Sometimes, life comes full circle in the most unexpected ways. The circle in this story began almost thirty years ago at Mt. Sinai hospital in the city where my father was training to become a doctor. While there, my father – a very secular Jew – treated many Satmar Chasidim. He couldn’t stand them, and he didn’t keep those feelings to himself. My earliest association with Orthodox Jews (starting at around age four) were the four things my father would repeat again and again about these patients: “They’re dirty, they’re smelly, they’re ignorant, and they can’t speak English.”
I didn’t know any Orthodox Jews personally, so my perception of all Orthodox Jews was based on the interactions my father had with this handful of people. But as I was silently hating and judging Orthodox Jews from afar, a problem close to home was brewing: I had no idea why I was alive. It was the most basic question of existence, yet no one in my world had any valuable answers to offer me. I was only eight years old and was surrounded by successful, intelligent, happy adults, but none of them seemed to be bothered to search for a purpose in life.
To make a long story short, at sixteen years old, I accidentally got connected to some Orthodox Jews, and quite surprisingly, I discovered that these people were not only asking the questions that plagued me, they had profound answers to them. And so little by little, in my late teens, I too became Orthodox. But I didn’t stop there. What I discovered in a religious Jewish life was so meaningful that I wanted to share it with the people that I loved most. So after much nudging and nagging, I got my parents and both sisters to start learning Torah, meet other Orthodox Jews, and experience Shabbos. Then one by one, each of them also became Orthodox – even my father.
You might think the story ends here, but the circle is not yet fully complete. The next part of the story is that in the midst of my father’s happy life – the successful career, the fancy house and luxury car, the beautiful, loving wife and kids – my mother, at only fifty-three years, old was diagnosed with an incurable cancer. My parents were high school sweethearts and had been together since their teens. My father was devastated. All of us were. Fifty-three was the same age my father’s mother was diagnosed with a disease, which was not only detected exactly like my mother’s cancer, but also killed my grandmother within two years. My father immediately considered the worst. This was a cancer, which if it progressed would be deadly. But then he turned to his faith, and it strengthened him. My parents received blessings from great rabbis, we asked many people to start observing mitzvos in the merit of my mother’s recovery, and my father got tremendous solace from praying and trusting in God. Thankfully, my mother’s cancer stayed inactive for eight long years. But then, unfortunately, a few weeks ago, my mother started getting aches and pains that were not going away, and when the doctor checked her blood work, they discovered that her cancer had progressed.
My parents began medical treatment in Israel (where they live), but the language barrier was a problem, so they flew back to the states and headed straight for Mt. Sinai. My father had not slept or eaten well in the days since my mother took ill, and I was trying to find ways to make their time in the hospital more manageable. Then a friend suggested that we call Satmar Bikur Cholim – an organization run by Satmar Hasidim that supplies hospitals all over the world with homemade kosher food and a room for family members of the ill to rest in. Part of my mother’s recovery meant my father staying strong to help advise her doctors and care for her. I called Satmar Bikur Cholim and left a message that my parents were at the hospital and needed food.
A friendly woman with a Yiddish accent called back a few hours later and had one question for me before we could proceed: Were there were any dietary restrictions for either of my parents? I told her “no.” Then she told me “refiah sh’ly-mah” (that’s how you say “get well soon” in Hebrew with a Satmar accent) and that the food would keep coming until we canceled it. Then, just as promised, a pleasant Satmar Hasidic woman showed up the next day with lunch. My mother wasn’t up to much eating yet, but my father was running on empty with all the worrying and running around he was doing, and he told me that the tuna fish sandwich “saved” him.
Thirty years earlier, my father – the “open-minded” secular Jew – had made many judgments and generalizations about a group of people at Mt. Sinai hospital. Then, three decades later, at that very same hospital, all these people wanted to know was how they could accommodate him and his wife in their time of need. No one asked if my father was Jewish or how religious he was. None of that mattered. These Satmar Hasidim simply gave with open arms and open hearts.
And that is how life came full circle in a rather unexpected way and a double board-certified former Chief of Neurology learned an important lesson from some “ignorant” Hasidim.
(Thankfully, in the eight years that my mother’s disease lay dormant, tremendous progress has been made in helping patients with her cancer live longer, and a cure, please God, is not too far away, but she needs your prayers and mitzvos. We need you to give spiritually with open arms and open hearts. Please say a prayer for Miriam Basya bas Genesha, and if you could commit to one small, regular mitzvah in her merit: lighting Shabbos candles, saying shema before you go to bed each night, refraining from gossip just a little more than usual, or any other mitzvah, we would appreciate it so much.)