Is There a Doctor in the Literary Festival?

At the 27th Jerusalem International Book Fair, one session featured a group one might initially think of as an unlikely addition: Physicians.

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Right after the Kurdish cookbook writers event and the ‘Translation from Yiddish hour,’ and before the evening ‘Erotic Israeli novels’ panel and the poetry reading in Iraqi Arabic, a session took place at this week’s 27th Jerusalem International Book Fair that featured a group one might initially think of as an unlikely addition to this eclectic literary mix: Physicians.

But questions such as “are you a doctor or a writer?” and “what do you have in common with Yiddish storytellers, eroticists and Kurdish cooks?” never even came up on the Monday panel, where gynecologist Sagit Arbel-Alon, rheumatologist Danny Caspi and orthodontist Naftali Brezniak sat down together to discuss taking care of patients, their recent books of prose and poetry -- and the pages in between.

As it happens, as moderator Hadassa Wolman, a literary critic, pointed out at the start, cross-pollination between these two seemingly distant disciplines is actually age old – from the times of Yehuda Halevi and Maimonides, right down to those of Jurassic Park author Michael Crichton and Khaled Hosseini, who penned “The Kite Runner.”

The Russian novelist and playwright Mikhail Bulgakov, who authored “The Master and Margarita,” was a physician — as was fellow Russian short story writer and playwright Anton Chekhov and Britain’s W. Somerset Maugham. Sherlock Holmes creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle graduated from medical school, as did Janusz Korczak, a hero of the Warsaw Ghetto who wrote children’s books, and Ethan Canin, author or “Emperor of the Air.”

These days, popular physician-writers such as Jerome Groopman, Atul Gawande, Abraham Verghese and of course Oliver Sacks — who wrote “The Man who Mistook His Wife for a Hat” — all continue to showcase a real affinity between the professions.

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“Good doctors and good writers usually have in common being good listeners and avid readers,” said Arbel-Alon, whose debut poetry collection, “Out, Standing,” was brought out in Hebrew to rave reviews two years ago by Carmel. “The best ones take in and hold dear language and words — and it serves them in their work, whether as physicians or authors.”

In a country where news of overcrowding in the hospitals and impersonal care of patients by harried, underpaid doctors is the stuff of legend, Arbel-Alon, who works at Hadassah Ein Kerem, where she also founded the Bat Ami Center for victims of sexual assault, argued that most doctors, even in Israel, really are natural listeners. The problem, she said, is more with the system than with those in white coats. “Even good listeners, when they see one patient after the next and have seven minutes with each — get worn down,” she asserted.

“People do change and get hardened over time, but for many doctors the desire to hear stories — and tell them — remains strong,” added Caspi, who heads the department of rheumatology at the Tel Aviv Medical Center and is a professor at Tel Aviv University, as well as being the literary editor of the Verses of Science literary prize in memory of Prof. Ofer Lider, which is awarded by the Weizmann Institute of Science. “If you go into the homes of many doctors and scientists you will often find a drawer with drafts of their writings,” said Caspi, whose prize committee typically receives hundreds of submissions every year.

One of the hardest parts of mixing the two vocations, he admitted, was simply finding the time and headspace to write. “Short stories one can work on late at night,” he said, “and poetry can come together in the car on the way to the hospital, or even between phone calls and patients — but a novel is something else one needs to detach and take the time to structure it and think it through.”

The only way he found time to write his last novel, he said, was by taking mini solo vacations every few months and shutting himself in a room. That book — “Arbaa Ruchot Ahava,” published in 2009 by Kinneret Zmora Bitan, is currently being translated into English with the working title “Four Shades of Love.” A personal and somewhat autobiographical tale of a family and its matriarch, it begins in Paris in the 1930s, moves through the Mandate period in Israel and into the 1990s — complete with webs of loves, loyalties and, in particular, secrets spanning generations.

“As doctors, we get very close and intimate with our patients and hold onto a lot of secrets,” said Arbel-Alon. “For me, I find I can release some of those secrets in my poetry.” Not, she stressed, that readers should look for specific autobiographical clues in her work. “My writing is about those I care for and those who care for me, but it’s also not. I always say to my family – ‘don’t ask me more! To hear the poetry one must let go of the reality.’”

Brezniak, who for many years worked as a dentist in the Israeli Defense Forces and today runs a private clinic, responds differently when asked about autobiographical aspects of his work. His 2009 novel “Abstracts,” published by Kinneret Zmora Bitan, was, he admits, a very personal tale. It was also a personal way of letting go, which gave him a long-sought-after peace and led him to make serious changes in his life, including divorcing his second wife and understanding his move from medicine to dentistry.

The novel tells the story of a young doctor who falls in love with a female patient who walks into the department where he is a young resident. The woman is engaged and has only two years to live, but he knows he will marry her, and he does. It is the story, it turns out, of his own life. “It took me a long while to get this book out, because I did not want to lose her. I had remarried and had children — but she was still with me. I knew that I needed to write this in order to let go,” he said.

Medicine, Arbel-Alon explained, is only one tool in the healing briefcase doctors carry around — with poetry and prose being the other. “I do walk with some of my patients to their deaths. Recently, I did that with a patient of mine who had been with me since age 17, and who died at age 29. We walked the route until its end,” she said. “After, I found myself re-walking that route, and reliving our dialogues — but not in medical terms. In poetry. So I sat down to write.”

“Forgive me if I cry,” she tells the audience, before reading out-loud part of the subsequent poem, which she is still working on: It is a poem not about death but about a dream. A poem not so much about a young woman fated never to become a mother, but of a woman as a lover. It is a poem about different angles.

“For me, medicine and poetry complete each other,” said Caspi. “They are both exact in their own ways, which is important for training — but perhaps more importantly, they each can push both the writer and the reader to see a story from a different angle.” First year medical students, as well as young scientists at Israeli universities, he suggested, should have poetry and art as part of their early curriculum. “Perspectives,” he concluded, “its something we all need to hold on to.”