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Jewish World Review August 26, 2002 / 18 Elul, 5762

Nat Hentoff

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The children's circus Salaam Shalom | "Before a boisterous crowd of about 100 at the City Museum," reported the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on July 29, 17 Jewish and Muslim children from Circus Salaam Shalom "somersaulted, backflipped and stilt walked to thunderous applause."

These children, ages 5 to 14, have been performing this summer under the direction of the Circus Day Foundation of which my daughter, Jessica, is executive director. She's been a circus performer for nearly 30 years and runs the Everydaycircus in St. Louis. "No matter who we are and where we come from, we can find a common place, where our individual boundaries touch, overlap -- or better yet -- disappear in the face of what connects us," she says

In forming Circus Salaam Shalom (meaning "peace" in both Hebrew and Arabic) she has gathered for circus classes children from the Central Reform Synagogue (which she and her children attend) and from the black Muslim Clara Muhammad School.

The parents of these circus children have also been connecting. "After the first eight-week spring session," according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, "parents and children visited one another's houses of worship to pray for peace in special services." Alicia Abdullah-Clay said her son noted that he had never before seen a white person at a mosque.

"To make the circus formation," one reporter pointed out, "children on the top tier must fully trust children on the bottom tier not to move or relax their muscles. The children on the bottom must trust the children on the top not to jab or kick them as their flexed thighs become stairs to the top."

And their parents must trust that there are educational benefits in this interfaith pyramid. Says Central Reform's Rabbi Susan Talve, "seeing the kids working together, watching all of our parents smile and so proud of the same thing -- our precious children -- gives hope for the future."

One of the performances took place at the Clara Muhammad School on Malcolm X's birthday on May 19. The St. Louis newspaper, Jewish Light, reported -- and as I've told Jessica -- my friend Malcolm X, on his way back from Mecca about a year before he died, sent me the following postcard: 'In my recent travels into the African countries and others, I was impressed by the importance of having a working unity among all peoples, black as well as white."

A parent from the synagogue, watching her two daughters on the 1-1/2-inch-wide wire-cable tightrope, 27 feet above the floor, said, "I remember the old saying from the 1960s: 'Think globally, act locally.' We are building peace between faiths right here." And Alicia Abdullah, watching her son, said: "The children know there are differences between Muslims and Jews because they hear their parents talk about differences. But if they are left alone, with nothing to poison their minds, they get to know each other, play together."

As the St. Louis Post-Dispatch noted, "It's easier to understand someone once you've stood on their shoulders, leaped through their arms or dangled from their body." Or, as my daughter, Jessica, adds, "By clowning around, you learn to take yourself and others seriously."

There will be circus classes for the Circus Salaam Shalom Circus in the fall, with the first new show in December. But Jessica has a deeper vision of showing how circus skills can "teach the art of life." She is planning the creation of a St. Louis Children's Circus, composed of kids from a wide range of socio-economic backgrounds in the city and surrounding county.

A virtue of circus arts, she told the online STLtoday, is "there's room for everyone to succeed, regardless of background, size or shape, grade-point average or any of the other categorizations that may be barriers elsewhere." She's taught deaf children, adolescents with Down syndrome and elderly people.

When Jessica was almost constantly on the road, her letters to me would end "Every day is a circus day!"

For more information about the Circus Day Foundation, the Web site is and the phone is (314) 436-7676.

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JWR contributor Nat Hentoff is a First Amendment authority and author of numerous books. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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