'Making others laugh really helped me heal'

LISTEN: Israeli comic with COVID-19 does sick comedy for captive hotel audience

Harvard fellowship cut short, one-woman show postponed, and stricken with virus, Noam Shuster-Eliassi finds plenty to laugh about with diverse crowd of fellow patients in Jerusalem

Noam Shuster-Eliassi with corona couture. (Courtesy/ Instagram)
Noam Shuster-Eliassi with corona couture. (Courtesy/ Instagram)

Over the past year, Israeli comedienne Noam Shuster-Eliassi has gotten to perform at many different venues in the United States, from Harvard University to the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC. Yet perhaps her most unexpected stage setting was back home in Israel at Jerusalem’s Dan Hotel, where she was quarantined in April as a coronavirus patient.

Shuster-Eliassi performed two shows for her fellow patients, who included both Israelis and Palestinians. “Everyone in the hotel was thirsty for human connection, for being together, laughing,” Shuster-Eliassi told The Times of Israel.

Her material played off this theme. At one point, she wondered what a Tinder exclusively for coronavirus patients would look like. And, she reflected, “Making others laugh really helped me to heal.”

“I was one of the only comedians [during the pandemic] to have a live audience, not on Zoom,” she reflected.

This was a highlight of a challenging period for Shuster-Eliassi. It began with a flight home that interrupted a fellowship at Harvard after she decided that she preferred to be in Israel instead of the US for the coronavirus response. On that flight, she said, she caught the virus.

Shuster-Eliassi described the symptoms as agonizing, and she was treated at Jerusalem’s Hadassah Hospital before being sent to a quarantine hotel as part of the Israeli response in which non-critical condition coronavirus patients are housed in hotels across the country. She was released on April 19 after a total of two-and-a-half weeks at the hospital and hotel.

Noam Shuster-Eliassi with a health care worker at the Dan Hotel Jerusalem quarantine. (Courtesy/ Instagram)

“I’m feeling great,” she said. “I’m recovered. I’m thankful. It’s behind me.”

From her experience, Shuster-Eliassi has taken unexpected lessons. She discovered that life in a quarantine hotel unexpectedly nurtured a sense of togetherness that transcended ethnic and religious divisions. This togetherness was aided by what she described as compassionate, fair treatment from medical professionals — as well as by the humor from her shows, which included comedy in Arabic. She has documented her experiences in a video blog for Kan, and talked about them on CNN.

Shuster-Eliassi has a knack for finding humor in the most challenging situations, which she uses as a bridge between diverse audiences. It’s a skill developed in part through her own diverse life story.

The daughter of a Romanian Ashkenazi father and a Persian Mizrahi mother, Shuster-Eliassi grew up in the shared Israeli-Palestinian community of Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam. She is the first Jewish Israeli comedian to perform at the Palestine Comedy Festival in East Jerusalem, and when she proposed marriage to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as a joke, it went viral, aided by some media outlets in the Middle East that misinterpreted it as an actual proposal. Her talents received the attention of Harvard Divinity School, which awarded her a fellowship in the Religion, Conflict and Peace Initiative for this academic year.

During the fellowship, Shuster-Eliassi got to perform in Cambridge and travel across the US and beyond. She met the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala, India, and took the stage at the Kennedy Center. She described the fellowship as “amazing, a dream come true, my dream year.” She was planning a return to the Kennedy Center while working on a one-woman show called “Coexistence My Ass,” but the pandemic intervened in early March.

“I felt on the run from the US because of the bad response,” she said. “The president is a disgrace to humanity. He betrayed the American people. Usually people from the Middle East want to be in America, run to America. I felt like going back home to my family.” In Israel, she said that the coronavirus is “handled much better here.”

Less than a week after her March 22 return, she said, she developed symptoms, beginning with a fever and continuing with shivers and “lots of aches and pains. Muscle pain, stomach pain, a dry cough, my lungs were burning.”

Noam Shuster-Eliassi snaps a selfie in the hospital with COVID-19. (Courtesy/ Instagram)

“I really, really, really had it pretty bad,” Shuster-Eliassi said.

“It’s not a flu,” she said. “It’s much harsher. I would not wish it on anyone.” And, said Shuster-Eliassi, who is 33, “I tell people, even young people can feel it very strongly.”

She had been placed into quarantine after arriving home. She was treated with oxygen at Hadassah before her early April release to the Dan Hotel.

Life at the hotel had a communal aspect, with Zumba in the lobby and a Passover celebration. According to Shuster-Eliassi, the patients all received “extreme compassion and caring” from medical professionals. “It was a shock to see everybody treated the same,” she said. “It was not the same kind of hatred and division that I was used to.”

She posted on social media about befriending a Palestinian patient — a midwife who lost her husband to cancer and became a single mother of five children. Continuing her hospital work, she got the virus and was quarantined in the hotel. Shuster-Eliassi also befriended an ultra-Orthodox patient who gave birth and was separated from her newborn. She could not even see photos of her baby because she had no smartphone. However, a nurse sent photos to Shuster-Eliassi, who shared them on her own smartphone with the mother.

Shuster-Eliassi noted that she is “not trying to make it seem like a utopia,” and cited events occurring elsewhere that reflect the divisions that remain in Israeli society — “a clinic shut down in Jerusalem, ultra-Orthodox people beaten by police in poor neighborhoods.”

Yet, she said, “The experiences which I saw in the hotel were very, very special. I have not seen something like that before.”

She is back home with her parents at Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam. She has completed her Harvard fellowship remotely, and she’s reflecting on her experiences in a quarantine hotel and what they might mean for the future of Israelis and Palestinians.

“If it takes a health emergency to understand we have to take care of [each other], with the same basic treatment, I think something very good can come out of it,” Shuster-Eliassi said.

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