Math wiz clowns around to ‘serve God with joy’

Yehuda Braunstein always knew he wanted to be a clown.

Not a class clown — the kind who makes trouble in school and gets thrown out of class (although he did like to walk into walls) — but an actual clown.

“As a kid, I went to Ringling Bros. circus, and they had a parade, and they pulled kids into the parade — I thought clowns were so cool; they’re funny, and I like to horse around.”

Braunstein wasn’t one of those kids whose childhood aspirations (to be a fireman, astronaut, actor) never came true. Even though he studied to be a mathematician at MIT and earned a doctorate at UC San Diego, and he also became religiously observant — a ba’al teshuvah, through Chabad. Now, at 39, he’s a mathematician, an active Chabad member — and a clown.

YoYo the Clown, to be precise. One of the world’s few frum clowns. (Not to be confused with the owner of the Web site, who is a “Clown for Christ” in Georgia.)

Braunstein even looks like a clown, or a religious clown in nerd’s clothing. In his civvies, he has a long, scraggly beard with errant strands of gray, and he puts his roly-poly body into a short-sleeved, checked engineer shirt.

But when he becomes YoYo, he dons a wig, a nose, full costume and, depending whether his audience is religious, secular or non-Jewish, he might roll up his beard and paint it to match his wig to become YoYo.

But don’t call him YoYo, especially if you’re not a kid: “Hello, this is Yehuda Braunstein calling for YoYo the clown,” is how he puts it on the telephone when introducing his alter ego.

“My rabbi says that I’m more than just a clown,” Braunstein said. “I’m a parent [of three kids], a mathematician [consultant] and a member of the shul [Chabad of the West Hills],” he said.

His rabbi plays a big role in his life.

For example, he explained, “My rabbi said I’m not allowed to do magic. Only God can do magic.”

It wasn’t a big deal to him to refrain from doing clown magic tricks, like changing a scarf’s color, because “I was never really good at magic,” Braunstein said.

What he is good at is other clown-foolery, like balloon-making, face-painting, bubble-blowing, parachute games — all of which he learned while apprenticing as a clown while he was a grad student at UCSD.

He was out with friends at an all-you-can-eat buffet (this was before he was kosher), and he noticed a clown going to all the tables but the one where he and his friends were sitting. He called Sparkles over and realized she worked for tips, so she avoided students and focused on kids. But she got him six-month’s training with her company, and a clown was born.

Around this same time, he started to become interested in his Judaism. It was Purim, actually, the most clownish of all Jewish holidays, when the world is turned upside down, and people dress up and are commanded to be merry.

“Purim got in my heart at a very young age,” he explained. When he was a child, his Reform congregation in the Valley brought in the local Chabad to run Purim. They gave each kid a mishloah manot package, the customary food treats one is meant to give to two people on the holiday, “and in it were two pennies to give tzedakah after the megillah reading,” he said, referring to the custom of giving charity after reading the Book of Esther.

“To this day, I give two pennies in my mishloah manot,” he said.

Braunstein had fallen away from Judaism until he got to grad school, when he saw a flier for — what else? — a Purim megillah reading being given by Chabad.

Slowly he returned to his faith and became observant. Now divorced, with three kids, he has managed to balance clowning with a religious life — they fit together, he said.

“Ibdu et Hashem Vsimcha,” his business cards say in Hebrew, quoting the Psalms passage, “Serve God with joy.”

Braunstein said that people look at observance differently, through the lens of mussar (morality or obligation) and through the Chasidic viewpoint: “Do I have to do this mitzvah, or am I lucky to get to do this mitzvah?”

Braunstein feels this way about being a clown and making people happy. “I help people enjoy their simchas [events] with happiness and joy,” he said.

He performs about once a month at birthday parties, upfsherin (cutting of the hair at age 3), weddings and shul events — especially on Chanukah and Purim.

“I help everything become more leibedik,” he said, using the Yiddish word for festive.

“Get their attention and make them laugh,” is his motto. “Get them in the mood, trip, honk the horn, pretend to shake hands” and other silly behavior, and you will disarm a kid.

Are children ever scared of him?

“Kids are afraid of clowns until they find a toy they like — as soon as I do bubbles, they’re interested,” he said.

In Jewish circles, they’re less afraid of him, especially when they see his beard.

“Oh, you’re a tatti clown,” a kid might say, using the word for father.

He is proud to be a religious clown.

“It’s good [for people] to see there are frum clowns, that not every frum Jew has to be a rabbi or teacher,” he said. “It’s also good to be proud of one’s Jewishness in the outside world.”

While his work in mathematics may be difficult, clowning is simple. “I just like to see smiles,” he said. “There’s enough shuts going on in the world,” he said, using the Yiddish phrase for stupidity. “We need happiness to counteract it.”

YoYo the clown will perform on Purim night, Thursday, March 20, at Chabad of West Hills, and on Friday at Chabad of Brentwood. For more information call (818) 970-0013.

Eulogies: Dr. Robert W. Brooks

Dr. Robert W. Brooks, an interna-tionally renowned mathematician who made aliyah with his family from Los Angeles in 1995, died of a heart attack on Sept. 5, at the age of 49.

A native of Washington, D.C., he earned his doctorate degree from Harvard in differential geometry in 1977, taught at the University of Maryland from 1979 to 1984 and, after a year-long research fellowship at the Courant Institute of New York University, was appointed a professor of mathematics at USC.

Brooks was acknowledged interna-tionally as an expert in his field, which was primarily theoretical, but yielded practical applications in physics and computers.

During his 10 years in Los Angeles, Brooks and his wife, Dr. Sharon Schwartz-Brooks, a Kaiser West Los Angeles physician, had been founding members of a minyan at Congregation Beth Jacob, as well as active members of Young Israel of Century City, Young Israel of Beverly Hills and Congregation B’nai David-Judea.

In 1995, Brooks took a position as tenured professor at the Technion Institute in Haifa. His many awards and honors included an Alfred P. Sloan fellowship, a Fulbright senior fellowship, a Guastella fellowship and Technion’s Taub Prize for Excellence in Research.

In addition to his wife, Brooks is survived by his children, Simon, Tova, Isaac and Meir; parents, David and Harriet; and sisters, Betsy and Renana.

— David Margolis, Contributing Writer

Nash Denies Anti-Semitism

John Forbes Nash, the brilliant mathematician whose life is portrayed in the Oscar-nominated movie, "A Beautiful Mind," has denied allegations that he hates Jews, during a March 17 interview with Mike Wallace on "60 Minutes."

"Everyone with whom I have talked to who knows John, everyone says ‘no, he didn’t feel that way about Jews at all,’" Wallace said.

Nash’s wife, Alicia, who has known her husband for more than 50 years, agreed that, "I never heard him say anything like that."

As the bitterly contested Oscar race enters the home stretch, with winners to be announced March 24, the allegations of Nash’s anti-Semitism and homosexual liaisons — the latter also denied — have become a cause celebré in Hollywood. Among those who have rushed to the defense of Nash and the movie’s integrity has been New York Times reporter and Columbia University journalism teacher Sylvia Nasar, author of the Nash biography, who noted that Nash’s most ardent champions have been Israeli and Jewish American mathematicians.

Debunking the Bible Codes

A Caltech mathematician and a leading Orthodox educational institution teamed up recently to turn up the heat on a simmering controversy over what they say is a scientifically and religiously suspect tool used by Jewish outreach organizations — the Bible codes.

Aish HaTorah, a Jerusalem-based outreach organization with offices and branches worldwide, stands by its use of the codes, saying that while some have been found to be insignificant, other key codes withstand scientific scrutiny.

Popularized a few years ago by the publication of Michael Drosnin’s “The Bible Codes” and utilized for years by Aish HaTorah, the codes are purported to uncover encrypted messages in the Bible that allude to historical events thousands of years before they happen.

By counting letters at specific intervals, researchers claim to have found a divinely encoded subtext in the Hebrew Bible on such subjects as the Holocaust and modern Jewish thinkers. Aish HaTorah’s Discovery Seminars, one- or two-day crash courses that set out to prove the existence of God and the authenticity of Judaism, use the clusters of related words found in the text to prove the Divine authorship of the Torah,

Now, Barry Simon, head of the Caltech mathematics department and an Orthodox Jew, says that he has found similar word clusters alluding to Chanukah, the death of Princess Diana, and the Lincoln and Kennedy assassinations. But Simon’s clusters appear in such works as Tolstoy’s “War and Peace,” Melville’s “Moby Dick” and the Unabomber manifesto.