Before Barbra Streisand’s lyrical soprano voice – sometimes called one of the
wonders of the world – fills Bloomfield Stadium in Tel Aviv this week, she is
scheduled to pause and invite a small delegation of women from Jerusalem in the
audience to stand.
Among them are Jewish women and Arab women, several
very religious. This isn’t a gesture of appreciation towards dialogue on peace.
The subject goes deeper – right to the heart.
The women who will stand in
Streisand’s audience are part of an initiative to promote women’s heart health.
Using her star power and her dedication to improving women’s health, Barbra
Streisand will be placing the spotlight on the heart disease which is killing so
many women in Israel.
Star Angelina Jolie recently brought world
attention to the genetic mutation which makes women more susceptible to breast
cancer. Her laudable campaign and self-exposure resonated in Israel, where we
have long been conscious of the BRCA mutations associated with Ashkenazim. More
recently, local research has revealed that our Sephardic sisters whose ancestors
left Spain and Portugal in 1492 and 1497 also carry mutations for the
But heart disease kills even more women in Israel than breast
cancer. And women in traditional Jewish and Arab communities are at higher risk.
You’ll find them filling the cath labs and the cardiac intensive care units
around our country. There are too many women living with the agony of heart
disease and dying too young.
We can’t blame our genes for this disease.
There’s no historic “founder gene” for heart disease that makes us more
susceptible. We can only look at our lifestyles.
What is it that we
religious Arab and Jewish women share that makes us vulnerable to heart disease?
High rates of diabetes, excess weight, lack of exercise, neglected health and
poor eating habits.
Vigilant as we are in taking care of our loved ones
and doing good deeds for strangers, we’re slow-footed in caring for ourselves.
We’re ambitious cooks, but often make food to please the crowds and not
ourselves. And let’s face it – it’s easier to eat a chocolate croissant in the
middle of the night when you’re up with a sick child than to make yourself a
salad. According to studies, we’re lax on exercise and regular check-ups. Most
extreme, when a woman, God forbid, has a heart attack, she arrives at the
hospital an hour later than a man with a heart attack.
Crazy as it
sounds, we don’t like to go to the hospital if the kitchen is a mess or if the
timing isn’t convenient for our families. Surely, we figure, going to the
hospital can wait until after Shabbat, or at least until the grandkids go home.
We’re even embarrassed to demand an EKG. After all, the pain is probably just
indigestion, and we don’t want to waste anyone’s time.
By the time we’re
admitted to the hospital, we’re in bad shape. Although coronary heart disease is
more common for men as a whole, when we women get it we are more likely to die
from it. Thirty days after a heart attack, nearly twice the percentage of women
as men are dead. If we make it through the first month, we’re still 1.5 times
more likely to die during that year.
And here comes the scariest part:
two-thirds of women who had heart attacks supposedly had no previous symptoms –
that is, the symptoms that men have. But when heart attack patients who survive
look back, they realize they suffered from shortness of breath, indigestion,
sleep disturbances and fatigue. The difference between the way the average
exhausted mother of eight feels every night and how she feels when she is having
a heart attack is more subtle than a man’s classic “elephant sitting on his
The statistics are even worse for Israel’s Arab women, who have a
higher prevalence of diabetes, are poorer and suffer from passive smoking
although they rarely smoke themselves. Their hearts are damaged by their
husbands and adult sons smoking in the house.
We health consumers have
heard for decades that cardiac care was originally based on medical research
conducted mostly on male patients. That’s old news.
But it turns out that
changing the awareness among physicians that women’s heart attacks present
differently is tough. So is raising our own awareness, and our assertiveness
about demanding the tests that might save our lives.
Back home in Los
Angeles, Streisand has sponsored the Barbra Streisand Women’s Heart Center in
the Cedars-Sinai Heart Institute. (Cedars and Sinai, in case you are wondering,
were founded by the Cohen and Levine families, respectively.) Recently, the
center received a boost of a $10 million grant from Irene Pollin, a health
philanthropist in Washington, to do community outreach in heart screening and
Pollin has made educating women about heart
disease risks a mission, as did her late husband, Abe, who owned sports teams
including basketball’s Washington Wizards and hockey’s Washington
The Pollins’ daughter, Linda Joy, for whom the new Cedars-Sinai
program is named, was born with a heart defect and died at age 16.
same generous Jewish woman donor and activist recently established a Linda Joy
Pollin Center at the capital’s Hadassah University Medical Center with a
The women who will stand at the concert are involved
with Jerusalem’s Pollin Center, galvanizing the impenetrable communities they
are from and trying to change the dire statistics.
But even an ambitious,
admirable program like this one can only be as successful as the grassroots
A key factor common among religious Jewish and Muslim
populations is, of course, the large number of children women have. It’s likely
not the child-bearing but the child-rearing that increases the risk of heart
disease. Time constraints, money constraints and energy constraints impact our
The solution is not to have smaller families. We remember the
late 1960s mantra of “zero population growth” and the havoc it has wreaked in
Europe and the United States, where deaths now outnumber births and indigenous
populations are shrinking – a dire sign for any country’s future. But we have
heralded large families and the heroic women on whose shoulders responsibility
rests, without putting in place the protection that women need.
We need a
vast expansion of exercise programs and healthy-eating clubs – with childcare
options. We need to join the lobbying efforts to keep taxes off fruits and
vegetables, and ensure that healthy food costs less than junk food. On a
personal level, we need to replace the jewelry and tablecloths and gifts our
daughters, sisters and mothers receive with memberships in exercise programs, or
just babysitting money so that they can go out for a walk.
are starting in many communities, if sporadically.
The Arab women of Abu
Ghosh have organized a walking club and have begun swimming in pools that
already offer separate hours for women. In my neighborhood, women of a hassidic
court have scheduled their own swimming night at a private pool.
to get it out of our minds that taking care of our health is an indulgence.
We’re commanded, shmor al nafshecha, to take care of ourselves.
No one is
going to do this for us. We have to encourage each other. As Barbra Streisand
might put it, women who need women are the luckiest people in the world. ■ The
author is a Jerusalem writer who focuses on the wondrous stories of modern
Israel. She serves as the Israel director of public relations for Hadassah, the
Women’s Zionist Organization of America. The views in her columns are her own.