in Rome, held spectacles for over 1,000 years.

The Jewish historian Josephus, who was captured after the Jewish revolts against Rome in the 1st Century CE and brought to Rome, wrote in his book The Jewish War that after crushing the Jewish rebellions in Israel, Roman captors sold many Jews into slavery in gladiator schools, forced to fight other men and wild animals to the death. Perhaps the most famous Jew to serve as a gladiator was Shimon ben Lakish (also known as Reish Lakish), who sold himself into servitude as a gladiator, and later turned his life around, becoming an esteemed Jewish scholar instead.

Circus Acts and Stage Names

As modern-style circuses became popular in Europe in the 19th century, a number of performers seem to have been Jews, often with unusual acts. The Warsaw Circus, for example, featured an exotic performer known as “Takhra Bey” who entertained crowds by piercing his face and body with needles and hanging weights from them. In real life, “Takhra Bey” was Moyshe Shtern, a local Jewish performer. The use of stage names hid the Jewish identity of his and many other performers.

Some European circus stars who were open about their Jewishness included Moyshe Fayershteyn, who would seem to swallow animals, then produce them, amazing the crowds. Zishe (Siegmund) Breitbart performed in the 1920s in Europe as a circus strongman. Known to his non-Jewish fans as “the strongest man in the world,” he also was affectionately called “Shimshon ha-Gabur” (Samson the Mighty) by his many Yiddish-speaking fans. Two European Jewish families even became circus dynasties. Tightrope walking sisters Pese and Leah Rozentsvayg married other Jewish circus performers: Pese married Jewish clown Itsik Gayler and Leah married Yankev Birnboym, an acrobat. Together, the two families and their circus-performing children appeared throughout Europe and the United States.

Jews Building Circuses

During the golden age of European circuses, a number of circuses were founded and run by Jewish circus families. In Germany, the Lorch family intermittently ran the Circus Gebruder Lorch from the late 1800s until 1930, performing all over southern Germany, Austria and Switzerland. The German Jewish family Blumenfeld owned the Circus Blumenfeld, closing in 1928.

Mitch Garber

Several popular circuses that were founded by Jews still exist today. Foremost among these is the Moscow Circus, which remains one of the world’s most prestigious circuses and was founded in 1880 by the Jewish-German showman Albert Solomonsky. In the US, the popular Big Apple Circus was founded by Paul Binder in 1977 (he retired from the big top in 2008). And since 2016, the director of arguably the world’s most popular circus franchise, the Canadian-based international circus powerhouse Cirque du Soleil, has been Jewish entertainment businessman Mitch Garber.

Escaping Death in the Circus

During the Holocaust, four members of one Jewish circus family survived by being hidden in plain sight. Irene Bento was a trick rider; her husband (who, according to some conflicting accounts, might or might not have been Jewish) worked as a clown. Their two young children lived in a travelling circus with them and other circus members, performing throughout Germany with a family circus owned by Alfred Althoff.

The scion of a 300-year-old circus family, Alfred Althoff was determined to conceal the four Jewish members of his circus. “Circus people don’t ask if you are Christian, Jewish or heathen,” he later explained, when asked how he was able to resist the pervasive virulent anti-Semitism of the war years.

Alfred arranged false papers for the Bentos and they kept performing under pseudonyms. As the circus travelled through Germany, Alfred would try to ask his contacts for a warning when the local Gestapo was about to come to check the identity papers of the circus employees. He and the Bentos arranged a code: before each Gestapo visit, Alfred would knock on their trailer door and tell them to “go fishing”. “You can do a lot in a circus and keep it a secret,” he recalled after the war.

The Bentos survived the war and continued their careers as circus performers. Their children eventually joined them in the ring, as well. Alfred Althoff was honored by the Israeli Government after the war. He passed away peacefully in his sleep at the age of 85 in 1998.

Circus Family in the Clutches of Mengele

The Ovitz family, a Jewish family living in a small village in Romania in the years before World War Two, had an unusual distinction: they were the largest recorded family affected by dwarfism. Their father, Rabbi Shimshon Eizik, and seven (out of a total of ten) children all had the condition, marked by unusually short stature.

The family arranged for music and performance lessons for the children; the Ovitz siblings were musically gifted and soon became accomplished performers. The five sisters and two brothers with dwarfism formed a successful circus act, which they dubbed the “Lilliput Troupe.” Their normal-sized siblings and mother helped out with costumes and other activities. Perla, the youngest sister, played a pink guitar, Frieda played the cimbalom, Rozika and Franziska played violins, while Elizabeth played the drums. Their brother Micki played the cello and accordion and brother Avram wrote the group’s scripts and worked as manager of the troupe. For 15 years the Ovitz siblings performed their successful act, even performing before King Carol II in Bucharest.

On May 16, 1944, however, the Ovitzes were deported to a concentration camp. After a three-day train journey crammed into a cattle car with scores of other Jews during which many perished, the Ovitz family arrived at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Instead of being murdered on arrival like their relatives and friends, the Ovitz family was a curiosity. SS guards woke Dr. Josef Mengele who welcomed the siblings, relishing the chance to perform medical experiments on the dwarves. The Ovitzes quickly added a few “family” members to their group, including a neighbor and their handyman, saving these 15 normal sized people’s lives. But for the dwarves, months of torment was about to begin. Mengele spared their lives but at a gruesome cost, performing experiments on the siblings that left them exhausted, ill and in excruciating pain.

Mengele enjoyed spending time with the Ovitz clan, praising Frieda and insisting that she wear makeup which he provided. The sadistic doctor brought toys from children he’d killed for Leah’s 18 month old son Shimshon. Mengele made the little boy malnourished to the point where he never cried or talked, and insisted on being called the traumatized toddler’s “Uncle Mengele”.

In 1945, the Ovitz family was liberated from Auschwitz. They returned to their village, some of only 50 Jews to return out of 650 who were deported. In 1949, the family moved to Israel where they continued to perform.

Israel’s Medical Clowns

In recent years, clowns have been moving out from under the Big Top and into hospitals where they help cheer patients and even can have medically significant, measurable healing effects on patients. Israel is emerging as a world leader in the use of clowns in medical settings.

In other countries, clowns typically visit patients after their medical treatment; Israeli researchers are researching “clown therapy” as a research-driven, standardized branch of medicine. Israel has at least 80 clowns operating in 18 hospitals. These Israeli clowns are also paramedics, and participate in diagnosing and helping to devise treatment and rehabilitation plans, much the same way that art therapists and occupational therapists are part of patients’ medical teams.

In 2007, Israel’s University of Haifa became the first undergraduate degree program in the world in medical clowning.


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