Clowns have an honourable part to play - and not just for Purim

In an Israeli hospital, medical clowns are trying to cheer wounded Syrian children


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 nothing 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 defuses 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.

Gideon Sylvester is the United Synagogue’s Israel Rabbi.

For more on Dream Doctors see,

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