“I was hoping for a global career, but this virus was faster than I am. So now I’m at a Corona Hotel in Jerusalem. I’m patient #3555,” says Noam Shuster-Eliassi, as she lounges on her bed.
The 32-year-old Israeli Jew who is often mistaken for a Palestinian is a standup comedian and fellow at Harvard Divinity School. She talks to me over Skype from her quarantine in a hotel in Jerusalem as she recovers from COVID-19.
“I’ll tell you all about it,” she says, as she stretches dramatically. “But first, just excuse me for a while. I have to go to the Corona Hotel Spa. Have a great day out there.”
Actually, she says, the spa isn’t open in this four-star hotel. Neither is the pool. Or the hairdressers. But, Shuster-Eliassi says, there’s something funny about everything, even about coronavirus.
“I’m the only comedian appearing in front of a live audience these days. True, my audience was in the hotel lobby, but it was live. I’m a Covidian!” she boasts. “And I’m losing weight and doing interviews, too. My friends are jealous.”
Then she is serious for a moment. “I came back from Cambridge because the Divinity School shut down, and I didn’t want to go through the pandemic alone. I wanted to come home, to my parents. But after a few days, I got really sick.
“I’ll make jokes,” Shuster-Eliassi continues, “but first, I want to say, I wouldn’t want anybody to go through what I went through. I don’t remember picking up the phone and calling the ambulance. I think I was on the floor. My parents couldn’t come near me. The ambulance took me to the hospital where they gave me oxygen for 24 hours.
“My body went through a nightmare. It didn’t feel like a flu. It felt like my body was on fire, burning on the inside. I had fever, shivers, muscle pain. My eyes were burning. And I was so exhausted, all I wanted to do was sleep. But I couldn’t because my stomach hurt, my lungs and throat were on fire. The worst was trying to take a shower even with cool water. Then there’s that feeling after a shower when your heart is beating like crazy and you can’t breathe.”
Two weeks later, her symptoms gone, she was sent to the hotel.
Israel has been repurposing hotels as quarantine facilities for patients who have been displaying mild COVID-19 symptoms or none at all or whose symptoms have subsided.
“I had all of the symptoms,” she says dramatically. “I’m the cover girl for corona. I always wanted to be a cover girl, but I didn’t think I have the build for it,” she says, stretching to her full height for the camera.
Even over Skype, Shuster-Eliassi is a presence. She’s a bit over 5 feet, 11 inches tall, and dark complexioned with deep black, wildly curly hair. She says that she’s been told to avoid heels all her life—”that’s ok, I can never find women’s shoes in my size, anyway,” she deadpans.
Shuster-Eliassi grew up in Neve Shalom, a village outside of Jerusalem founded by Israeli Jews and Israeli Palestinians who wanted to create a common community. Her father is a Romanian-born Jew, the son of Holocaust survivors. Her mother is from Iran.
“My mother has eight brothers and sisters. We call them the Muslim Brotherhood,” she says.
Both Hebrew and Arabic are spoken at Neve Shalom, and she learned Arabic so well that when then-First Lady Hillary Clinton and Sara Netanyahu visited the community during Benjamin Netanyahu’s first term as prime minister, in the 1990s, the premier’s wife said she was impressed by her spoken Hebrew. “She just thought that anyone who spoke Arabic like that couldn’t be a Jew.”
“I guess I have a flair for languages,” she says, in perfect English. “After second grade, they skipped me right into fourth grade. My father was so proud because he thought I am so smart. But the principal told him the truth. I was just too tall to be with the little kids.”
After graduating high school and serving national service in lieu of military service, she received the Sylvia and Joseph Slifka Israeli Coexistence Scholarship, awarded to two Israeli citizens, one Arab and one Jewish, to study for her BA at Brandeis University, where she majored in international relations.
During her studies, she also had an internship with a women’s organization in Rwanda, working with women who had been raped and were now HIV-positive.
“When I came to Kigali, the capital city of Rwanda, people took me to the museum commemorating the victims of the genocide. In some ways, it was like Yad Vashem. But there was also a whole room devoted to other genocides, like the Armenian Holocaust. In Israel, we haven’t dealt with that, because it’s political. I was so moved that young people there see what happened to them in Rwanda as part of a mechanism that happened in other places too, and to connect their own history to other histories.”
Returning to Israel, she worked for a UN peace organization, but she was let go when the organization closed down its operations in the region. “So I realized, I was tired of doing peace,” she says. “And peace wasn’t going anywhere, anyway. So I thought, I’m funny. I’ll do comedy. Instead of being nice, I can butcher everyone. I can make fun of everyone.”
And she was successful, invited to perform throughout the world. In 2019 she won the New Jewish Comedian of the Year in London.
Her comedy is about everything. Her identity—which she notes, is “pretty complicated”—is one of her favorite topics. Her father is Ashkenazi and her mother is Mizrahi. Her first two names suggest that she is a high-achieving Ashkenazi male. “I walk around with the name of an Ashkenazi pilot in the body of a Persian Wonder Woman,” she says.
Having worked for a UN peace organization, she makes fun of political activism, too. “You know, I care about the political causes, but I’m 32 and single, so I go to the demonstrations mainly to look for a date. And when I go to the demonstrations, the problem is that the only people who actually look like they have taken a shower are the police officers.”
She even appeared last year at a comedy festival in East Jerusalem. “The audience wasn’t too happy to see me,” she recalls. “There are about 300 Palestinians there, and they are angry that this Israeli Jew is at their comedy show. So I looked straight at them and I said, ‘Don’t worry. I’ll be here for seven minutes, not 70 years.’ That broke the ice.”
Last year, she recalls, she was approached by the Harvard Divinity School to apply for a fellowship in the Religion, Conflict and Peace Initiative. “I thought it was a joke, but I wrote an honest proposal. I would write a stand-up comedy performance, ‘Coexistence My Ass’ and I’d perform it in Hebrew, Arabic and English.
“Just imagine, a divinity school accepted me to write about coexistence and my ass,” she laughs.
The project was going well. Maz Jobrani, the Iranian-American comedian was going to produce the performance, and she was negotiating with prominent TV channels. She was invited to perform at numerous festivals and even opened for Jobrani at a performance at the Kennedy Center. “My last performance before I came home was at a women’s center in Ohio. Really??? My last show was in Ohio?!!”
Then she came back to Israel, got sick, and was sent to the Corona Hotel in Jerusalem. And now she is finding the humor even as she recuperates.
“Every minute here is funny,” she says. “There is the entire spectrum of everyone here: Arabs and Jews, people from Nazareth, Bedouins and so many different kinds of Jews.” She adds. “One day, this rabbi sat down next to me, and he started blessing me. And then a woman in a hijab came and read me passages from the Quran. Then a Persian rabbi came over and blessed me in Farsi. I guess nobody can figure me out here, either.”
Unlike the rest of the country, the residents of the hotel aren’t in lock-down. Or at least, not within the hotel. “We can do whatever we want. We’ve arranged schedules for ourselves. We play games, we listen to music, we dance, we do yoga, I do standup, we hang out, some people pray. We eat a lot.”
In some ways, she says, life in the hotel “has real advantages. We don’t have to wear masks—we can all hug and kiss each other. One day, I decided to attend a class that this very religious Jewish woman was giving. She gives instructions to young Orthodox Jewish girls before they get married. I was trying to listen. But upstairs there was a debka class, and the Zumba teacher was really loud.”
There are people here who already have tested negative, and they can leave, but they don’t want to, because they are having so much fun. When they call them to leave, they hide.
“And don’t worry, there are lots of young people here. We like to party. And since we don’t have to worry about giving the virus to each other—there’s plenty of that kind of action going on, too. And we can do it without face masks. Some of my friends want to try to sneak in.”
The food isn’t so great, she says. “It’s not like we get hotel food or anything. My mother wanted to make food for me, you know the Persian-Mizrahi kind, with lots of spices and herbs. I told her, corona wipes out your sense of taste, so she might as well take a break and let my father cook.”
Shuster-Eliassi becomes serious for a moment. “There is something about this extreme situation brought out of people things that I haven’t seen before. There’s a nurse here, a Palestinian from East Jerusalem. Her husband died about a month ago from cancer. But she didn’t want to stay home and mourn when the situation is so critical. So she went back to work and got the virus. Now she’s here.
“I’ve developed so much cynicism, and I use my cynicism for my humor. But here I’m seeing compassion and caring that I don’t remember seeing ever. I can’t look for problems where they don’t exist, so I’ve allowed myself for once to just see the good while it’s here and hope we take some of it with us when this is all over
“Oh, dear. I’m going to become soft. Please send me your negative vibes,” she fake-pleads.