Be a clown
Did you ever wonder how to actualize the real you? Did you ever wish you could express the true potential of your hidden inner self? Wearing a Purim costume could contain the secret of self-actualization: especially if you are a secret Oheiv Yisroel, who is too shy to show your true feelings for others.
It is a long-standing Jewish tradition to have our children dress up as Tzaddikim from the past and present: Rachel and Sarah Imenu, Avraham Avinu, the Kohen Gadol and Esther HaMalka, for a few examples. Why? Because the costume we choose to wear reflects a revelation of our unique inner holiness. This annual masquerading has the potential to reveal who we really want to be. Even wearing a mask gives us an opportunity to help us act the way we really would like to act if we felt free to do so.
Enter the clown. This colorfully decorated individual, with the big nose and the wide ears and the tall stuffed hat, who benevolently dispenses balloons, has a society-approved legitimate excuse to masquerade any day!
What is even more impressive is the spiritual significance of their impact on making others happy. Increasing joy—to mesemach others—also is a time-honored Jewish tradition—whether it’s at weddings or when doing bikur cholim—visiting the sick. Helping others to live a life with simcha is well-known as the foundation for strengthening our connection with Hakadosh Baruch Hu. A life focused on the positive, on all the blessings in our lives, is a life that is healthier, happier, more productive, more successful and more giving.
A clown can sing, dance, juggle, tickle, and make silly faces anytime. A clown can go right up to “strangers” like a sad looking child, a lonely sick person, an elderly invalid, or just about anyone with a grumpy expression on their face, and tell a joke, burst into song, play an instrument, start dancing, poke the person in the ribs (gently), hand them a tissue to wipe away tears, and even offer a hug! He can do all this to elicit a grin to replace a frown. A clown can stretch beyond normal societal etiquette, swiftly bypassing and breaking down the usual restraints that separate people.
And if this clown is a medical clown–they not only get away with all of the above, their presence lightens lives, brings joy to many people’s hearts, and even aids recovery. Medical clowns have a worthy place in fulfilling the essential mitzvah of bikur cholim, drawing out even the shy, inhibited, withdrawn children and adults who are suffering from numerous challenges.
Laughter and humor have been proven to definitely have an impressive healing impact. The body is oxygenated and endorphins-which can provide significant natural pain relief—are released into the blood. A hearty laughter session can provide pain relief for over three hours, alleviating the need for medication and its nasty side effects. The latest research has even shown the astonishing fact that clowns who visited fertility clinics in Israel at a certain critical stage of treatment—statistically significantly elevated the rate of success!
Way back in 1984, Nancy, a nice Jewish lady, offered a four week clowning workshop for the volunteers on the farm where I was working. This was my first exposure to the liberating effect that clowns can have on both themselves and the people around them. Since then, for over three decades, I have always admired and respected the fine work that clowns do, and even secretly harbored the hope that I would someday train to be a professional medical clown myself.
Several years ago, in the month of Adar, Dr. Patch Adams, who is considered the “Father of Medical Clowns” came to Israel to present a conference for caregivers, midwives and doula’s on the therapeutic role of medical clowns. An American physician and social activist, Dr. Adams founded the Gesundheit! Institution in 1971, and every year he organizes a group of volunteers to travel around the world dressed as clowns in an effort to bring smiles to orphans, patients and needy people of all kinds.
Though the majority of the Israeli conference attendees were doctors, many appeared in funny costumes and the Purim spirit prevailed. The conference was an enlightening, inspiring, informative event that educated everyone present to the numerous benefits of being positive and spreading joy.
After viewing a documentary of his clowns visiting settings of abject poverty and illness, rehabilitation wards, mental institutions, orphanages, war-torn countries and cancer treatment centers, Dr. Adams was asked,
“How can you possibly stay happy in the face of so much human tragedy and suffering?”
Dr. Adams replied,
“You can spend up to five minutes a day feeling bad about all the terrible injustices in the world, but that is often too much. The rest of the time, you have to stay focused on all the good people who are trying to help others… and be one of them.”
Clown workshops and laughter-therapy trainings are proliferating in Israel, as the word spreads that humor is healing and more and more compassionately motivated people get into the act. There is even a new university program, the first of its kind in Israel that opened in the Department of Theater at the University of Haifa. Medical clowns will study for a BA degree in Theater and will participate in specially-designed courses in the nursing field. The goal is to provide the students with a range of skills that will enable their integration into the field of healthcare in hospitals throughout the country.
“The program will teach medical clowns’ things like the relationship between caregiver and patient and the psychological state of a patient in pain,” said Dr. Ati Citron, head of the Department of Theater at the University of Haifa.
“Clowning enables the opening up of avenues of communication with patients where the medical staff isn’t able to succeed or doesn’t know how to connect with the person. When a clown arrives, his behavior can open up gates, cross boundaries, and reach places that most people are not able to do in a hospital setting. Clowns go beyond and create new experiences, including distraction—so the patient won’t feel his pain and can fly with us to fantasy lands. This is actually a type of therapy—clown therapy,” says Herzl Tziony, a member of a group called “Dream Doctors” and a student in the new Haifa program.
According to Tziony, the past few years have given rise to an understanding of the importance of the profession of the medical clown.
“A few years ago our work was funded by private donations. Today, hospitals all over Israel share the cost of their clowns’ salaries.”
Although hospitals understand their importance, the health system still does not.
“Academic training will help to create standards as to who can treat patients and who cannot. There is a tendency to see the profession of medical clowning as something not serious and temporary, but the profession requires consistency and investment. Academic training of clowning will bolster the idea that this is not a passing phenomenon and will advance the professionalism of the clown, enabling him to use of the tools of clowning as an accepted form of treatment,” Tsiony stressed.
The positive effect on health care is obvious to anyone observing the change in a room where clowns enter. With their accordion playing jubilantly and juggling balls ready, just popping into a curtained corner of the pediatrics intensive care unit can make everyone in the room burst out laughing, which completely loosens up the dreary atmosphere! When a clown arrives in a special care unit, their presence immediately brightens the faces of the children and lightens the mood of worried parents as well as drained staff.
Through the therapeutic art of play and humor, medical clowns can help patients and their families reduce fear and worry while increasing their strength and motivation to cope with illness. They thus become a valuable, integral part of the medical team.
When clowns instantly alleviate the heaviness of anxiety, they break up the seriousness of the environment. The medical clown connects with patients in a way that can profoundly change the rest of the patients’ hospital experience, removing their minds far from all their medical concerns. Even if it’s only temporary, that reprieve counts for a lot!
Clowns use expressive therapy modalities such as magic, music, circus and puppetry as part of the healing process with patients, families and medical teams. They provide services in many settings including patient rooms, intensive care, emergency department, as well as in hallways, waiting rooms and elevators.
Everyone notices the difference. Even Alzheimer residents, who participate with clowns, interact with obvious enjoyment—as though “waking up” and becoming more vibrantly alive.
Actually, my most current “joke” is to be a doula clown! You know, all that laughing during labor, increases the body’s endorphin production, thus enhancing a positive birth with a happy Imma and baby. The only question is what would a doula clown costume look like?
This Purim, be a clown! It’s a perfect outlet for expressing our love and devotion to others.
May this Purim bring incredible joy to all of Klal Yisroel, and a speedy refuah shalaimah to all the Cholim.