Autobiography, Memoir, Personal Essays

Tikkun Olam

The next installment of my autobiography is part two of the story of my faith and how it relates to my profession. Be sure to check out part one here, and pop back into the blog on Fridays for more chapters from my ongoing project!

Five years ago, when I was 73, I “sort of” retired. Or should I say I was forced out of practice because I couldn’t type fast enough. This was okay with me, except for how it was done. “You’re fired, but tell your patients you’re retiring,” said the corporate mouthpiece doctor-turned-turncoat. I told my patients I was fired and started a firestorm. Never mind that I had other fish to fry before I either died or suffered incapacitation—which would mean being as good as dead. I had dropped out of medicine on two previous occasions in my life, and it had always been fine. I knew, at least, that I wouldn’t end up stalking ghetto streets, snapping photos of “real life” in the urban underbelly with my $20,000 hobby camera, or taking high-minded elder courses while cruising the ancient culture-littered Mediterranean with other like-minded seniors, overindulging in excessive gluttony, getting soused on gourmet wines while chattering away about what money can’t buy, time left on planet earth. How about a cruise called The River Styx Misadventure for Seniors.

I had no time for all that: I had to complete the never-ending and die in the saddle, chasing down the enigmatic in me and in the idiosyncratic, marvelous universe.

Four years before, I was solicited for a donation by the American Jewish World Service (AJWS). Its mission: “Supporting community-based organizations in countries in the developing world and to educate the American Jewish community about global justice.” Its goal: “Ending poverty and promoting human rights in the developing world.” The organization’s Jewish underpinning was the phrase “Tikkun Olam.” As usual in Judaism, it’s a concept that dates back a couple of thousand years and has been chewed on by scholars and madmen, eventually reaching a point where its meaning could become whatever you want it to be. What I wanted Tikkun Olam to stand for was the core Jewish pillar, the promotion of good deeds (mitzvahs), not only among Jewish brethren but among all humans.

The AJWS seemed right on with its message, and, low-and-behold, I had a revelation when they contacted me. Wasn’t I blindly, intuitively following my nose and making career choices that added up to Tikkun Olam? What I saw as haphazard decisions that eventually turned out okay were really being guided all along by an unwavering belief in Tikkun Olam that had been embedded in me by a few glances and a few words when I was 2.5-years-old. That was when I first met Dr. Gabriel Kirschenbaum, the man who inspired me to become a doctor. Later, my drive to serve was pushed along by my friendship with another crusader, Marshall Engstrom. Both he and Kirschenbaum were saints of Tikkun Olam, physically big and heavenly bent. Yes, there was a key role for those who served by carrying out the Jewish ritual, endlessly studying Jewish teachings, and then there were those who carried out the meat and potatoes of the chosen people’s mission.

My first working arrangement as a physician came about after I finished my residency at the University of Minnesota Hospitals in 1970. I had been given a Berry Plan deferral, a chance to finish my medical education in trade for a three-year assignment as a medical officer in the Air Force. At least I wouldn’t be on the frontline in Vietnam as a foot soldier, for which I was thankful. Then, two months before my active duty was to commence, the Air Force responded to a letter I sent from my dermatologist making them aware that I had “wide spread, chronic, incurable psoriasis.” This disqualified me from active duty.

I now faced a decision I had made no plans to deal with. How was I going to earn a living? I didn’t want to stay in Minneapolis or the Midwest. Should I go back to the Bay Area, where I had spent two years in residency training, and seek work? Or should I head back to familiar childhood territory and return to New York City where my family lived? Unable to choose, I sought itinerant work in Minnesota, hoping to buy myself the time to decide. That is when I ran into Marshall Engstrom. Marshall was out recruiting doctors to work at a small, out-of-the-way hospital in Onamia, Minnesota, where he was the administrator. The hospital was 100 miles north of Minneapolis and run by Franciscan nuns whose sister house was in the nearby town of Little Falls. It was an invitation to work on Mars for all I could make of it.

I drove to Onamia to meet with Marshall and the town’s doctors. The trip became rural rather quickly, with occasional farms, rolling hills, and pastureland broken up by forests and lakes. The town of Onamia was right off the highway and the first structure of note was a shuttered railroad station. The town itself was made up of a three block, barely-alive downtown that was dotted with mostly one-story buildings. The hospital was on the far side of town. It faced the auspicious Crosier father’s seminary and bordered Lake Onamia, a shallow, weedy body of water that actually was a bulge in the Rum River as it headed south to join the Mississippi, some 70 miles away.

Marshall was a tall bachelor, modestly portly and ruddily completed, with an effusive, outgoing enthusiasm. He had previously been a court reporter, but it was obvious that a more people-oriented occupation was much more to his liking. He was self-taught in hospital administration, after which he passed the equivalency testing to get his license. His name and his physical appearance suggested a Swedish heritage, but his temperament was hot-blooded, more Mediterranean. He spoke passionately about the impoverishment of the local community and its chronic lack of sufficient doctors. Most would leave town after one to two years. Worse yet was the state of the Ojibwe Reservation in nearby Vineland on Mille Lacs Lake. Marshall told me how the reservation was made up of tarpaper shacks and how alcohol had despoiled so many of the tribes’ men. He essentially asked me to join him and the volunteer nuns on their mission to serve mankind as it was in Onamia. I did.

I worked as an itinerant internist at the hospital for one year, seeing consults referred to me by the three general practitioners who had their clinic in Onamia. During that time, Marshall and I became close. I would spend two days a week at the hospital, then stay overnight at his family home on the very broad, shallow Mille Lacs Lake, famous for its abundant walleye. Marshall lived alone and so when I stayed at his house he and I would go for dinner at the Blue Goose—a former speakeasy restaurant at one time owned by a famous homegrown gangster, and Meyer Lansky compadre, Kid Cann Blumenfeld (legend has it that as a youth, poverty forced him to sleep in the family’s flop house bathroom, thus earning him his nickname). After dinner and a vodka gimlet or two, Marshall and I would spend hours at his cabin talking about local politics and injustices.

Needless to say, I became a zealot missionary like Marshall, and he and I went on to found a rural healthcare cooperative that helped to urbanize healthcare in Onamia, as well as a number of other rural communities. All that time, I never advertised that I was Jewish, nor did I deny it. It seemed everyone in my orbit knew anyway and it didn’t make any difference. If anything, my being Jewish seemed to make everyone more friendly, more open. It tickles me to relate these enlightening instances:

“Are you Jewish?” a middle-aged male patient once asked me. Before I could answer, the man went on. “I am a bohunk, thou most mistake me for a jack pine savage.” We both laughed.

The Franciscan nuns working at the Onamia hospital (Community Mercy Hospital) were a warm, playful, enlightened bunch who I came to admire. One day a sister told me I looked like Jesus Christ. I was taken aback, but definitely felt it was a compliment in many ways. My response: “Gee, sister, I hope that doesn’t mean you plan to hang me on a cross over the front door of the hospital.” Again, we all had a laugh.

My work in Onamia came to its satisfying conclusion. The hospital, the doctors, all became affiliates of various urban medical centers, removing the stigma of “rural healthcare.” I again was left without a clue as to what to do next. But then there it was, an advertisement in the Journal of the American Medical Association to work in the Trust Territories of the Pacific. To me, it stood out like the proverbial sore thumb. I doubt many others saw it that way. My wife at the time certainly didn’t. I applied anyway. I was bored and distraught and I needed a radical change. Besides, for all of my conscious life I had been a swimmer and a fisherman. What could be better than living on a coral atoll in the middle of the Pacific? The recruiting brochure put out by the US government warned that the locals, the Trukese, were touchy about their taboos and could get surly if offended.

Practicing medicine, living in Truk, was definitely a two-year experience in the third world. But the Trukese didn’t think much about being third worlders. They lived as tribal peoples, sharing all they had. Nobody was poor in that they all had the same. As for being surly, the “advice” turned out to be nonsense. They loved to gossip, to tell tall-tales, to laugh. Most of all, they loved children. I worked out of the hospital and became known for my own tall-tales.

On a visit to Palau, the most beautiful of the Micronesian islands with the most Western style culture, I was approached by a medic I had previously worked with. “Dr. Zuckerman, I want you to know that we Palauns are the Jews of Micronesia,” he told me. I had told no one I was Jewish—not to hide the fact, but because I felt no need to broadcast it. Clearly, the medic was making a two-sided compliment, one that put the Jews, me in particular, as the first in intelligence and the Paulauns a close second by association. I always feel a twinge of uncomfortability when told how bright I am and so I tweaked my brain for a relieving retort. “Well, we Jews are known as the Palauns of the Middle East!” Again, we both laughed, reminding me that everywhere I went the keen witted picked up on the fact that I was Jewish. A joker once said he knew I was Jewish because of my hooked nose before quickly correcting himself. “No,” he said, “it’s because you’re smart and compassionate.”

My Tikkun Olam medical career mostly ended when I retired, except for the fact that I continued to practice among friends and relatives. My last assignment before retiring—the one I was fired from—was as a practicing internist at the Aspen Medical Clinic in Minneapolis. The clinic was the only one serving a poor neighborhood, populated by retired blue-collar patients of Scandinavian stock, younger immigrants from Africa, Somalia, Mexico and South America, urban living Indians from the reservations, you name it. At last, I was to practice as a primary care physician, doing what Kirschenbaum did.

When Kirschenbaum started his practice with his patients, all were Jews, most from the shtetls of Eastern Europe. Jews a world apart from Kirschenbaum’s native Germany. I wonder sometimes if Dr. K spoke Yiddish, the native tongue of his customers. His German would no doubt suffice. Hardly any of my patients were Jewish at the Aspen Clinic, and English was to many a second language. Still, like Kirschenbaum, I was the patients’ doctor, the one responsible for them, the one who year after year kept being there for them. I knew their families, their phobias and foibles. I could tell over the phone what their blood pressure was, I held their confidences and they knew it, trusting me to do my best by them. Those 23-years made me Kirschenbaum. I filled his shoes and filled my heart. Tikkun Olam.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s