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One Woman in Knots Over Judaism

February 1, 2007 By:
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Many acrobats can stand on their head, do a split or stretch their legs far behind their heads, but it's a safe bet that most don't try to teach Jewish topics in the process.

Yet Lisa Appel is not your average acrobat.

At a typical show, the 32-year-old uses circus arts like tumbling, contortion, dancing and juggling to entertain her audiences, and in most cases, educates them about some facet of Judaism in the process.

"I am happiest upside-down [teaching] Yiddishkeit," said Appel, who recently performed for the preschool at the Congregations of Shaare Shamayim in the Northeast and for students at Shir Ami-Bucks County Jewish Congregation in Newtown.

Her particular talents help captivate young audiences; in turn, she said, they are more receptive.

"The kids really listen to you when you're on your head," said Appel, who lives in the Northeast.

Appel grew up in a Conservative home, and as a girl took a variety of dance and tumbling classes. By high school, her hobby had evolved into a serious commitment to acrobatics.

"I didn't go to senior weekend or move-up day," she said, stressing that she was happy with her decision to sacrifice other activities for her workouts.

Now she is attempting to fuse her two loves -- Judaism and acrobatics -- by starting her own company, Miss Lisa Inc. With the tagline "acrobatic ... educational ... Yiddishkeit," Appel hopes to continue performing for synagogues and schools, but also at art shows, festivals and other venues.

Though Appel offers a number of strictly entertaining performances, one remains particularly solemn: her tribute to the Holocaust fighters.

By spinning and hanging from two long pieces of aerial fabric -- a special, tensile material used to suspend the acrobat high in the air -- she attempts to symbolize a form of Jewish resistance to the Shoah.

"I have to do something," she said Appel, noting that her great-grandfather, Abraham Grünberg, was a resistance fighter in Poland. "Acrobatics is what I have to give. If I could read research papers and write a book [about the Holocaust], I would."

In December, the young woman used her ability to perform with aerial fabric for a more jovial purpose. During Shaare Shamayim's failed attempt to break the world record for simultaneous dreidels spun, a purple-outfitted Appel was spinning as a human dreidel above.

Appel has spent time as a teacher in Abington, North Philadelphia and for the Perelman Jewish Day School's now defunct Bucks County Branch. These days, she also incorporates her teaching skills to help children and adults learn tumbling, dance and acrobatics at two different studios.

She has also hit the stage in different capacities, performing with the Give & Take Jugglers, and as a magician's assistant in Atlantic City, N.J.

"If you know one trick, you know them all," she said, refusing to divulge any secrets.

Though acrobatics can be a physical challenge, Appel said she doesn't explicitly lift weights or run on a treadmill; practicing her acrobatics and contortion is exercise enough.

When you're at the gym, she said, and you're lifting weights, you don't have to don't necessarily have to do that last repetition. But "when you're on the fabric, you can't let go. You don't have a choice. You can't say no when you're hanging upside-down."

In speaking of her goals for the future, Appel said that she loves teaching and performing -- and just wants to do more of it. "To be able to perform acrobatics while in a shul and helping to educate children is like a dream come true already."

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