Jewish Journal

The Healing Power of Laughter

David Barashi (“Dush”) and Rotem Goldenberg (“Fruma”) with 10-year-old Emi at UCLA Mattel Children’s hospital. Photo by Pedro Espinosa

Ivy, a 2-year-old boy at UCLA Mattel Children’s Hospital, is dressed in hospital-issue pajamas covered with images of cute teddy bears. Wires and tubes run from underneath his pj’s to two IV poles. He’s quietly playing with his aide in a playroom when a strange man and woman wearing brightly colored outfits and red noses enter.

Ivy looks up, frowns and huddles closer to his aide. The strangers remain undaunted. They’re used to such a reaction. They are professional medical clowns on a mission to make the lives of hospital patients more bearable.

The clowns are “Dush” and “Fruma” (real names David Barashi and Rotem Goldenberg, respectively). They’re here visiting from Israel for 10 days as part of the “I Clown You” project, which centers around a documentary film being made about clowns who work in Israeli hospitals. The film depicts clowning as an art of making human connections, even amid the country’s conflicts.

To engage Ivy, Dush and Fruma launch enthusiastically into a frenzy of gibberish, picking up toys and pulling little props and tricks from their bags — including a small kazoo to make the sound of a toy helicopter “flying” straight into one of the IV poles.

The routine works. Within five minutes Ivy is laughing, smiling and sharing his toys with the duo. And by the time Dush and Fruma have to wave goodbye and step out of the room (backward and in slow motion), Ivy is waving back.

Up on the children’s ward, the clowns spend 90 minutes improvising and connecting with several patients — all of whom have chronic, medically fragile conditions that range from transplant recovery to multiple gastrointestinal problems.

They continue their extraordinary ability to engage even the most reticent patients, including 10-year-old Emi and 20-year-old Amelia, who can’t help but crack a smile when Dush and Fruma insist on calling her a “mermelaid” (mermaid). By the end of their visit, Amelia — who has been treated here for years but will be required to get care at a hospital for adults when she turns 21 — is laughing and taking selfies with the pair.

Dush and Fruma are here thanks to the efforts of Sasha Kapustina, a documentary filmmaker, originally from Moscow, who now lives in Los Angeles. She and her filmmaking partner Masha Tishkova, who is based in Israel, have spent the past five years creating the documentary.

When seeking funding to edit the project, Kapustina said, she made the rounds to potential donors around L.A. “Last year, I went knocking on doors and I got a lot of ‘Thank you but no thank yous.’ ”

Then, she contacted Rabbi David Wolpe at Sinai Temple in Westwood. Not only did Wolpe embrace Kapustina’s project, he introduced her to his congregation, which led to Sinai Temple’s Men’s Club offering to bring the clowns to Los Angeles. Further financial support for their visit was obtained from the UCLA Nazarian Center for Israel Studies, the USC School of Dramatic Arts, the USC School of Drama, Los Angeles Children’s Hospital, American Jewish University and the UCLA children’s hospital.

During their trip, Dush and Fruma attended a series of events, gave lectures, made hospital visits and led workshops and seminars on the importance of medical clowning.

“In Israel, we have 29 hospitals and 100 professional medical clowns throughout the country and we are very much part of the medical team,” said 41-year-old Barashi, who has been clowning since he was 14. He was among the first clowns to be part of the “Dream Doctor” project, founded in 2002 to make medical clowning an integral part of hospital treatment in Israel.

Goldenberg, 34, has been with the Dream Doctors for the past six years. Both she and Barashi traveled to Nepal to help in the aftermath of its 2015 earthquake. Barashi has spent over 20 years working in hospitals and disaster areas — in Israel, Nepal, Haiti and Uganda; with children and adults experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder; and with AIDS patients.
Kapustina said she was thrilled that Barashi and Goldenberg’s visit and her documentary could expose more Americans to the power of medical clowning. “In America, many people are scared of clowns,” she said. “But this isn’t about white face and being scary. They don’t do ‘shtick.’ ”

At the UCLA children’s hospital, Child Care Life Director Kelli Carroll is trying to control her giggles in the hallway outside 20-year-old Jazmin’s room as Dush and Fruma work their magic. Carroll said she has wanted to start a medical clowning project for a long time. “There are few hospitals that do it [in America] and I’d love for us to have one, but we need funding for it.”

“The clown doesn’t see the social, psychological and sometimes even physical walls. He reaches past them to the human essence.” — Sasha Kapustina

For Kapustina, creating a documentary about the medical clowns was serendipitous. After she and Tishkova made aliyah in 2010, they wanted to make a documentary about life in Israel.

“We thought a hospital would be a good place to look at,” Kapustina said. “It’s a place where people put unimportant things aside and humanity is the most important thing. Plus, there’s the life-and-death stakes. Then we realized it’s also one of the few places where Arabs and Jews work together.”

Shortly after their decision to film in hospitals, Tishkova literally ran into Barashi in a hallway of Jerusalem’s Hadassah Ein Kerem hospital, where he is the resident medical clown.

“And the rest is history,” Barashi said.

In the spirit of bringing people together, the “I Clown You” film is being produced in four languages: Hebrew, Arabic, English and, yes, … gibberish.

Kapustina and Tishkova hope to complete the documentary for release in 2018, but they are still raising funds through a Kickstarter campaign at iclownyoudoc.com.

As Kapustina states in her promotion notes for the film, “The clown doesn’t see the social, psychological and sometimes even physical walls. He reaches past them to the human essence. When medical clowns work with patients, they focus on their healthy side. They don’t ignore the sick side, but all the empowerment goes to the healthy side so that it can take over. Following their lead, we are focusing on the healthy side of the world, the humanist side.”

Just as Dush and Fruma are getting ready to leave the UCLA children’s hospital, Ivy returns to his room on the ward in a little red wagon pulled by his aide. As a nurse picks him up and plops him into bed, he sees the clowns. His eyes widen. Almost instinctively, the clowns launch back into a patter of gibberish and wave, smile and blow kisses.

Ivy grins and waves back.