San Franciscan joins the circus, pens book with grandkids

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During an outing in Atlanta a couple of years ago, Charlotte Feldstein was returning to her son’s house on the rapid transit with her grandchildren when Ari, her oldest grandson, got cranky and restless.

“I took Ari aside and I said let’s make up a story to tell together,” she said. “I asked him what would be the most unusual story we could make up about our trip and he suggested the circus. … ‘You’re on the train and see the circus train and it broke down.'”

Feldstein and the family grew fond of the circus story, and over time they elaborated on it, added characters and created new adventures. Unlike so many family stories that are told and retold and eventually forgotten, the family decided to write this story down, illustrate it and turn it into a book.

The story evolved into a colorful self-published book, “The Circus is Coming to Town,” in which the elephants are named after Feldstein’s granddaughters and her mother. The circus owner is Norton, for Feldstein’s husband. The ringmaster, Mr. Donnie, is named for her brother, who owns the San Francisco apartment building that Feldstein and her husband manage. And various grandkids, sons, daughters and friends all get their names in print.

“What we did in the story,” said Feldstein, “is almost like our family tree because everybody in the story is someone connected to us. The children did all the coloring and illustration.”

Not only that, the book — co-authored by Feldstein and grandson Ari Feldstein — became a family project that raised close to $1,400 for the Epstein School, a Conservative day school in Atlanta, where Ari is in the fourth grade. The project was completely financed by family and friends, so that all of the profits went to the school, where the book is a popular selection in Epstein’s library.

“We put in relatives and others [into the book] because we knew they’d make a good donation,” said Feldstein.

“It was fun doing the book,” Ari says. “I liked doing the stories. Sometimes we talk stories with her and then they are gone for good.”

Daughter-in-law Sharon Feldstein, a graphic designer, propelled the project from a family project into a book. Using her design skills, she scanned the images into her computer to give them a woodblock feel. She also found an Atlanta-area printer. And since then, she’s gotten involved in helping other families put together books of their own.

In the meantime, Charlotte Feldstein had the book copyrighted in the Library of Congress, including grandson Ari’s name. Ari, now 10, dedicates the book “to my siblings because they play a good role in this book.”

For Feldstein, 71, who moved to San Francisco in 1945 and met her husband at Washington High School, setting the book in a circus brings back more than just childhood memories. On Sept. 4, 1941, she and Norton became engaged at the circus. They celebrated their 52nd anniversary on Tuesday, Jan. 27. The book is dedicated to “My Main Event, Norton,” and she writes in the frontispiece “May we continue to jump through the hoops together forever and a day.”

“I always liked the circus,” said Feldstein, during a recent interview in San Francisco. Like her father, Harry, who is from Russia (he’s the ticket-taker in the book), she has been a lifelong storyteller.

Settling in St. Paul, Minn., Harry Geller became a barber and regaled his family with stories about giving a haircut to a visiting gangster from Chicago. Henchmen escorted him blindfolded to the gangster’s whereabouts, where he got a $20 tip after completing the haircut.

“My grandchildren love it when I tell stories,” said Feldstein, who has nine grandchildren — six of them girls. The Feldsteins, who have two daughters and a son, are members of Adath Israel in San Francisco, where Feldstein’s parents were founding members.

The book was written with the children of her son, Rabbi Louis Feldstein, the executive director of Atlanta’s United Jewish Communities. He and wife Sharon play themselves in the book.

Deciding who was going to be named for whom enhanced the joy of creation.

“We decided the main people in story were going to be the elephants. So the circus traveled with six elephants. All of them were girls because they performed better than boys,” said Feldstein.

But one of the elephants had a special role in the drama. Not wanting to show favoritism among her granddaughters, she and Ari decided to make Ari’s sister, Princess Zahava, a bareback rider, and the special elephant is named Goldie, for Feldstein’s mother. The elephant trainer is Eitan, Zahava’s twin brother.

Goldie gets to do what elephants often do. After being reprimanded for ringing a bell with her trunk, instead of with her foot, she does the stunt properly. “Then she looked right at the ringmaster, who happened to be standing next to Ari, his family, and his friends, lifted her trunk, and squirted them with water!” the book says.

Was that in keeping with Goldie Geller’s character?

“Very much so,” Feldstein said.

And is brother Donnie really a ringmaster?

“Oh yes.”

There are other endearing details. Grandson Gabe, Ari’s younger brother, was originally supposed to be the dog trainer. But he was upset because he’s allergic to dogs.

“We made him a bear trainer,” she said.

But not everybody was happy with the book’s images.

Feldstein’s daughter Ceil Bailey, who lives in Sacramento, is described as Gabe’s “beautiful assistant, Ceil,” but her brownish-pinkish hair is stringy, her nose bulbous and her purple dress and trousers less than flattering. By contrast, a stunning trapeze artist with dark curly hair is named after Feldstein’s other daughter, Amy De Stefano, who lives in Novato.

“Ceil says, ‘How come they made Amy so pretty, and look at me?” Feldstein said.

Meanwhile, Charlotte, the circus owner’s wife, has blond hair, cinnamon-colored skin and oversized feet.

“They didn’t want me to have white hair. They wanted me to be a blonde,” said Feldstein.

Was she ever a blonde?

“Maybe a thousand years ago,” said Feldstein, admitting to having dyed it once. “My kids hated it.”

Is another book in the works? Feldstein was noncommittal.

“It was very hard,” not to mention expensive. “I read five books a week and admire how their words just flow. This was hard.”

Janet Silver Ghent is senior editor of j. Frances Katz is a freelancer who writes for the Atlanta Jewish Times.

The Circus is Coming to Town” by Charlotte Feldstein and Ari Feldstein, illustrated by the Feldstein family, is available for $10, with proceeds to Atlanta’s Epstein School. Information: (415) 292-7708.