| Day in the Life |

Day in the Life of Mordechai Schulgasser

Juggling torches eating flares and spinning flames is the hottest way to spark up a simchah but when the smoke clears he’s back to the beis medrash burning the midnight oil 


What I do

Fire shows — fire aesthetics and performances. What we don’t do: we aren’t a circus, nor do we do some kind of entertainment that includes fire tricks. It’s just all fire.

What that means

We do performances. They can run from one minute to one hour, and they include an array of fire crafts: juggling, war, fun, with exciting music and coordinating uniforms. We also design and build custom creations out of fire — decorate event grounds with fire bowls, lamps, torches, and so on. Some are freestanding, some operated by staff.

My staff

When someone just wants an in-and-out — usually at a wedding, where I wait around for two hours just to get the perfect two minutes — it’s just me. Same with a low-budget shorter show. But the longer the show and the larger the budget, the larger the staff. When I need assistants, I call on friends from yeshivah or elsewhere, people familiar with fire and my systems, to be anything from security to performers to aesthetic staff.

My biggest gig

It was actually my first, a desert wedding, we had a seven-man crew on site for eight hours. People ask, “What can you be doing already?!” Well, lamps on the property, multiple light performances throughout the crowd during reception, uniformed soldiers bearing eight-foot torches on the aisle, a flaming chuppah, post-yichud, a full performance between dancing sets, including a human torch — that gives you an idea. The client mentioned in the prep meetings that he wanted his chutznik relatives to have their jaws on the ground — we succeeded!

How I got started

Unfortunately as a child; I was mesmerized by flames, setting stuff on fire. About 13 years ago, I was introduce to the art of poi — a type of juggling craft made to be set on fire, and then I discovered the world of fire performance. After a while, I lost interest in the technical maneuvers and started coming up with my own ideas for manipulating flames that looked cool and entertaining. About five years ago, I went public, but this isn’t a full-time deal — I learn full time and do this on the side.

Busiest time of year

Chol Hamoed Succos and Chanukah are big show times, and I’m always popping into weddings. Most gigs come via word of mouth. People have urged me to go more public and get the big jobs, but that’s not the kind of life I’m looking for; I’d rather perform for a lower budget bar mitzvah in Yerushalayim than a high-end corporate event in Tel Aviv. My life when I’m not playing with fire is pretty busy — I learn all day and most nights at Yeshivah Midrash Shmuel. It’s hard for people to imagine that the guy dressed in black leather swinging around giant flaming whatever is actually a kollelnik.

Equipment I always have on me

A lot of Kevlar, Nomex, and fire-retardant materials, and fire extinguishers, safety blankets, cornmeal — it’s good for cleaning up fuel spills — and good old-fashioned water. Baruch Hashem we’ve never truly needed these things, and b’ezras Hashem we never will, but safety is always number one. My staff calls me paranoid, but there are a number of procedures, checks and rechecks, we go through before a show. We always have to be aware of the perimeter and our surroundings. It’s easier when there’s security or we’re in a larger performance area, but it’s live entertainment — we have to be ready for anything.

Near fiascos

There have been a few. One example, I was doing a fire-eating routine at the wedding of someone from yeshivah, and a person who wasn’t familiar with what’s involved came up to me very suddenly. The thing was I had a lit torch inside my mouth, and I lost concentration on my technique, I actually inhaled flame for a second. Baruch Hashem I was all right, but that can singe the lungs, it can prevent breathing and kill, chas v’shalom. When it comes to fire-eating and fire-breathing, there are no illusions or tricks — what you see is what you get. Anyone who’s experienced it can tell you what that heat feels like!

The toughest part of the job

Planning the music. The music sets the tone of the whole show, it can make it or break it. I need to find or make tracks and playlists that are hashkafically satisfactory and will work with the event’s atmosphere, and coordinate them with the performance and choreography. Timing is everything — a few seconds can make the difference between something being just nice or a totally incredible moment. From the performance perspective, imagine running on a treadmill while curling weights in your hands, but doing it between bonfires that are constantly moving. It’s hot, dangerous, and absolutely exhausting, but we can’t just stop to rest or we’ll miss our cues. The only chance to take a drink is literally the few seconds at the end or the beginning of a burn.

Complaints I get

On the contrary, I’ve been asked to speak to kids about fire safety and dangers. The one thing that does discourage me is the fear that some kid, or adult for that matter, will try something they see me do. At every show, I give safety speeches and dissuade the audience from attempting anything that even resembles what they see. I don’t tell the audience what materials are being used specifically because I’m afraid they’ll decide to try it out.

What my mother says

Ten years ago, my mother saw me practicing a new maneuver where I swing a poi chain around my neck several times and hit the flaming head with the side of my face so that it swings completely back around and off my neck. When I practice, I don’t actually light the chains up, but when my mother saw it, she said enough was enough and she doesn’t want to see me do this stuff anymore. She hasn’t since! And you know, I never did perfect that move... My wife says to just be careful. Every new idea Hashem sends me, she says, “No, that’s not safe,” but when we do it, it’s really awesome. If you catch her at a show, you’ll hear her davening for us the whole time.

I always bear in mind

It’s more important to wow the crowd than to do difficult tricks. Only fire performers know the technicalities of what I’m doing, the crowd just wants awesomeness.

Early morning performance

Ever heard of a fire show at a seudas bris? Weird, but it happened. I performed right after Yaakov Shwekey.

Best show

Someone who’s seen our other shows said this Succos was the best yet. It might have had something to do with the 30-foot-long flaming rope we dragged across the whole complex and swung over the crowd…

Best feedback

When parents tell me their kids are putting on fire shows in the living room every day or playing “Mordechai the fire guy,” that makes me happy — and a bit scared.

(Originally featured in Mishpacha Issue 689)

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