Jewish Texts As A High-Wire Act
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Jewish Texts As A High-Wire Act

A unique pedagogical experiment in Riverdale combines Torah and circus stunts.

Flipping over the Bible: Ayal Prouser gives a hand to AJR students.
Courtesy of AJR
Flipping over the Bible: Ayal Prouser gives a hand to AJR students. Courtesy of AJR

They’re head over heels about Jewish texts. Literally.

And seminarians at the Academy of Jewish Religion in Riverdale are also walking a tightrope in trying to fathom how the biblical Abraham balances his conflicts as he prepares to sacrifice his son. Literally.

The AJR students are part of a unique pedagogical experiment in a summer course cleverly titled “Sacred Arts, Circus Acts.” The course, a first for the seminary, has students poring over biblical texts and then performing circus stunts to better understand the emotions conveyed in the biblical stories. It is taught by Ora Horn Prouser, AJR’s executive vice president and academic dean, and her son Ayal Prouser, a professional circus coach, performer and scholar of “circus studies,” the theory of understanding and using circus to understand different topics.

The students, Dean Prouser told The Jewish Week, are encouraged to not just act out the text but to “figure out the moves, positions and experiences that express the feelings, emotions and the struggle going on in the text… which all must come from a deep reading of the text.”

Students usually begin the class studying different pieces of texts with strong themes and relationships, such as the Binding of Isaac, the leadership of Moses or story of the convert Ruth, and then move on to learning circus moves, such as partner acrobatics and tightrope walking. They are then asked how they can connect the two, such as using partner acrobatics to look at relationships in the biblical narratives to understand the text differently.

After learning about the Akeda, the Binding of Isaac, the students were told to keep the struggles of Abraham in mind while they were attempting to balance on a tightrope, and one student was brought close to tears over the experience.

“What we have heard almost every week from our students is that they’re experiencing this text differently than they ever have before and how much it means to them; it’s just been such an amazing experience in so many different ways,” said Dean Prouser.

Lily Lucey, one of the five students in the class, told The Jewish Week that “there have been startling moments of clarity and spirituality throughout the course as well as an invaluable bond between students that this type of learning has the ability to create. So hey, if this rabbinical school thing doesn’t work out,” she quipped, “maybe we can run off and join the circus.”

If so, they’ll need help from Ayal Prouser, who has performed with the American traveling youth troupe Circus Smirkus and coached the Galili Circus in northern Israel. “The ability to embody and process [the text] in this personal, extremely phenomenal way has given students a new access point,” he said. “Even though there are just these introductory skills, they’re filled with very strong reactions.”

The circus moves are tied, more or less, to the themes of the biblical stories.

Jacob’s stealing Isaac’s birthright? Partner aerobics. The Binding of Isaac? Wire-walking. The Book of Ruth? Double trapeze.

Since Judaism is a text-based religion, “a big part of what we do is sit around the table and study texts,” Dean Prouser said. But it’s not an approach that works with everyone.

“It’s important for us to say that the study of text is open to everyone and that there are so many ways of approaching it,” she said.

The circus approach, she concluded, “opens the text, opens people’s hearts and opens their emotions in different ways.”

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