They say laughter is the best medicine — a phrase that could have been written to describe Jonathan Zember, M.D. Zember, 36, is a pediatric radiologist at Children’s National Hospital in Washington. He’s also a stand-up comic.
What’s your radiology work like in the pandemic?
At the beginning of the pandemic, most of the surrounding hospitals closed their pediatric departments. They basically diverted all pediatrics to Children’s National Hospital so that they could focus on having COVID units separate from their regular units. Normally, we’ll see patients who are only up to 21 years old and we expanded to taking in patients who are up to 30 years old. It was really interesting watching all of these logistics play out.
There was a whole transition of us becoming more focused on telemedicine and interpreting exams remotely. I found myself as one of the few in my department who were constantly coming into the hospital. Being part of that response, I felt like, “There’s a global pandemic going on and I’m doing my part.” But now many months later, it’s exhausting. The vaccine hopefully will change things around.
What drew you to radiology?
My aunt is a musculoskeletal radiologist at NYU and she’s world famous in her field. I spent a lot of time with her when I was growing up. In high school, I had an interest in medicine and I would take the train in from Long Island to shadow her. Her colleagues spoke very highly of her and how much she impacted their careers. She never pressured me to follow her into radiology, but she encouraged me to choose a path where I would still have time to enjoy life outside of work. I went to medical school at Tel Aviv University and I explored other areas within medicine, but radiology just seemed to work well.
I’m also interested in international global health in radiology. I took a year off of medical school and I went to South America to do medical outreach. I’m passionate about global health equity and providing access to healthcare resources that have become easily available but are still not well distributed.
Tell us about your interest in stand-up comedy.
In college, I was obsessed with stand-up and I would watch tons and tons of it. During my medical school orientation, there was a talent show at the end of the two weeks. I decided to do a stand-up routine, which was just reading jokes that I had written down off of a piece of paper. It went really well. Even the dean of the medical school was like, “That was really funny.”
Then I started doing stand-up in Tel Aviv. I would go to open mics and perform shows and invite friends and family. After I finished medical school, I went back to New York City and I was doing a ton of shows.
What was the focus of your comedy routine?
My comedy evolved over time. At first I was doing observational jokes and eventually I focused on jokes about being a doctor.
I saw people who were dedicated beyond belief and who were pursuing comedy as their career. They would do five shows a night, running all over Manhattan from open mic to open mic, trying to get as much stage time as possible. As a doctor, I knew that I never would have that amount of dedication or time to devote to comedy. So I needed to find my niche, and performing comedy from a doctor’s perspective gave me that. When I would walk into open mics and see other comedians, people would say, “Oh, you’re the doctor comedian,” because there was nobody else who was doing the same jokes as me.
[I joke about] how the world relates to me as a doctor, and what the conversations are that I have with just your everyday person: “Oh, you’re a doctor, you must know everything about science. How do volcanoes work?”
What else is new?
I got married in 2020 on Tu B’Av to my wife, Dena. We decided to do a Zoom wedding. We wanted it to be small, just our immediate families on the Zoom. We had pictures taken during the day at Meridian Hill Park.
The first few months of the pandemic, it was kind of like this quiet that set over D.C. Dena and I would go on these long walks together and really get to know different neighborhoods. That peaceful time together was very special to me.
In what ways do you feel connected to Judaism?
Both of my parents are Israeli. They met in New York and had my brothers and me. I spent a lot of summers growing up going to Israel. I always wanted to live there for an extended period of time and then the option of going to medical school in Israel presented itself.
My mom was born in Baghdad and her mom — my grandmother — is an author who has written five books about the Jewish experience in Iraq. I’ve read all of her books at least twice.