Clowns have an honourable part to play— and not only on Purim

The Jewish Chronicle - - JUDAISM - BY RABBI GIDEON SYLVESTER Gideon Sylvester is the United Sy­n­a­gogue’s Is­rael Rabbi. For more on Dream Doc­tors see, www.ziv.org.il/

Reva Sei­del is a clown work­ing at the heart of an in­ter­na­tional cri­sis. While many of us weep over the ter­ri­ble im­ages of suf­fer­ing Syr­ian chil­dren, ru­ing our in­abil­ity to help them, Reva wel­comes them to the Ziv Med­i­cal Cen­tre in North­ern Is­rael. The chil­dren ar­rive ex­hausted from their jour­ney, trau­ma­tised by war and writhing in pain from their wounds. For Syr­ian par­ents there is another worry. They have been ex­posed to decades of Syr­ian pro­pa­ganda which de­monises Jews as cruel and un­car­ing. It is ter­ri­fy­ing for them to place their chil­dren in the care of a Jewish hospi­tal.

But Reva be­lieves her team of med­i­cal clowns, Project Dream Doc­tors, is uniquely qual­i­fied to break down th­ese bar­ri­ers and build trust with pa­tients from en­emy coun­tries. In this, she draws on a wealth of Jewish tra­di­tion.

Ju­daism some­times seems se­vere, but clowns and jesters also have an honourable place in our tra­di­tion. In a beau­ti­ful tal­mu­dic pas­sage, Eli­jah the Prophet de­clares a pair of jesters to be the wor­thi­est peo­ple in their town. Th­ese peo­ple are spe­cial be­cause they use joy and laugh­ter to coax quar­rel­ing cou­ples to smile, rec­on­cile and re­build their lov­ing fam­i­lies, bring­ing peace and har­mony to the world.

In the Purim Megillah, Ha­man charges that the Jews are scat­tered and dis­persed, im­ply­ing a lack of unity among us. Our re­sponse is to pro­mote love and friend­ship on the fes­ti­val by giv­ing food parcels to our friends and char­ity to the poor. By giv­ing to oth­ers, we spread love. While our pri­or­ity is to build th­ese feel­ings among our fam­ily, com­mu­nity and na­tion, there is some­thing in­cred­i­bly ex­cit­ing about reach­ing across in­ter­na­tional bor­ders to spread peace and love.

Since th­ese pa­tients usu­ally reach Is­rael empty-handed, on ar­rival at the hospi­tal, each Syr­ian child is given a duf­fle-bag packed with presents, in­clud­ing toys, puz­zles, soaps, toi­letries, tow­els and nail clip­pers. In line with Jewish tra­di­tion, Is­raeli hospi­tals not only re­store the Syr­i­ans’ health, but their dig­nity too.

Purim is the fes­ti­val of masks and fancy dress. A con­tem­po­rary Is­raeli scholar, Rabbi Eliezer Me­lamed ex­plains, in his book Pninei Halachah, that dress­ing up in cos­tumes breaks down bar­ri­ers between peo­ple, cre­at­ing ca­ma­raderie and friend­ship. This is the power of clown­ing, which can turn en­e­mies into friends.

When weep­ing chil­dren en­ter the ward with sev­ered limbs, our nat­u­ral im­pulse may be to sit and cry with them or to de­ploy our Bri­tish re­serve pre­tend­ing noth- ing has hap­pened. Af­ter all, how do you broach con­ver­sa­tion about hand­i­cap, wounds and ban­dages?

Hu­mour, how­ever, crosses cul­tural bound­aries and clown­ing take this one step fur­ther. Clowns are naïve, sub­ver­sive and cheeky. Their play­ful­ness car­ries them to places that any­one else would not dare to go. Reva could eas­ily be over­whelmed by the tragic cir­cum­stances of her young pa­tients, but as soon as she dons the colour­ful cos­tume of Crembo the Clown, she sets aside her in­hi­bi­tions to laugh and joke with the chil­dren. Tak­ing on this per­sona, she mis­chie­vously plays with a child’s ban­dages and this light-hearted hu­mour de­fus- es ten­sion en­abling the young peo­ple to ad­dress their worst anx­i­eties.

Even the stony-faced Syr­ian adults who sit by the beds watch­ing are soon charmed by the gen­uine care and kind­ness of the clowns, who not only play with the chil­dren on the wards but also ac­com­pany them down to the op­er­at­ing the­atres, hold­ing their hands and dis­pelling their fears.

When the chil­dren and their par­ents leave the hospi­tal, the emo­tional farewells show that Is­rael’s med­i­cal clowns are cap­tur­ing the hearts of their Arab neigh­bours in ways that have eluded gen­er­a­tions of diplo­mats.

Ul­ti­mately, the num­bers be­ing treated here are only a small pro­por­tion of the Syr­ian pop­u­la­tion, prob­a­bly not enough to change pub­lic opin­ion there. But Purim is the fes­ti­val of in­com­plete sal­va­tion. One rea­son why we do not sing the Hal­lel, Psalms of praise, on Purim, ac­cord­ing to the Tal­mud, is that de­spite our re­lief that the Jews were not mas­sa­cred by Ha­man, we still re­mained in ex­ile un­der the rule of the fool­ish and dan­ger­ous King Aha­suerus. Our safety was not yet guar­an­teed and our hap­pi­ness was not yet com­plete.

Purim teaches us to cel­e­brate ev­ery good deed and ev­ery mea­sure of re­demp­tion. Close to the Syr­ian bor­der lie As­sad’s Syr­ian army, Daesh and Hezbol­lah — all of them hos­tile to Is­rael. We can be proud that Is­rael still buses in Syr­i­ans ca­su­al­ties to its hospi­tals giv­ing them free med­i­cal treat­ment.

As Is­rael’s med­i­cal clowns don their cos­tumes and en­ter­tain our en­e­mies, they be­come not only com­pas­sion­ate car­ers, but im­por­tant agents in Ju­daism’s vi­sion of a lov­ing, peace­ful world.

Above: en­ter­tain­ing young pa­tients at the Ziv Cen­tre in Is­rael. Below: Crembo, the med­i­cal clown aka Reva Sei­del

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