Doctor Clown Healer
12/17/08
Staff Writer
The most memorable incident in the life of 16-year-old Oopsie took place last year in a stranger’s hospital room in Israel. Oopsie is the non-de-plume of Zachy Adler, a yeshiva high school student from Woodmere, L.I., who, as a clown outfitted with makeup, red foam-rubber nose and floppy ears, entertains kids in hospitals and senior citizens in nursing homes in both Israel and the United States. Visiting Tel Aviv’s Tel HaShomer Hospital with a group of fellow young clowns from the New York area, he noticed a sad-looking girl sitting alone in an open room. She had little hair. She probably had cancer, Oopsie says. He invited himself into her room, did some shtick, and started talking in gibberish nonsense sentences, a clown’s language of choice." By the time Oopsie left the girl’s room five minutes later, “she was smiling.” She was laughing. She was wearing an ersatz red nose, a gift from Oopsie. That, says Oopsie, is why he loves clowning. Dr. Neal Goldberg understands. Oopsie is one of Dr. Neal Goldberg’s kids. Not one of Goldberg’s flesh-and-blood children, but one of the 150 youngsters — teens and college-age young adults — he has trained over the last five years in the fine art of purposeful buffoonery. A clinical psychologist by training and clown by inclination, Goldberg is the founder of Lev Leytzan: The Compassionate Clown Alley, a Lawrence, L.I.-based organization with a dual name and a single purpose: to train the next generation of therapeutic clowns. Think Patch Adams, the famous clown-doctor played by Robin Williams in the popular 1998 film. The graduates of his intensive training sessions, which feature how-to clown instruction and magic lessons and infection-avoidance tips and hospital protocol advice, make weekly visits to local institutions and private homes, taking the minds of the infirm off their infirmities. For the hospitalized kids and the institutionalized seniors, the point isn’t necessarily laughs, but distraction. “We’re not performers. We don’t try to make people laugh,” Goldberg says. For the members of his clown troupe, some of them at-risk teens, some regular adolescents, the point is to bring them outside themselves, to teach them to give, which frequently includes teaching fire prevention and safety. Behind their clowns’ masks, often-inhibited teenagers find their true personalities. “There is room for self-expression,” for acting silly, for being compassionate, for experimenting with a new way of relating to others, Goldberg says. He understands. In real life, he’s a shy, deferential, 40-year-old suit-and-tie professional with degrees from Fordham University and the Advanced Institute for Analytic Psychotherapy. As Schnookums or Scoop, his clown names, he’s a kid at heart, a cut up who has taken professional clowning lessons. “My clown personality is nothing like my real personality,” he says. The real Goldberg, author of  “Saying Goodbye: Dealing with Loss and Mourning” (Targum Press, 2004),” a handbook he co-wrote with social worker Miriam Lieberman, is passionate about the psychological health of teens. That’s why he started Lev Leytzan, Hebrew for the heart of a clown.  He pays a lot of the expenses for the independent organization (levleytzan.org) from his own pocket.  After learning the craft of clowning, he realized that it could help both the clown and the audience. “I realized that this is powerful. This is God’s work.” Every year at Chanukah, Goldberg, who is Modern Orthodox, takes some of his young clowns, about a dozen teenage boys and girls from area yeshivot and day schools, to Israel for 10 days of visits to hospital wards around the country, to nursing homes, to rehabilitation centers, to “lots and lots and lots” of private homes. This December, for the first time, the itinerary will include a preliminary visit to Germany, a few days at a retirement home in Munich for aging Holocaust survivors. Every year, joined by his graduate clowns who are studying at Israeli yeshivot and seminaries, the teens do their chesed, passing out toys and good cheer, for Jews and Arabs. “We don’t discriminate.” Every year, the kids return inspired. Goldberg’s favorite story: Riding on the Lev Leytzan van, he received a phone call. Could some of the clowns visit a home in Mea Shearim when they returned to Jerusalem late that night? He agreed. At midnight he took a couple of his girls to a haredi family. The daughter, 11, was terminally ill, in bed. “Everyone was crying. Everyone was happy to see us.” The family invited the whole group, including 17 kids outside in the van, into the small apartment. Goldberg and the clowns went into the daughter’s room. They sang and danced. The girl smiled, and outside her room “there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.” Then Goldberg and the clowns returned to the family. Behind them, the daughter, weakened by her illness, crawled out. “She hasn’t gotten out of bed in months and months and months,” the mother told Goldberg. The daughter wished the visitors a whispered “Chag Sameach,” happy holiday, for Chanukah. Two days later the daughter died. The Lev Leytzan group was invited to the funeral. “The family hugged us,” Goldberg says. “They couldn’t stop hugging us. They thanked us.” The clowns’ visit, they said, had given the daughter some joy in her final days. “They had not seen her smile in the longest time. “We couldn’t stop crying,” he says. “There is,” Goldberg says, “a lot of crying in this. “I can’t imagine my life without this program,” Goldberg says. Without him, says Oopsie, the program “would be nothing. He cares so much. He puts so much devotion and love into every detail. He takes it very seriously.” Susan Schnerb, director of therapeutic recreation at the Dry Harbor Nursing Home in Middle Village, Queens, says the elderly residents look forward to the teens’ monthly visits. They put fliers for the clowns’ visits and the clowns’ pictures on their bulletin boards. “They become animated when the clowns come. It brings back memories for them.” Oopsie says his three years in Lev Leytzan have changed his life. He feels more confident, more sensitive now, he says. When he goes to college in a few years, he is thinking of majoring in psychology or something “in the medical field. “From the clowning you see everything in a whole different light,” Oopsie says. You don’t take gifts like health for granted. He keeps in mind the sick girl in Tel Aviv. “It’s a lasting memory,” he says. “This is a memory that will last my whole life.”

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12/08/2009 - 12:10

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