As Big Top Folds, Sense of Loss Inflates
Circus memoriesSaying Goodbye To The Three Rings

As Big Top Folds, Sense of Loss Inflates

Rabbi Shalom Lewis experiences feelings of nostalgia while looking forward

Dancing elephants at Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus
Dancing elephants at Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus

The circus never came to Haddon Heights. I never actually sat under a big top until I was a father. Never as a child did I experience lion tamers cracking the whip or trapeze artists flying through the air with the greatest of ease; nevertheless, I was a fan of “the Greatest Show on Earth.”

I remember the old Disney movie “Toby Tyler”; I was mesmerized and wanted nothing more than to run away from home and join the circus. My parents gently reminded me of my allergies and Shabbos, but I longed to join Toby, the roustabouts and the performers.

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey was a magical, enchanting rite of passage for so many. An extravaganza that brought the exotic and the distant to towns and villages across America. The lions and tigers and bears. The popcorn and cotton candy.

The sights startled our eyes, and the smells filled our nostrils. The circus vocabulary became the jargon of the street. Sideshow. Three-ring circus. Tightrope walker. Ringmaster.

The circus coursed red, white and blue and was in the DNA of every American. And yet, after a 146-year run, it was announced that the big top was coming down forever.

No more dancing elephants. No more death-defying acrobatics. No more clowns pouring out of tiny cars. The end of a remarkable run that entertained millions for nearly a century and a half.

Vus iz geven iz geven un nito: What was, was and is no more. A famous Yiddish song sums up the farewell to a cultural marvel.

I admit to being saddened over the news, but in truth I never enjoyed the circus. I took my kids when they were young, but though they giggled and laughed, oohed and ahhed, I kept glancing at my watch, anxious to leave.

So why then am I troubled by the departure of the Greatest Show on Earth?

I thought about it and realized that my melancholy resulted from the circus being a significant piece of history soon to be buried in the soil of oblivion. A prominent icon that served us so very well, soon to become a fragile memory that time will sweep away.

And though I wasn’t an enthusiastic fan, I still mourn its passing as I think wistfully of milkmen, the Catskills, soda fountains and Life magazine.

We romantically look back yet welcome change. We cling to what was but enjoy what is. We long for the good old days but like where we are.

We are creatures of paradox, longing to be in both yesterday and today. A book in one hand and a Kindle in the other. Shopping in Montgomery Ward and ordering a tchotchke from Amazon.

Letting go is not easy because we romanticize and fantasize and oversize what preceded us.

As Jews, it is a particular pathology we endure, celebrating and shedding tears at the same time.

We mourn the destruction of our Temples, yet sing “Hatikva” knowing that we have nuclear subs and an air force. We wander through the weepy echoes of old neighborhoods turned slums, once pulsating with shuls and butchers and Yiddish, yet witness the resurgence of observant Jews and new suburban neighborhoods pulsating with shuls and butchers and English.

Vus iz geven iz geven un nito, but we move forward with the comforting chant of “and yet.

As Jews, we are capable of looking in two opposite directions simultaneously, perhaps knowing that all moments and all things are destined to become memories and history. A lesson from our early days on Earth. When Adam and his wife were driven out of paradise, it is believed that he said to Eve: “My dear, we live in an age of transition.”

Nothing is forever, but I will miss the circus.

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