I want to start with the bears. I confess that the bear is not an animal I ever associated with the Jews of Eastern Europe (nor for that matter, lions or tigers). On our second day of the Helix Project we traveled to the Northern town of Smarhon in Belarus. Up until the twentieth century, this town was a commonplace shtetl, where Jews made up around 76% of the population. Smarhon, the birthplace of Moyshe Kulbak, whose life we focused on in Minsk, was also the site of some important yeshivas, and a center for artisans and forest workers. Notably, in Kulbak’s time, Smarhon was the home to a famous bear training academy. As we hiked through overgrown grassy paths to the site of the bear training academy, we learned of accounts of bears that are peppered in historic documents. People spoke of coming off of trains and being greeted by drivers of carts, pulled by bears, offering to transport their luggage. I found myself picturing young yeshiva students exiting their third class train cars, eyes blinking in the sun, seeing a line of bears in front of them. I wonder if this sight caused any of them to purchase a return ticket home, then and there? And then we found ourselves outside the spot of the famous Bear Academy, now a small industrial building. We looked at the stream where bears once bathed, as we read and reflected upon Kulback’s poem, “The Ten Commandments,” which describes the brutality of a bear trainer to his family, even as he dances in the night with his bear.[caption id="attachment_2611" align="aligncenter" width="1024"] Belarusian State Circus[/caption]
So there are bears in our cultural DNA. But lions and tigers? In the evening we made a trip to see the Belarusian State Circus, a circus owned and founded by Jews in Minsk in 1884. The Eastern European circuses in the late 19th century were very much a part of the Jewish cultural tradition, with Jewish strong men, acrobats, and as in Minsk, Jewish owners. Today the circus carries on its long tradition, filled with modern-day skilled acrobats, clowns, and animal acts. After hours of acts that often featured breathtaking displays of artistic and athletic prowess, a metal mesh dropped down from the ceiling, and we watched in fascination as one after another enormous lion and tiger settled around the ring. A lion and tiger act, similar to those in the United States, and yet so very different. Lest we forget we are in Belarus, the final scene featured the protective cage around the ring coming down, one of the trainers clipped a collar on an enormous tiger, and led her around the stage, brushing the legs of the children in the front row as they walked past. OH MY!