These days Dorcas and I don’t talk anymore. But there was a time when she was the most spiritual person I knew, a person I looked up to, a person who, despite being Christian, had inspired me to become frum, a person who even Rav Pam described as “a very spiritual woman.”
It was the summer of 1987, and I had just been hired to work as a staff physician at a small, not-for-profit clinic on the Lower East Side. It was a clinic that took an alternative approach, offering services such as acupuncture and nutrition counseling to the mostly poor and Hispanic people of the neighborhood. After at least a year of doing temporary work through medical employment agencies, I was glad to have finally found a permanent job. I was, at the time, single and Jewishly unaffiliated. Nonetheless, the prospect of working in the heart of the old Jewish neighborhood where my grandparents and great-grandparents had first lived on landing in America intrigued me. This was the neighborhood of All-of-a-Kind Family, Hester Street, and Crossing Delancey. My maternal grandfather, from Poland, had been a member of the Bialystoker Shul, just a stone’s throw from the clinic. I was psyched.
I began as a part-timer, working two days a week. The director of the clinic, Rebecca Elmaleh, a homeopath and French Jew by way of Tunisia, introduced me to the other physicians, John Graney, a fellow Swarthmore grad, and Frank Lipman, another Jew, from South Africa. I met Abdi, an acupuncturist from Iran; Jhoda and Johnny, custodians from Guyana; Gladys, a medical assistant from Puerto Rico, and Esmeralda Pei, the half Puerto Rican, half Chinese receptionist.
It was my first day at work, and I was just putting away my reference books, when I heard a jovial “Helloo! Welcome to Betances!” I looked up to see a middle-aged, dark-skinned woman with a round, curly, wet-look hairdo (It turned out to be a wig) and a welcoming, tooth-baring, cheekbone-stretching grin. She sat herself down in the patient’s chair, catty cornered to my own behind the gray metal desk. “I am Dorcas!” she said, as if that explained everything. Holding in her arms a stack of charts from the day’s nutrition consultations, she spoke to me warmly in the richly syncopated rhythm of her native Ghana. At first I had trouble understanding her, but I quickly learned to sit back and let the cadences flow over me, grasping by the end of a sentence what I had missed at the beginning.
At 5 foot 4 inches, tall, Dorcas’ figure was as angular as her speech. She wasn’t fat, but her figure resembled nothing more than a jumbo-sized hourglass. Though she always dressed modestly in long skirts and suits, which she loved to buy in the Jewish stores in the neighborhood, no amount of loose clothing could hide her robust proportions. On her feet were white athletic shoes and crew socks, suitable for the long walk from the subway, both at this end and near her home in Harlem.
As animated was her shape so was her face. Her brown eyes glittered mischievously; I could never quite tell when she was serious and when she was joking. Even her “welcome to Betances” had a touch of humor, referring, as it did, to our humble storefront clinic, nestled among the public housing projects.
How could I not love Dorcas! Within fifteen minutes, she had me. Her tales–about her little village in Ghana, about her parents and ten brothers and sisters, her grandmother who used to offer water to passersby; her true love, Mr. Doodoo, whom she never got to marry; her husband, a career diplomat who died young of a heart attack, leaving her with five young children and a family squabbling over the property; her dear friend Mr. Dorman, the Jewish legal-aid lawyer, who saved her and her tenants’ group from eviction from Teachers’ College housing–were endless, and once she got going, time stood still. I liked nothing better than to sit in Dorcas’ office during an afternoon lull and listen.
My work at the clinic was challenging, not so much medically as socially. My patients were more concerned with staying alive than with being healthy. It was not unusual for one of them to have witnessed the rape or murder of a close relative. Some of my patients lived in shelters for the homeless or for battered women. I had no medicine for these kinds of troubles. Perhaps that was why Dorcas was so well suited to this job. While she might start out speaking to her patients about vegetables, she would always end up talking about the Creator. Now I don’t know exactly what she said behind closed doors, but I can say that, at least in my presence, she always spoke about God in a universal way, and never once mentioned the “J” word.
If there was one incident that captured Dorcas’ essence, it would have to be the ice cube story. It took place a few years after we had both left the clinic. Dorcas was working at Methodist Hospital in Park Slope, and I had just started my own practice a few blocks away. One swelteringly hot summer day, she was leaving work after hours and discovered she didn’t have enough money for the subway. Everyone she knew had already gone home. Did she call me? No. Not Dorcas. Trusting in God, she simply left the hospital and walked to the subway with her $1.70 in change, fifteen cents short of the fare. On her way she passed a fruit and vegetable stand. Asking the proprietor if she might take an ice cube from the display, she popped it in her mouth, a welcome relief from the heat. As she waited on the long line for a token, she felt something hard on her tongue. She reached in and pulled out a dime and a nickel. “Praise the Lord!” she shouted and bought herself a subway token.
While Dorcas exuded a universal spirituality, Judaism seemed to hold a special place in her heart. There seemed to be certain “hooks” connecting her to our people. First, there was her name. Though known as Dorcas, her given name, she told me, was Manna. Then she told me that in her village in Ghana, the males were all circumcised on the eighth day, (a fact that my brother-in-law, an Orthodox rabbi, dismissed.) Then there was Yom Kippur–she fasted every year. One year, when the holiday fell out on a Saturday, she decided not only to fast but to come to shul as well. In fact, she stayed there all day, refusing to leave even during the break. The head of her nutrition department, who happened to be a member of the shul, found her interest in Judaism quite remarkable and wondered what her intentions were. That became clear some months later, when Dorcas called me, requesting a personal letter of reference supporting her application to divinity school.
Meanwhile big changes were happening in my life. Raised on my father’s philosophy of “enlightened self-interest,” I was brought up in the concrete world of science and nature, here and now; I knew about religion from my father’s Orthodox cousins who came on Sundays to have their teeth fixed, but these quaint folks with their shaggy beards, peyos, and stiff sheitls, were always regarded with affectionate amusement.
My trip to England in 1989 changed all that. Staying with my sister-in-law’s cousin, Aubrey Rose, a prominent barrister, writer, and lecturer, I was introduced to a family secret: the Roses claimed to have communicated repeatedly and reliably with their dead son David through a medium. Now, given my upbringing, I might have simply rejected that crazy story out of hand. However, having just spent the better part of two years listening to Dorcas’ extraordinary tales of faith and redemption, I suppose my mind had unknowingly been primed to believe the unbelievable. At any rate, this revelation—that there is more to life than meets the eye—led me first to a conservative-egalitarian shul and later to an Orthodox one (and eventually to the homes of my very own quaintly religious relatives.) And of course, who better to share my discovery with than Dorcas. In each step of my journey, from eating kosher to keeping Shabbos, she was right there, in strong support. Indeed, whenever I learned about a new halacha, she would marvel at its beauty and wisdom. She even danced at my wedding and would most certainly have shown up at my son’s bris, had we thought to call her.
After graduating seminary, the now Reverend Dorcas enrolled in a chaplaincy internship at Memorial Hospital. Each intern was assigned patients to visit, but there was one whose room Dorcas could not enter. No matter how early she arrived, the elderly Jew in 319 was always praying or bending over a large Hebrew tome. This must be a holy man, she thought. Finally, she arrived exceptionally early, and the door was open. Dorcas went in and introduced herself. She told Rav Pam what a privilege it was to meet him and how she had been waiting for the opportunity. Seeing that he had a Hebrew book open in front of him she said:
“I see you’re reading the Torah.”
“Yes,” he replied gravely. “I’m reading about suffering.”
“Oh, the Book of Job.”
“Yes, a very difficult subject.”
Although Dorcas was meeting Rav Pam for the first time, she felt as if she had always known him. There was a godliness about the man, a holiness. The feeling was unmistakable—she was in the presence of G-d’s friend.
“I never could understand why He causes people to suffer,” Dorcas ventured.
The Rav was silent for a long time. Then, “The mill of justice grinds slowly…Our G-d is a loving G-d and a G-d of justice…The wheel of justice grinds slowly,” he repeated thoughtfully.
Just then, an elderly woman arrived. Dorcas stood up to leave, but Rav Pam motioned for her to stay. “I’d like you to meet my wife, Sara,” he said.
“Oh, you must be the Abraham and Sara in the Bible!” Dorcas exclaimed.
The Rebbetzin, who must have been taken aback to see her husband deep in conversation with a strange black woman, now burst out laughing, along with the Rav. The ice broken, the three of them were soon conspiring to have Sara bring chicken soup from home to replace the loathsome Ensure sitting unopened on the nightstand.
The story of Dorcas’ meeting with Rav Pam piqued the interest of my brother-in-law, an Orthodox rabbi from South Africa. Eliezer had always been intrigued by my Dorcas stories, but at this point, curiosity trumped his apartheid-bred prejudice, prompting him to take the unprecedented step of inviting a black woman to his home as a guest.
I remember that Sukkos well. There were about twelve of us gathered in the little sukkah in my sister-in-law’s driveway. Eliezer was in fine form. Dressed in his long black frock and black Hamburg, his full white beard nicely fluffed, he cut an impressive figure. Dorcas did not take her eyes off him. Explaining in the most elegantly simple style the meaning of every ritual from Kiddush to hand-washing, he had me mesmerized as well. If only he would do this every week! Dorcas listened attentively and respectfully to all that was said, and when the ArtScroll Family Zemiros were passed out at the end of the meal, she followed along with the bentsching. Then she asked where she might buy one for herself.
After the meal, I walked her to the bus stop. I could see she hated to leave the holiness of the chag and return to the workaday world. Indeed, she called me at the earliest opportunity to tell me how deeply she had been affected. “You know, I wouldn’t mind becoming Jewish,” she confided.
Now what to make of that one? At first, I assumed that we would keep on inviting her and take her under our wing. But when I mentioned it to my sister-in-law, she looked at me quizzically. And when, at a family wedding later that week, I related Dorcas’ remark to my cousin, I got a much stronger response: “Don’t encourage her!” That felt like a slap in the face. Here I was, so excited about bringing someone in, only to be reminded that we Jews don’t take converts— at least not easily. In fact, we discourage them. So I set aside my hurt and followed the dictum. That is, I did nothing. I neither invited her nor brought it up, and neither did she.
Some time later, Eliezer had occasion to meet with Rav Pam. After they had finished their business, he turned to the Rav and said, “Gerus (regards) from Dorcas!” At first the Rav look perplexed, Eliezer recalled. And then a little smile played across his lips. “A very spiritual woman,” he said.
Fast forward to 2007. Dorcas finally had an opportunity to visit Israel (for free.) She would be part of a “Mission to Israel and Palestine,” sponsored by the Methodist Church. With that name, I had my misgivings, but a free trip is a free trip. I wished her well.
My first inkling that something was amiss was when Dorcas phoned me upon her return. “Well, how was it?” I asked, excited to hear the details. But instead of uplifting stories about the holiness of the Land, all I heard about was “the wall” and how this “offensive” barrier had obscured everything else in the trip. “When our group passed through a checkpoint,” she related, “I realized I had left my passport at the hotel. Well, those soldiers—the way they treated me! I thought I’d never get out alive. Now I know what the Palestinians must go through day in and—”
“If it weren’t for those Palestinians and their suicide bombers, there would be no need for any wall!” I practically shouted. Suddenly, my whole body was shaking; the depth of my fury amazed me. From the other end, silence, and I was silent, too. I hoped I had made my point, though I knew anger is not always the best vehicle.
I had my answer within the week, when a package arrived from Dorcas. In it was a copy of the letter she had sent out to all her contacts describing the abusive treatment of the Palestinians at “the so-called security wall,” and to top it off, there was an article by Michael Lerner, supporting her point of view. Also enclosed were some presents: two yarmulkes and a tote bag embroidered with a picture of the mosque. Now I know I should have saved the letter to give to the appropriate persons to read and respond, but I was so disgusted that I just threw it out, along with the handbag. Then I wrote a letter to Dorcas. “Dear Dorcas, Thank you very much for the presents. It was so kind of you to think of us. I only wish you hadn’t been so taken in by their propaganda…” That was six months ago. I have not heard from her since.
Not a day goes by that I don’t think of her, though. I try to put myself in her shoes, imagining her terror at being held up by armed soldiers. I suppose her reaction was only natural. What annoyed me more was the cunning way the Methodists planned the whole thing. Really, Dorcas was only a pawn in their chess game.
Still, it was disappointing. After all, this was Dorcas, a woman who manages to see God’s loving hand in even the most dire situation, even in her son’s death in the Kobe earthquake and her daughter’s ongoing struggle with lupus. I didn’t expect her to swallow the straight political line they threw her. I expected her to see beyond that, to see both sides. I guess I expected too much.
And yet, I do see the purpose in our paths crossing. Dorcas came to me at a critical juncture in my life, a time when my spiritual seeds were beginning to germinate. Although I certainly hope she sees the light about “Israel and Palestine,” whether she does or not, is really irrelevant. For me, in that place and in that time, she was water to my budding faith, or perhaps, I should say, manna.
Marjorie Ordene is a physician and writer.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.