07 July 2013

It Lulls

A smooth flight and a smooth landing.  No complaints with my overhead reading lamp not working.  I simply read John McPhee's "Heirs of General Practice," a brilliant extended essay on family practice doctors.  I even slept for six hours, and then was awakened by the smell of fresh airplane coffee.  I finished the book as the wheels touched down.  How could I not think of the poor souls in San Francisco, who were tragically less fortunate yesterday.

While waiting for the shared taxi to schlep ten random riders to Jerusalem, I relished McPhee's ending--if you haven't read the book, I won't spoil it--laughed, loaded up, and climbed the valley with the others, to the holy city.  We cut through Modiin, skirted past the security barrier, the exit to Ramallah, a couple Jewish settlements and Palestinian towns--equally fenced off from one another--and rolled into a warm Jerusalem night.

My pal Mish welcomed me with a carton of the latest micro-brews.  I unpacked my gear, logged into the Brewers' futile efforts against the Mets, and headed out for a few things.  My friend Jo-Ann called with plans for the Women of the Wall prayer service Monday morning.  Some Haredi rabbis asked young yeshiva girls to show up in force; there's fear of throwing stones and chairs.

At people. Praying. Near a wall.

Beneath my feet the sandy street stones sang a song of welcome; a couple Haredi guys crowded around an ice cream stand; a few secular families saluted one another with hugs and kisses til next time; a scrawny cat slinked past, stopped to stare, then crawled under a car.  Honeysuckle crawled over a wall and sweetened the air.  A baby cried.  Someone played a violin.

I heard McPhee's voice:  "He has no idea what to make of that.  He does not know what to make of the whole situation."

Sometimes things are just the way they are.  And a family doctor helps you understand that when there's no cure, there's always kindness and the presence of another to alleviate one's suffering.  I remember talking about that when I used to tell people why I wanted to be a rabbi.

It's unclear why my grandfather chose to become a doctor.  Had he lived longer, I'd have asked.  Nevertheless, by every measure he was a very good one.  As a young man, he was something of a playground superhero, a settlement house counselor who protected his Jewish brothers in the face of competing ethnic gangs on Milwaukee's near north side, in Lapham Park.  Maybe his special talents for mediating the disputes of youth inspired him to heal.  He graduated Marquette University, a Catholic school, in 1924, the same year my dad was born.  There weren't a whole lot of other Jews in his class.

When I was growing up, Lapham Park was a bit of a rundown area.
Today it's known by name as a residential housing facility for the elderly poor, nearly 100% of whom are African American.  That Pabst plant is gone--its beer the branded bailiwick of hipster Madmen--and besides elderly housing there is a new population of young people moving in to the area, the ubiquitous gentrification that we all know so well.

Here's a picture of Grandpa from medical school, with the Lapham Park banners in the background.  That's Charles Haskel Bachman, future doctor, healer, seated, on the right.
Here's Grandpa in July 1961, in his office at the Plankington Building on Wisconsin Avenue.  He's likely smiling because he no doubt treated another one of Milwaukee's poor for free; and with Grandma back at home, unknowing of his serial decency striking again and therefore powerless to stop it, the sheer mischief made him happy.
My grandparents came to Jerusalem for the first time in 1964.  My grandma was born in Minsk, fled pogroms as a girl, and was raised not far from Lapham Park on Walnut Street, around the corner from Golda Meyerson.  Her father, Chaim Siegel, helped establish an orphanage for Jewish poor, a couple synagogues, and the Milwaukee branch of the Mizrahi Zionists.  Chaim and his wife Rebecca never made it Israel but their daughter did.  My grandparents had two sons, neither of whom ever came to Israel.  Tonight, as the sun reddened Jerusalem hills and my cab climbed into the heaping rock of a city, I reckoned this my 17th visit.

Once I came to find my father's dead soul, chained and hovering unredeemed at the entrance to a nameless cemetery.  Saying Kaddish released him to peace and quiet after a short life of great achievement and shattered dreams.  Once I accompanied my mother through paths of promise, to quit smoking, to heal a divorce, to understand the broad strokes of history that intrude upon simple families living life from moment to moment.  And once I came with my wife and daughters, together to give our girls the opportunity to know Jerusalem beyond its mythological force of the grand cosmological weight of God's words to prophets but rather as a place with a pool, and ice cream, and warm people speaking an ancient language, with love, in new ways.

The cat looked at me as we crossed one another's path tonight.  I was in search of a warm slice of pizza and a cold beer.  "Had grandpa not been a doctor," I reasoned, "I'd have never become a rabbi."  Someone else walking past might have seen me talking to the cat and said, "He has no idea what to make of that.  He does not know what to make of the whole situation."

But me and that cat knew the truth.  It lulls.  As only Jerusalem can.

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