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Humor me, heal me

As Funnie the Clown, she uses a time-tested Jewish secret weapon to infuse a dark situation with light

My favorite self-defense story was told by American comedienne Carol Burnett. She recounted how she was walking alone in New York City, and heard footsteps following her. She quickened her pace; the footsteps quickened. She turned a corner — so did the footsteps. In a flash, she felt a hand on her shoulder. She spun around, made the most awful face she could muster, and raved like a person with severe mental problems.

The guy took off.

In these parts, we worry more about a knife in our neck than a hand on our shoulder. You don’t need a clown telling you that we live in frightening times.

Jews are infamously resilient; add Israeli on top of that for some real tough stuff. We go about our daily lives despite the ominous news reports. We manage to laugh at ourselves and ‘the matzav’ despite it all.

Humor is our secret weapon. Thousands of years of peoplehood have taught us that we understand that we cannot control what happens to us.

We can only control how we respond.

I’ve been a medical clown for two and a half years, and my most recent gig has been in two Tel Hashomer Hospital outpatient clinics: Burns/Plastic Surgery and Orthopedics.

My task is to meet children waiting for their appointments and hopefully strike up enough of a relationship to enter the exam room with them. No matter the race, religion or gender. Most of the children I’ve thus clowned for have been Arab. I note this because when I’m not wearing a pink wig and a red nose, I look like a married Orthodox Jewish woman. Smiles from Arabs don’t come easy in that get-up.

But as Funnie the Clown, I get them all the time. That’s the beauty of clowning. All defenses come down and humanity stands alone in its purest form. My sole purpose is to help the patient and his/her family get through the appointment as sweetly as possible. I don’t always succeed, but I try.

Medical clowning marries psychology with play. Unlike a psychologist, a clown tries not to delve into a patient’s pain. A clown acknowledges it while trying to express genuine empathy, and then diverts it elsewhere. To a balloon. A happy memory. A song.

I don’t know much about the patient’s medical issues. And it doesn’t matter. What matters is the personal, not the problem. What’s their name? Where are they from? What do they enjoy doing? A medical clown’s motto is “See the patient, not the illness.”

Studies have shown that humor and laughter lower stress, increase endorphins (thus reducing pain), boost the immune system, and help with coping skills. Medical clowning helps combat the difficult feelings of being hospitalized or marginalized (women in shelters, elderly in nursing homes); these most common feelings are fear, anxiety, loneliness and boredom.

There’s much to learn from the funny-makers. And not just in the month of Adar. Every person can benefit from tools that clowns use to make contact, foster trust, and infuse a dark situation with light.

As Israel is at the forefront in medical clowning worldwide, it’s easier — and more accessible — than you think to learn from clowns.

So send them in. And use your own humor and light year-round to help brighten the space you take.

About the Author
Julie Rothschild Levi, a medical/party clown and editor/writer, learned at Simchat Halev Medical Clowning College, and gives medical clowning workshops to groups, organizations, schools and companies.