The literary world of New York– and, not insignificantly, the Jewish world as well– lost one its brightest lights in 1988 when Paul Cowan, the renowned weekly columnist for the Village Voice, died far too soon from leukemia. He was only forty-eight. In addition to his brilliant writing for the Voice, Paul had captivated the Jewish world with his book An Orphan in History, in which he chronicled his discovery of his family’s Jewish roots, and his own slow but steady embracing of those roots.
One of the gifts that Paul left us – and by “us” I mean the world of clergy and helping professionals who minister to the ill – was that he used his writing skills to share his illness with us, writing about it clearly and without self-pity. One particularly remarkable piece that he wrote for the Voice remains, to this day, an indispensable “window in” to the world of the seriously ill person. In it, Paul spoke of the fact that in this world, with all of its artificially imposed geopolitical dividers, there are, essentially, only two lands: the land of the sick, and the land of the not-yet sick. Everyone will get sick eventually, he said; the only question is when, and how.
This past week, I visited a congregant in Memorial Sloan Kettering, a world famous cancer research center and hospital here in New York City. As I walked through the door, frustrated at having needed forty-five minutes to drive from the 59th Street bridge to York Avenue and 66th Street and then having to fend off all the other frustrated drivers who, like me, were looking for parking, I realized with a start that I was, to paraphrase Paul’s remarkable insight, crossing the always-morphing border between the two worlds of which he spoke. The sick and the not-yet-sick interact all the time, but mostly without at least one of the parties involved knowing. Those who are ill know it, and are aware of it full-time, 24/7. Those who are not remain, either wittingly or unwittingly, blissfully unaware. But when you walk into a hospital, the lines all but disappear.
All hospitals, regardless of where they are or what particular subset of illness they might specialize in, are populated by people who are ill. That is their reason for being. No hospital is a happy place. But for all that I have visited Sloane Kettering Memorial Hospital countless times over the more than thirty years that I have served as a pulpit rabbi here in New York, I never fail to find visiting there a singularly unsettling experience.
I don’t want to imply, even for a moment, that MSKCC (as it’s referred to by acronym) is a place without hope; quite the opposite. Miracles happen there every day, and by all appearances, the person whom I was visiting might just be the beneficiary of one of them. New progress is constantly being made in the fight against cancer, and diagnoses that were once considered virtual death sentences are now quite treatable as chronic illnesses. It’s a great hospital doing great work, and it gives its patients the greatest gift of all besides healing – the ability to hope that there is, indeed, a future for them.
But as regards Paul Cowan’s observation about the sick and the not-yet-sick, it is pretty much impossible to walk into that hospital and not be reminded, in the most visceral way, that every single patient that you might see there, from the youngest to the oldest, is struggling with a disease that, for most of us, is among the ones we dread the most.
My family and friends, and probably my congregants, will know well that I preach the gospel (pardon the mixed religious metaphor) of reciting one hundred blessings each and every day, a prescription that is actually an ancient rabbinic teaching. As I understand that teaching, we are commanded to do so to remind us that the myriad “routine” blessings in our lives are actually not routine at all.
Being diagnosed with a life-threatening illness is not at all something that one expects when walking into a doctor’s office. What presents as a cough that won’t go away can just be a stubborn cold, or something far worse. The same is true of a headache, or just about any physical symptom. The difference between walking into a doctor’s office with a cough and walking out after being told that you have cancer is incalculable. When one lives in the land of the sick, there is no respite from the diagnosis and its implications.
When I walked through the doors of MSKCC, I realized all this anew. That it took forty-five minutes to get from the 59th Street Bridge to York and 66th was annoying, but it didn’t change my world and everything about it. Neither did having to fight for a parking space. Those one hundred blessings serve to remind us that the relatively minor annoyances of life are exactly that– relatively minor annoyances. As the old Israeli song goes, "Yeshnan tzarot g’dolot yoter." There are much bigger problems in the world than traffic, bills, and … fill in the blank. Remember, we will all live in the land of the sick eventually. Like Paul Cowan taught us, the only questions are when and how. And until we do, while we inhabit the world of the not-yet-sick, it behooves us to celebrate our blessings!
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the rabbi of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.