Why, proportionally, do so many Jews become doctors? And why do the words "my son, the doctor" resonate in the Jewish community? The YIVO Institute for Jewish Research hosted an all-day conference Sunday to discuss these and other questions. Held at the Center for Jewish History, the conference was called "Jews and Medicine: In the Footsteps of Maimonides."
Sherwin Nuland of Yale University opened with a historical overview of the distinctive relationship between Jews and medicine. Of the 613 commandments that Maimonides codified, 213 have to do with care of the body.
Harvard's Jerome Groopman picked up on the theme of physical health by describing four elements that are required to advance in the study of the Torah: wisdom (what he described as "the prudent use" of knowledge), humility, strength, and material resources. On this last topic, he quoted the Jewish oral tradition: "Without bread, there is no Torah."
One topic of discussion was the use of Jewish quota restrictions in American higher education, which reached a zenith between World War I and II. Discussing "academic anti-Semitism," Dr. Nuland said admissions applications asked coded questions, such as an applicant's mother's maiden name. He said, however, that Jewish applicants sometimes came up with ways of getting around these obstacles. The audience laughed when he recalled the time an applicant refused to disclose that his father "sold fish livers at the Fulton Fish Market," writing instead that his occupation was "viscerologist."
Barbara Bierer, a Harvard medical school professor and senior vice president for research at Brigham and Women's Hospital, discussed prejudice and her own career path in a moving talk titled "Medicine and a Jewish Woman." She mentioned that she originally thought she would be talking to medical students. "Looking out at the audience," she said, "you're a group of late bloomers."
Dr. Bierer described being born into an assimilated Jewish household, and said the issue she faced in her medical career was "that I was a woman and not that I was Jewish." She recounted specific examples of sexism or sexual harassment that she encountered at college and elsewhere, and told of her decision not to make waves by keeping these incidents within her family: "We told no one." She said that there was then no whistle-blower policy, and she had no mentor whom she felt she could absolutely trust. After Dr. Bierer's talk, moderator Milton Kramer, who is director of psychiatric research at the Maimonides Medical Center, said her talk brought "recognition that we still have many miles to go."
A professor of the history of medicine at the University of Michigan, Regina Morantz-Sanchez, spoke on the placement of Jewish women in the history of medicine. She opened with a joke: "It's 2012, and Sarah Fineberg has been elected president." Fineberg tries to convince her mother to come to the inauguration, telling her there will be kosher catering. The mother agrees to come, and as her daughter places her hand on the Bible to be sworn in, she turns to the senators nearby and says, "You see that woman being sworn in?" "Yes, I do," one of the senators says. "Well," the mother continues, "her brother is a doctor."
Ms. Morantz-Sanchez said jokes such as this reveal a lot. She likened researching Jewish women doctors to the Sherlock Holmes story about the dog that didn't bark in the night. She cited historian Gerda Lerner's observation that women's history was not just a matter of "add women and stir." Rather, she said, it involved rethinking prevailing assumptions and asking a new and different set of questions.
The New Republic's editor in chief, Martin Peretz, introduced Andrew Marks, who is chairman of the department of physiology and cellular biophysics at Columbia University. Mr. Marks spoke about the International Academic Friends of Israel, an organization he founded that helped stop the British Association of University Teachers' attempt to boycott certain Israeli universities. He said that IAFI's approach is not to change the minds of their opponents, but to promote the free exchange of ideas and information basic to scientific advancement.
Finally, Dr. Nuland stood up and said it was perhaps fitting that he was giving the concluding remarks, since - as the only surgeon among the conference speakers - he was trained in "opening and closing." He said modestly that in surgery as well as at this conference, "the really great stuff" is what happens in between.