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 yoyotheclown.net, 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.