Tuesday, Apr 23, 2024

Stylish Clown (Part I)

Say you were professionally employed as a clown in a big-name traveling circus. You've gone to clown school (yes, there is such a thing, though some of the people we know seem to have most of what they teach inborn in their natures), you've gotten your clown routine down pat, and you've now landed a coveted and well-paying clown job. Besides ensuring that your act is up to par, being a clown, you also want to do your utmost to make sure you look as clownish as possible, if not even funnier.

You order all the catalogs catering to the professional clown business, you visit clown shows, and you network among other well-known and well-laughed-at clowns. You learn to differentiate between plain red noses and red noses so outlandish they just make you plotz. You find out which colors of make-up to apply where, how best to apply it, where to put the white, the orange, the yellow, the black and the reds, where to make circles and where to go for the triangular affect. You buy the wackiest-looking clown suits, pom-pom hats and humongous shoes. None of this comes cheap, but you want to be at your professional best. A well-dressed clown is a well-enjoyed clown who is a well-paid clown.


Your clown associates all admire you. They know that you’ve “got the look.” All your mannerisms, one-liners and zingers attest to your having perfected the art of clowning. You clearly “get it” and have what it takes.


After one glorious act performed to rave reviews, you’re glowing inside from the compliments and recognition of every last one of your fellow clowns. Thus attired and made-up, you excitedly make your way to catch the last Maariv, looking forward to sharing the afterglow of your performance with the chevrah in shul.


Only the chevrah in shul, in fact everybody in shul, is giving you looks as if you’ve completely and totally lost your mind. Clearly, the looks you are garnering are not those of respect, but rather scorn and derision. Rather than admiring how well you “get it,” everyone here seems to feel like you’re missing a screw or perhaps the whole tool-kit.


Things come to a head when a friend approaches you and asks you straight out, “This is how you come to Maariv? In a polka-dotted jump-suit, with a big, red, foam ball on top of your nose, glasses in the shape of stop signs over your eyes, and wearing size 48½ big blue shoes?! Are you all there?”


“Am I all there?” you shout. “I am so on top of my act. It’s you guys who don’t get it. Everything that I’m wearing is the absolute latest in the industry. Everybody knows that I’m ahead of the game. I was the envy of them all until I came here. Boy are you guys behind the times!”


You’d be lucky if they let you at least daven in peace and not call the men in white coats to take you away.


Where did you go wrong? Weren’t you truly the envy of every other clown in the business? Are you ahead of the game or did you so miss the boat?


All of us understand that what happened is that you forgot where you were and confused the clown world (funny as it may be) with the real world. Ridiculous looks are great for clowns. In real life, though, they’re…ridiculous!


As crazy as the above scene seems, we, at times, seem to suffer from the same delusion as our clown friend. We see this or that item of clothing or accessory that has become the latest rage. We peruse the “professional” catalogs, browse the stores and notice what it is “everybody else” is wearing or doing. Of course, we don’t want to be left behind. Nobody wants to be the nerd, the one who missed the boat, the person who doesn’t get it. So we go out and not only do we join the fray, we try our utmost to come out somewhere on top of the pack. Indeed, we convince ourselves that we “made it” when those in the same rat race commend us, compliment us and admire us.


Then we come across an old friend, someone we knowas a good person, perhaps an old friend of our parents or a rebbi or teacher we’ve always admired. The person smiles at us, is warm to us, and seems happy to see us, yet, deep down, we feel the pity, maybe even some shock, as if the person is thinking, “Oh my. Look at this person walking about looking like a total clown. Nebach. People seem to have lost all sense nowadays.”


We bristle inside, even though the person hasn’t told us a thing. We’re so used to admiring gazes and even some fashion-worship, we have no clue how to deal with pity and surely not with ridicule. We want to shout, “Me?! You’re looking at me like I’m crazy? Hello! I am totally on top of what’s ‘in’ these days. Maybe you’re behind the times. You may not realize it, but the clown look is so ‘in’ these days. I’m the envy of all my friends. You’re just so behind the times.”


Yet, somewhere deep inside, we’ve lost our swagger and our peace of mind because an inner niggling tells us that, try as we may to convince ourselves that we’re normal and “in,” the bottom line is that we’re no different than the clown who came to shul in his clown outfit expecting the same admiration he receives out in the circus. Sure, there he was on top of his game, but which game? In clown shows, judging by clown catalogs, among clown colleagues, he’s “the man.” If he forgets, though, which world he’s immersed in and expects people to admire that same look at the grocery, at the mechanic or in shul, we pity rather than admire him.


Were he to show up to PTA in his spiffiest, funniest, most ludicrous clown outfit, pom-pom hat and humongous shoes – the same ones which garnered unstoppable giggles and rave reviews out in the circus ring – his children would be mortified and embarrassed to death rather than proud and boastful. Moreover, if we were that clown and we realized how we actually look, we’d never want to show our faces in public again.


The big question, then, is what’s really weird, what’s ridiculous, what’s not normal, and what’s simply a new style that the older generation is perhaps just not used to?


Is there even an answer to that question or is it all subjective? You think I look insane – a grown man wearing his seven-year-old sister’s socks – while I think I’m the height of fashion. You think dressing your child in a cow outfit – complete with a hat featuring cow ears, exactly the style worn up until now as a Purim costume – looks moronic, while I think it looks cute. You think you’re wife looks like a total clown walking around in a pillowcase, while I think she looks stylish.


Is there an objective truth?


Obviously, anything of a dubious nature as far as Jewish law or which demeans and objectifies its wearer is ugly and pathetic no matter how many fashionable clown stores or clown catalogs glamorize the look. We are not clowns. We should have more self respect than that. Items designed to make others look at us not as people with personalities but as objects should disgust us rather than make us proud. If we find these items admired in our circles, perhaps we’re mingling in the wrong circles. Size 48½ clown shoes are admired in circus circles as well. They do look ridiculous, though, among real people in real life.


Another thing to be wary of is anything advertised as “making a statement.” Surely, we can all think of many different styles of clothing, shoes, glasses or other accessories, all of which are different and may reflect on the personality and taste of its wearer, but none of which are “statements.” They are simply different styles, designs or looks. A “statement” usually means that we knowthat the item is out of the norm, yet we are showing our “guts” by wearing it anyway. That may be fine, but don’t blame the rest of us if we look at you with pity. After all, most people will pity any man or woman who takes a stroll down the street wearing a bright red foam ball on their nose or clown make-up, no matter how clown catalogs show it as the latest look. Does the fact that you found the exact same ludicrous look in a Parisian catalog make it any less clownish?


Obviously, there may be areas which are objective, which may look funny to one person but nice to another. In the end, most of us know ourselves – deep down where we try not to look too often – when we look weird or simply less than our best but are dressing a certain way simply because it’s the “in” look. Rather than showing how much “guts” we have to wear that look, we’re advertising to all how little guts we have to go against the ever-changing and fickle opinions of what’s “in,” even when we ourselves don’t go for that particular look or mode of behavior.


Somebody once asked Rav Dovid Orlofsky why yeshiva men all dress the same, in white shirts and dark suits. Doesn’t that suppress their self-expression and their ability to display their own unique personalities?


Rav Orlofsky’s response turned the very question on its head. “Do you mean you’re that shallow that you can only define yourself by your clothes? If you would dress the same as everybody else, you would lose your very personality? I would so pity such a person. We dress the same as everyone else for the very reason as to remove any focus on our externals so that we can bring out our true personalities and make them shine in very real and very profound ways.”


Obviously, women, being of a different nature and purpose, have more room for external expression than men. Even so, the fundamental idea remains that one’s main focus should be internal and that real self expression is smothered rather than brought out by excessive focus on the superficial. Copying everybody else, especially in cases where we ourselves know that a different look or mode of behavior is better suited to us than the one we are currently imitating, stifles our real personalities rather than allows it to shine.


So being a stylish clown – even the most stylish clown – still leaves us being a clown.  


Suppose we or one of our children decide that, well, we want to look weird or clownish. We don’t care. Is there anything wrong with that? Is it something about which parents or educators should make an issue?


We’ll examine those issues and some more, be’ezras Hashem, in part deux. Stay tuned!



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