When Gershon Resnik visits Israel, he feels a little bit like a rock star.
A car is sent for him, and he is met by important Israeli community leaders and mobbed by adoring fans who scream with delight the moment he strides onstage.
Such is the life of a Jewish clown.
Resnik — aka Buffo the Clown — has been going back and forth to Israel from his home in New York for years. “I would entertain 1,400 kids, doing different areas,” Resnik told the Forward. “Everyone would want to get onstage at the same time,” he noted. “You felt like Bob Hope in Gush Etzion.”
As Buffo, Resnik juggles on stilts, speaks to the kids in fake Italian and makes a human dreidel out of volunteers from the audience. One would think that Resnik is an anomaly; when people think about Jewish comedy, they think of Woody Allen or Mel Brooks or Jerry Seinfeld, or perhaps Borscht Belt comedians. But clowns?
In fact, there are many clowns out there who make being Jewish a big part of their act.
Yahoo maintains an Internet chat group called J-Clown (http://groups.yahoo.com/group/J-CLOWN), where Jewish clowns from around the country swap business secrets, such as where to get the best balloons and floppy shoes, or how to incorporate Jewish themes into magic tricks. Kim Bayne, who goes by the stage name Raspberry Hamentashen when she performs with her husband, Bruce, and daughter, Kaitlyn, moderates the online forum.
A clever clown doesn’t have to work too hard to incorporate the Jewish elements into an act, Bayne told the Forward. “You can do a Star of David balloon. It takes two balloons, done out of triangles.”
Being a Jewish clown isn’t just about Jewish themes, though. Sometimes it’s about timing. Bayne recalled a special Star of David hat she once created for a rabbi, placing it on his head: “We took a picture, but we took the picture on Shabbat.” The rabbi was not amused.
Clowning “goes back to the Talmud,” health specialist/clown Myra Shoub Nelson said. “There was a story that there were two rabbis who were walking down the street, and they see two jugglers making fun of people; one of the rabbis says, ‘Who are these people?’ The other one answers, ‘They’re clowns — they make sad people happy and make peace between people.’”
The tradition has been alive and well ever since. Throughout the Middle Ages, clowning was found in the figure of the badchen, the wedding jester. Today, Jews have become some of the most recognized clowns throughout the world. (Some are clowns without greasepaint — think Jerry Lewis.)
Perhaps the most famous Jewish clown in the world is the moody, booze-swilling kiddie show host, Krusty the Clown, on the TV show “The Simpsons.” Krusty’s life as both a Jew and a clown has had its bumps over the years; when his father — an Orthodox rabbi — discovered Krusty locked in the bathroom, spraying himself with seltzer, it was the first step to their estrangement. (“Pie is for noshing, not for throwing,” the rabbi admonished.) But after father and son were reconciled, Krusty went on to embrace his clown/Jewish loyalties, even if Krusty still isn’t what anyone would call a model Jew.
While television’s favorite cartoon clown is out for big laughs and big money, however, Jewish clowns in real life are often seeking something else.
Mitzvah Clowns, a group organized through Congregation B’nai Israel in Millburn, N.J., teaches people how to do good deeds through clowning. Participants make a serious effort to have clowns visit hospitals and old-age homes to try to spread joy.
Mitzvah Clowns has trained hundreds — if not thousands — of professional and amateur Jewish clowns. “We figure we’ve [trained] about 1,200 people around the country in the last eight to 10 years,” said Andrea Hirschfeld, who works with Mitzvah Clowns. “We also started [Florida] branches in Jacksonville and Miami Beach, and there are many places in New Jersey [where people we’ve trained] run their own training sessions.”
Hospital clowning, as it’s called, is not something to be taken lightly. Clowns who learn Mitzvah Clowning learn real bedside manners. (No, you can’t burst into a child’s room honking your horn, and spraying the kid with seltzer.) But Mitzvah Clowning has spread itself over many other venues, as well.
“I went to Ethiopia with the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry,” Hirschfeld said. “We went to the compounds in Ethiopia for Jews who are still waiting to go to Israel.” The Ethiopian children never had seen a clown before. “We had to explain clowns, Jewishly,” Hirschfeld said, “even though there’s no word [for clown] in Amharic.”
The children loved what they saw; the clowns spent the rest of their time miming and playing with them.
Some Jewish clowns spend time training — somewhat ironically — with organizations for Christian clowns.
“There’s a very huge Christian clowning movement,” Bayne said. “A lot of churches have Clowning 4 Christ or Gospel Clowns.”
These Christian clowns are basically missionaries in greasepaint who carry balloons. But they’re missionaries who have a few things to teach their Jewish counterparts.
Clowning 4 Christ is a ministry run by a husband-and-wife duo, Tony and Nikki Jones, professional clowns who started doing missionary work in 1999. Their ministry consists of seminars, camps and training sessions, and since they started, the Joneses estimate that thousands have come through their doors to learn how to hone their act in order to teach children and adults about God. The Joneses have crafted their routine over the years so that Nikki plays Abbott to Tony’s goofy Costello. “I play the dummy,” Tony said. “My wife’s the smart one.” Tony asks the dumb questions, and Nikki patiently explains the various gospel truths.
Jewish clowns are among the Joneses’ students, and they are there not so much to learn about Jesus as to learn how to combine religious messages with their routines. “They’ll just do it without Jesus,” Tony said.
Bayne has been to gospel clowning workshops at various conventions, and said that a bit of “mental translation” is required for Jewish clowns: “They’d be talking about Jesus, and I’d be thinking about Moses.”
No matter how much laughter they bring to people’s lives, or what deeper messages they try to impart, however, the life of a clown is not all sunshine and lollipops.
“You don’t get any respect as a clown,” Bayne said, “and as a Jewish clown, well, you get no respect…. Teens have clown phobias. Kids, anyone over 10, are not appreciative. There’s a lot of stomping on feet.”
Bayne and her daughter, Kaitlyn, were once on their way home from a gig when they decided to stop off at a Little Caesars pizzeria, still in their work getup. They pulled up their car next to a young man listening to gangsta rap music. Bayne suddenly felt the infectious happiness of being in costume; she waved at the sullen man.
He answered her with his middle finger.
“I thought, ‘Oh, my god — that’s the best he’s got?’” Bayne said.
Bayne immediately started the uncontrollable — and in some cases unnerving — laughter of a clown. “He had this mean look in his eyes,” Bayne recalled. But that didn’t stop her. She continued laughing — and as she did, Kaitlyn slunk deeper into her chair and locked the car doors.
The man’s anger did not abate. But Bayne refused to back down. She laughed and laughed and laughed some more. Her daughter was near tears, convinced that the two of them would be murdered — the idea of being taken to the hospital in costume almost too much to bear.
As it turns out, Bayne’s will was stronger. “After two or three minutes, he cracked a smile,” she recalled. “He realized the absurdity of the situation.”