Arguably the most iconic building in our neighborhood was the “Wigwam on the Hill,” the famed Weequahic High School. Founded in 1933, the school brought serious educational opportunities to us students, often immigrants or the children of immigrants. We learned, along with the likes of Philip Roth and many other renowned Newark Jews, and we were proud of our school and the places we were able to go from our often humble beginnings.
But long before Weequahic opened its doors, another famed institution established by Newark’s Jews could be seen from vantage points throughout the city. Beginning in 1900, and thriving until today, the Newark Beth Israel Hospital — now known as Newark Beth Israel Medical Center — was a source of incredible pride to the members of the community. When we needed medical care it was to “the Beth” that we headed.
Just about all of my friends — and my younger sister and I — were born at the Beth. Where else? And, in 1963, when I was still a resident of Newark, Amy Jill Skopp, our first-born, came into the world on the sixth floor. When we knew the time had come my husband and I walked the block and a half to the hospital. Upon arrival, he was summarily dispatched and told to go home and watch TV. He dutifully obeyed. In those days, fathers had no standing in the delivery room.
All of our family’s life-cycle events centered around the Beth. Zayda breathed his last there at age 87, marking the first death that I, then 12, experienced of someone close to me. Aunt Irene died at age 48, a tragic passing, a short time after Zayda. And so our lives went, with never a thought to get a second opinion or seek advice elsewhere. That’s how it was; perhaps we were unsophisticated, but maybe faith in medical care is not such a bad thing after all. Weequahic High was where we got educated, and Beth Israel was where we got medicated.
I’ve been thinking about Beth Israel a lot lately because I’ve had quite a few hospital experiences in the past few months. Gall bladder removal preceded by sepsis at Morristown Memorial, a couple of unpleasant procedures for my husband at Overlook, two trips to the ER at Saint Barnabas on the same night. We’ve received more care in this time than I’d like to consider — all of it competent and dispensed with kindness and consideration, but, honestly, who wants to be in the hospital for anything except a baby delivery?
Most recently, I spent an overnight in another iconic hospital, Shaare Zedek in Jerusalem. I remember when our friend and neighbor Yosef was hospitalized in the old Shaare Zedek on Jaffa Road in 1973. It was a miserable winter Shabbat, and his wife, Chana, insisted on taking the long walk to the hospital from our neighborhood in French Hill, the rain driven by strong gusts of wind, only to discover that she was too late and that Yosef, at age 57, was dead — a tragic loss.
But the hospital would never have deemed it acceptable to call her to save her from the walk, and she would not have answered the phone anyway, even knowing her husband’s critical situation. That night, after Shabbat, Yosef was buried on Jerusalem’s Mount of Olives, the site of an important Jewish cemetery for millennia.
The new Shaare Zedek opened its doors in 1980, and that’s where I spent a night not long ago when fierce wind literally blew me to the ground, breaking my pelvis. I was admitted, and our grandson Josh insisted on staying with me through the night — stretched out on three plastic chairs — giving Saba, his exhausted 82-year-old grandfather, a break. My grandson’s love and loyalty touch me to the depths of my soul.
My orthopedist, a young man named Mohammed, instilled trust in me. All the technicians, from the phlebotomists to the CT operators, were highly competent and very nice — both qualities being of the utmost importance for hospital workers to possess.
I lay in a huge room filled with men and women together, each bed separated from the others by plastic. My next-bed neighbor prayed the entire night in Arabic, and I hoped I was included in her prayers; she was in mine.
The next morning we went to Amy Jill and her husband Mark’s apartment. And now here I am, back in New Jersey, striving to recover and remembering the halcyon days when I thought hospitals were only for delivering babies. It was never true, of course, but I can pretend. We have two great-grandchildren, and I’d like some more.
Rosanne Skopp is a frequent blogger for the Times of Israel. She lives in West Orange and Israel.