Brazilian doctor revolutionizes spinal surgery in Israel

Brazilian oleh Dr. Cezar J. Mizrahi, 36, performed the first robot-assisted anterior lumbar spine fusion in Israel.

 WEARING HIS ‘lucky’ Minions hat.  (photo credit: Shaare Zedek)
WEARING HIS ‘lucky’ Minions hat.
(photo credit: Shaare Zedek)

A classic Borscht Belt joke: A Jewish mother walking with her little boys is asked how old they are. “The doctor is three and the lawyer is two,” she answers.

The family of Dr. Cezar J. Mizrahi personifies that humorous stereotype: He’s a neurosurgeon, and his younger brother is a lawyer in Rio de Janeiro. 

Their mother, claims Mizrahi, is always bragging about her son the lawyer, the vice president of the Brazilian Israelite Confederation. The neurosurgeon? Not so much.

Of course, he is just joking. Mizrahi’s “very Zionist” parents in Brazil are surely super proud of their son who is revolutionizing spinal surgery in Israel.

The amiable 36-year-old surgeon, a product of Jewish schools and youth groups, graduated from the Souza Marques School of Medicine in Rio in 2010. In 2011, he did an internship in the intensive care unit at Ipanema Plus Hospital in Brazil, but soon realized he was more interested in neurosurgery. 

 WITH WIFE Shira and children Mia Esther and Refael.  (credit: Mizrahi family) WITH WIFE Shira and children Mia Esther and Refael. (credit: Mizrahi family)

“If I wanted to change my specialty and I always wanted to go to Israel, that was my golden opportunity.”

Dr. Cezar J. Mizrahi

“If I wanted to change my specialty and I always wanted to go to Israel, that was my golden opportunity,” he recalls. “I applied for a few residency programs, and as soon as I was accepted at Hadassah-Hebrew University Medical Center I said goodbye to my parents and brother and said, ‘Maybe I’ll be back in two months.’ They’re still waiting for me.”

He explains that he had low expectations because many people predicted it would be too difficult to adapt to a new culture and language. Mizrahi proved them wrong.

“I credit my wife,” he says. “Being alone in a different country is very complicated, and doing a neurosurgery residency is unbelievably complicated. Every time I said I’d give up, she said, ‘No you won’t.’ She’s Moroccan, and I had to listen to her,” he says with a laugh.

Meeting his wife at the emergency room

He met Shira, then a student of human resources and now working at the Faculty of Humanities at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Mount Scopus campus, one night at 3 a.m. in the emergency department.

“I was in between a few difficult cases. We stopped for coffee and a chat. Now we are married with two kids,” ages seven and four.

SHIRA, A Jerusalemite, put her own career on hold when her husband had a chance in 2019 to learn how to do complex and minimally invasive spine surgeries at Royal Melbourne Hospital in Australia. 

The family was there for three years while Mizrahi honed his new skills at Austin Hospital in Melbourne, performing procedures through different spine approaches using a tiny incision for better outcomes and faster recovery times.

After the family returned to Jerusalem in August 2022, Mizrahi began working at Shaare Zedek Medical Center.

“I had contacted Dr. Nevo Margalit, head of neurosurgery, and Dr. Yair Barzilai, head of the spine unit, and told them my intention was to do the new approaches and techniques that I learned in the past three years. They were very happy to have me,” he recalls.

The work is exciting. In December, he performed the first robot-assisted anterior lumbar spine fusion in Israel.

It’s also grueling. “Sometimes I say, ‘Shira I’m exhausted, I did a huge procedure and I can’t do it tomorrow,’ and she says, ‘I’ll handle everything [else] so you can do your job and your mission.’” 

Mizrahi also finds time to serve as an editor for the Journal of Neurology and Critical Care and to review articles for the Journal of Clinical Neuroscience, the biggest medical journal of its type in the Asia-Australia region. 

He speaks Portuguese, Hebrew, English and Spanish fluently, though he recalled that when he first arrived in Israel he discovered that his Hebrew wasn’t nearly as good as he thought it was. But working at Hadassah and marrying a native Israeli soon turned Hebrew into his first language.

“I speak in Hebrew with my children. Even in Australia, we tried to keep Hebrew as the main language. I tried to teach them Portuguese here, but in Australia I stopped trying because I thought it would drive them crazy,” he says.

When asked about the cultural differences among the three countries in which he’s lived, Mizrahi says they are vast.

“Brazil is a Third World country, very poor. I was lucky to have a supportive family and community, and great healthcare access, but it is very difficult to progress as a person there. Yet everyone in Brazil is so grateful for so little, which is nice. You see happy people there.”

In Australia, he continues, “everything is easy and organized, even a little boring sometimes. You have nice Jewish schools, an almost perfect public health system, not much to worry about in your life.”

And Israel, especially Jerusalem, is intense. “Every experience in Israel is so vivid, so complex. Everybody is so passionate about everything, from politics to sports. The first 48 hours we were back I couldn’t sleep, and I think it was the shock of that Israeli energy. It’s hard to relax.”

Only a few months later, the transition from Melbourne to Jerusalem still poses challenges to everyone in the family. “My wife is restarting her career, I’m in a different hospital trying to implement different techniques, and my kids are going to school in a different language with a different type of kids.”

At the same time, he says, “I’m very happy to come back to Israel. There’s nothing like the sensation that you are coming back home.”

He notes that “Jewish life is much easier here. Outside of Israel, it’s an effort to be Jewish, but here the whole country does it automatically.”

He also appreciates the Israeli “tachlis” approach. “Even though I went to medical school in Brazil and spent years in Australia, I’m a very practical doctor and Israelis are like that too, whereas in other places they are more roundabout.” 

A lifelong sports fan, Mizrahi enjoys going to Hapoel Jerusalem basketball games and followed Brazil’s World Cup performance avidly. In Brazil, he explains with his easy sense of humor, “it’s kind of a religion to watch soccer – and to cheer against Argentina.”  ■

DR. CEZAR J. MIZRAHI, 36 From Rio de Janeiro to Jerusalem, 2012