So What Is It With Jews And Medicine?


The term “Jewish doctor” is a loaded term: it has has inspired countless career goals, guilt complexes and matchmaking frenzies. But the Yeshiva University Museum’s new exhibit, “Trail of the Magic Bullet: The Jewish Encounter with Modern Medicine, 1860-1960," is not intended to be a self-congratulatory Jewish Hall of Fame. The exhibit’s aisles are filled instead with medical instruments, artifacts, images and documents, from a Rembrandt sketch of a Jewish doctor to the first syphilis cure.

“The point of this exhibit is not to say ‘Yeah Jews! Yeah doctors!’” said the exhibit’s curator, Josh Feinberg, as he led a tour of the exhibit for about 15 enthusiastic visitors. Feinberg, who has curated exhibits for Yeshiva University in the past, was contacted again by the museum with this exhibit in mind. “The point of this exhibit is to view the modern Jewish experience through the unique lens of medical history.”

Feinberg began the tour by posing a provocative question: “When I say Jews and medicine, what comes to mind?” A brief silence. Then a diminutive, no-nonsense Jewish grandmother piped in: “Pride.” Others followed with “identity,” “status,” “independence,” “acceptance,” “knowledge,” and, finally, “responsibility.”

Feinberg picked up the ball. “Rambam [Maimonides]? No one said Rambam? That’s usually the first response I get,” said Feinberg, referring to the illustrious 12th-century Jewish scholar and physician; he then launched into the history of Jews and Medicine.

Although that history is a well-traversed topic, the exhibit uniquely focuses on the hundred-year period from 1860 to 1960, one marked by revolutionary scientific discoveries (including the introduction of the scientific process and the wide-scale acceptance of microbiology). The exhibit tackles the question: what drives the longstanding relationship between Jews and medicine?

“There are so many reasons Jews and medicine have such a long, illustrious history, ranging from the purely practical to the ideological,” said Feinberg. “Practically, medicine was a way for Jews to gain acceptance, prestige and make a living. It’s one of the few professions that remained accessible to Jews when many other doors were closed. But, on an even deeper level, the Jews have always placed a special, immutable emphasis on the value of human life.” Recalling one Talmudic tractate of old, he recited, “If you save one life, it’s as you if you saved the whole world.” The portrait of Anna Braude Heller, an acclaimed Polish doctor tending to sick children in the Warsaw Ghetto, makes the message painfully clear.

Serving as a lens on the modern Jewish experience, the exhibit explores three running themes, or “dichotomies.” The first is the dichotomy between anti-Semitism and assimilation. “As much as Jews have tried to fit in and have continually made huge contributions to the medical field, until the mid-20th century, Jews met with resistance,” said Feinberg. A display of medical school applications from the period reveals the incriminating scribble of an admissions officer on a 1933 Columbia Medical School Application: “probably Jewish, but there is no unpleasant evidence of it.”

“To a certain extent, the medical field has allowed us to take care of our own, when need be,” continued Feinberg. “When we came to this country, Jews wanted to show they would not be a burden on society.” A large photograph from 1899 shows hoards of Jewish patients lying out in the sun receiving “sun-treatment” for tuberculosis. “They used to call tuberculosis the ‘Jewish disease,’ even though that was empirically inaccurate,” said Feinberg. The institution built to house these ailing Jewish immigrants was a sanatorium in Denver. “Built by the ‘Hebrews of Denver,’” piped in one member of the tour group. Today, that institution is National Jewish Health Hospital, which has been named the leading hospital in respiratory diseases for 14 consecutive years by US News and World Report.

The creation of Jewish institutions, partly in response to the anti-Semitism Jews faced in the medical field, is a focal point of the exhibit. “Quotas on Jewish students entering medical schools were unspoken, but all too real,” said Feinberg, standing before a large photograph of Albert Einstein receiving an architectural model of the college named in his honor, The Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Yeshiva University’s medical school in the Bronx. “We chose to bookend the exhibit in 1960 because that’s when these quotas were finally lifted, thanks in great part to the Civil Rights movement,” said Feinberg.

But Jewish medical institutions were not just built as a reaction to anti-Semitism. The second theme the exhibit explores is the dichotomy between Jewish particularism and universalism, the use of medicine to contribute to society as a whole. “When it comes to medical history, there is a constant shifting of focus from within, to without,” said Feinberg. “It would be a grave mistake to think these institutions were only built to help and cater to Jewish needs. Jewish contributions to the medical field have always been marked by an explicit determination to better society as a whole.”

A large section of the exhibit is dedicated to a history of Jewish Public Health Institutions, including the Society for the Protection of Jewish Health, OZE, established in 1921 in Saint Petersburg; today it operates 91 medical facilities in 10 European, nine Latin American, and four North African countries. “We start by looking in, but the vision of Jews in the medical field never stops there — it was always fueled by a greater, broader desire to improve the world,” said Feinberg.

The third theme, “perhaps the most sensitive, and the most relevant,” said Feinberg, is the relationship between science and tradition. “While our tour is bookended on one side by the waning of anti-Semitism in the medical field, our tour begins with the advent of ‘modern’ medicine. It’s a time when things we take for granted today, like the Germ Theory, first became widely accepted. Microbiology, bacteriology, a new dominance of the scientific process — it’s the medicine we know today,” said Feinberg. “Harmonizing a modern, scientific world view with long-standing religious beliefs was bound to be a challenge, and remains one today.”

As to be expected, the challenge of meshing modernity and tradition was met in different ways by different Jews. The exhibit, profiling five noted Jewish doctors, juxtaposes their responses to this challenge. Waldermar Haffkine (1860-1930), inventor of the world’s first vaccine for cholera and the Bubonic plague, fought to maintain a strong Orthodox identity in the face of a rapidly changing world. On display are some of his personal reflections, including, “the faith which binds together the Jews has not been harmed by the advance of research, but, on the contrary, has been vindicated in it’s profoundest tenets.”

While the exhibit memorializes Haffkine by the phrase, “A Plea for Orthodoxy,” a neighboring profile, of Joseph Goldberger (1874-1929) — five-times Nobel Prize-nominee for his work on the etiology of pellagra — is called “A Religion of Science.” The text notes that while raised Orthodox, Goldberger found it impossible for his scientific endeavors and Jewish tradition to coexist. Goldberger even went on to marry Mary Farrar, the grandniece of Jefferson Davis.

The exhibit closes with a short film that features rabbis and experts from across the religious spectrum discussing some of the most pertinent questions Jews in the medical field face today. “IVF, abortion, autopsies, end of life questions — nothing is off the table. We want this exhibit to generate questions. The exhibit is a musing on the modern Jewish experience, through the lens of medical history,” said Feinberg.

One question remained for Feinberg: So, nu, why aren’t you a doctor?

Laughing sheepishly before hustling the group on to the next display, Feinberg replied, “Well, uh, I guess I’m more of a humanities guy.”

The exhibit runs through Aug. 12 at the Yeshiva University Museum, 15 W. 16th St., Manhattan. (212) 294-8330. Adults $8, seniors and students $6. Free for members and children under 5.