Bimah me up! Meet the circus rabbi who prays as she flies

Rabbi Miri Lawrence will be performing this Sunday with The Blumenfeld Circus


Rabbi Miri Lawrence performing

It can be said with a high degree of certainty that Rabbi Miri Lawrence jumps through hoops for her congregation more than any other rabbi.

Indeed, this Sunday at JW3 the particular hoop through which the rabbi for Ealing and Wessex Liberal synagogues will travel will be suspended in mid-air.

This feat is all part of The Blumenfeld Circus, a show in which Rabbi Lawrence not only expertly entwines herself around her specialist circus apparatus but does so while relating the forgotten history of Jewish circus performance.

“For me it all started in 2019,” explains the aerialist, who is dressed in tights and leotard as we contemplate the hoop hanging in the garage of her house in Purley.

“I used to run marathons but after several knee operations I was told to stop. Then, absolutely by chance, my husband Howard and I were at a local restaurant that was so crowded the tables were squeezed together and we got talking to the couple next to us. The woman said she did aerial hoop and showed me these pictures. She was the same age as me [Rabbi Lawrence is now 58] and looked absolutely fantastic. Then she said, ‘Why don’t you come to a class?’”

The rabbi is not usually to be found in circus garb at home. But today she has kindly agreed to give me a taster of the workshops she and her company of 11 professional aerialists are holding for members of the public after the show.

When the pandemic arrived, the skills Rabbi Lawrence learnt in circus class came into their own when she combined them with Jewish prayer. “One thing I found during lockdown was the need to be creative,” she says. “Then one day I put together the prayer for healing with music by [the late Jewish American musician] Debbie Friedman, with a routine and sent the video to someone in the community.”

Routine? “Aerial hoop,” says the rabbi casually as she checks her equipment like a pilot before take off.

The next stage of this surely unique combination of the spiritual and acrobatic life came when Rabbi Lawrence began to research whether there was any tradition of Jews in circus, only to find that that there is indeed an illustrious Jewish past in circus culture.

“I found that all over the world most of the major circuses are owned by Jews. Then I found out that there was this huge tradition in Germany before the Second World War of Jewish circus families. As well as the Blumenfelds, who we look at in the show, there was the Lorch family, the Goldettes, the Konyot family and the Strassburgers. Some of them started in the Middle Ages.”

According to Rabbi Lawrence there were as many as 120 Blumenfelds performing in several circuses around Europe at the height of their success. Most of them specialised in acrobatics, equestrian tricks and trapeze and aerialist acts.

“I had never heard of them before and had to go to the circus archive in Berlin to find out more,” she says. “The other thing that’s really important to say is that these weren’t assimilated Jews. Being Jewish was really important. Emanuel Blumenfeld [the head of the family] had something like an ethical will, which I saw in the archive. It said that he wanted every generation of his family to be practising Jews.”

All but one of the Blumenfelds perished during the Holocaust. However, the rabbi’s show is much more “a celebration of the golden age of German Jewish circus before the First World War” than a show about the loss of Jewish circus culture.

Still, if the Blumenfelds and other Jewish circus families had lived, the circus would have been part of our Jewish cultural heritage, says the rabbi. “Now we don’t even associate Jews with the circus,” she says.

The rabbi aerialist is now striking one of several elegant poses on the hoop in her garage which, after limbering up, I am now invited to try. Whereas the rabbi glides onto the apparatus I clamber; where she drapes herself over the rig’s surprisingly unforgiving metal ring, I cling like a newborn orangutang. As I struggle to ignore gravity’s determined attempt to pull me to the ground, I wonder what hopes she has for her show in the future.

“Really I’d love people to just know about these circus families as just part of their Jewish knowledge and education,” says Rabbi Lawrence. “And I would really like to see people having a try at the workshops. We’ve had people of all ages do them, not just children, we’ve had people in their eighties”.

One word of advice for those who do, listen as carefully to the instructions about how you get down as you do about how you get on. Because where Rabbi Lawrence alights from her hoop, I found that I tend to plummet.

The Blumenfeld Circus is at JW3 on June 23

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