After a first encounter with the concept of medical clowning in 2005, Leah Yerushalmi took a one-year course to become a medical clown in 2009, followed by an internship at Shaare Zedek Hospital, where she volunteered in the gynecology department, cheering up women in high-risk pregnancies or who were recovering from or awaiting surgery.
Yerushalmi now volunteers at Hadassah Hospital – Mount Scopus. She uses the “clown name” of Lulu K’Elu (“just pretending”). The name “Lulu” derives from her former first name, Louise. She was given the name Leah Yehudit (Louise Judith) Tourkin at birth in 1948; her middle name was in honor of the birth of the State of Israel the same year.
Yerushalmi uses puns, word games, quizzes, and inventive stories – each week on a different theme – to distract the patients from their worries and pain.
A natural-born clown
She attributes her interest in medical clowning to her father’s sense of humor – “he was a born entertainer” – and her mother’s devotion to her nursing profession.
Her parents met during World War II while her father was at a US Army training course in Madison, Wisconsin, where her mother worked as a registered nurse. Her mother volunteered in the US Army as an RN in Korea, while her father served as an airborne radio operator in combat in the South Pacific. They married in 1946 and settled in Washington, DC.
Medical clowning is also a conscious form of “self-therapy” for Yerushalmi, in contrast to her work at Yad Vashem, where she dealt with Holocaust documentation for many years.
Her grandparents emigrated from Eastern Europe to Baltimore and to Milwaukee in 1904 – “after the first Kishinev Pogrom.” They were Orthodox, her parents were Conservative, and she decided at age 21 to “return to her roots” and become a Religious-Zionist.
Her father worked for the Jewish National Fund in the Washington DC-Baltimore area, first as a volunteer in 1946-1948, and then as an employee from May 1948. During the Six Day War, and its aftermath, he also worked as a fund raiser for the Israel Emergency Fund until his death in mid-July 1967, following a serious illness.
“The 1967 war effort perhaps prolonged his life – due to his focus on the people of Israel during their time of distress,” Yerushalmi said.
She is one of four siblings. Her late sister, Sue Tourkin Komet, had also made aliyah. Her two brothers are staunch supporters of Israel, who flew in for a family simcha in 2014, despite Operation Protective Edge.
As a child, Yerushalmi attended public school, Sunday school, and afternoon Hebrew school on weekdays. She was a camper at Zionist, Hebrew-speaking summer camps in the US, where she was “bitten” by the “aliyah bug” at a young age.
In 1968 she was a visiting student at Hebrew University, and by 1970 a graduate student there, studying art and architectural history. She made what was then called “provisional” aliyah and received Israeli citizenship.
Early in her career, she worked at the Jewish Museum and the Yeshiva University Museum in New York City.
She has always found time to visit art museums and to attend concerts and theatrical performances in the US and Israel (other than when her children were young). She amusingly began to call herself a “culture vulture” at age 18 – “only to discover that the expression had already been invented.”
She returned to settle in Israel permanently in 1977. She has since worked as a freelance Hebrew-to-English translator; as a hi-tech office administrator; in public relations for Israeli NPOs; and (from 2007-2023) as an English-language editor and translator at Yad Vashem.
Reading, sewing, and photography are her hobbies. She has been designing and sewing her own clothing since age 22. She “inherited artistic genes” from her grandmother, a professional seamstress – and her grandfather, a skilled carpenter – and she taught herself to use a sewing machine at age 10.
Her subsequent academic studies enriched her artistic “eyesight.” Her photographs and captions often appear in The Jerusalem Post Magazine on the “Readers’ Photos” page.
She is the proud ima of four Sabras and the savta of 14 Sabras (most born in Jerusalem). Her children work in the IDF (including as a paramedic); in computer engineering; in electrical engineering; and as a project coordinator at an Israel government office that plans STEM studies for Israel’s geographic and social peripheries.
They served in the IDF, and she also volunteered in the IDF Sar-El program at an army base where equipment is replenished for IDF medical personnel serving in combat duty.
This longtime immigrant told the Magazine that she is immensely grateful for the privilege of having been able to make aliyah and to plant her and her family’s roots in Israel, similar to the JNF trees that her father helped to plant. ■
Leah Yerushalmi From DC to Jerusalem, 1970. From NYC to Jerusalem, 1977