Making Judaism magical

Linda “Rainbow” Levine’s magic bag can change fears into Hershey’s Kisses or quotes into Torah passages. But on this particular Sunday, she promises to turn five pennies into one nickel. An eager crowd of all ages at the Jewish Community Library in San Francisco tries its hand at the basic tricks of how to be a Jewish clown.

“Abracadabra! Hocus-pocus! Uff!” The participants chant in unison. And with a dramatic gesture each clown-in-training pulls a nickel from his or her bag.

Rainbow can juggle dreidels and make latkes disappear. But more importantly she believes in teaching Jewish education and values through magic and clowning. “There is a spiritual overlay to being a clown. In college my clown partner was a Quaker. Our clowning wasn’t just about throwing confetti, but about touching people’s live and bringing spirituality to people’s lives. I believe in humor and empowering kids,” she says.

Dressed in “white face,” baggy clown pants and matching suspenders and tie, Rainbow’s “informance” is a round-up of basic clowning skills. The group learns how to make a nose beep, disappear a scarf, juggle, face paint, mime and twist balloons into dogs and hummingbirds. With these fundamental tricks participants will be on their way toward full-fledged clowning at parties, Purim carnivals, hospitals or community centers.

That’s why Linda Rothfield of San Francisco is at Levine’s “How to be a Jewish Clown” workshop. Six years ago her newborn niece was rushed from Israel to New York for emergency heart surgery. While in the hospital a troupe of clowns entertained for the patients and their families. Since then, Rothfield has been inspired to clown in her community.

“Like what Rainbow said, it is important to give back. That’s very Jewish. Having relatives in Israel, I know what it is like when people deal with pain. Kids should stay kids for as long as they can,” Rothfield explains after a successful first go at juggling.

Levine shares her clown wisdom with the group, including the advice that clowning isn’t for everyone. “Developmentally, 2- to 3-year-olds don’t like clowns. Adults are supposed to be reliable, logical providers, not funny, playful and loud. It is difficult when parents thrust children at me, and I know how to approach kids in that age group.”

Six-year-old Regina Savelyev from San Mateo is in the perfect age group to be fascinated with clowns. “I love clowns because they’re funny,” she says as she adds a second heart to her already fully painted face.

Levine was only seven years older than Regina when she discovered clowning was her life calling. At 42 years old, Levine has been both clowning and working in the Jewish community for more than 25 years. She got her start at 13 with a mime troupe in Cincinnati, and she has performed across Europe and the United States for Jewish community centers, preschools, hospital audiences, the deaf and disabled community, and the governor of Indiana.

As a professor of recreation and leisure studies at San Jose State, she teaches her students how to create a “meaningful life,” including spiritual issues and clowning. A recipient of a Helen and Sanford Diller Award, administered by the Jewish Community Endowment Fund, she is the head of family education at Congregation Shir Hadash in Los Gatos.

She also runs motivational workshops and training programs for conferences and corporations, and has a Web site,

Susan Blank didn’t come to Levine’s workshop with the idea of becoming a clown. But she lives in the neighborhood and thought it might be an interesting way to spend her afternoon. At the conclusion, she admits that she could see herself using some of her new skills at a Purim festival.

Holding up a first-try at a balloon dog, Blank laughs. “It is a new species of dog,” she jokes. “Sometimes things are fun just because they’re fun.”