As the pandemic continues to besiege the world, we spotlight Jerusalem’s Dr. Rachamim Melamed-Cohen and consider how the mosaic of his responses to significant life challenges may reveal coping tools we ourselves may adopt.
Hit hard by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, an affliction in which muscles can no longer function), doctors told Melamed-Cohen that he had only three years to live. Now, 28 years later, he is surviving the global viral corona plague and ALS, both diseases of unknown origin. His life provides us with valuable lessons in combating adversity.
His very name conjures up mystery and history: Rachamim, meaning mercy; Melamed, meaning teacher; Cohen, meaning priest. It is said that in naming a child there is a touch pf prophecy. Rachamim’s life contains more than its share of mercy, an outstanding mentoring career, and heartfelt priestly blessings from man who says that these difficult years have been among the most productive in his life.
One key to overcoming the challenges of coping with these diseases is revealed through force of circumstances. Melamed-Cohen blessedly found himself wrapped in the boundless care of Prof. David Linton, an Emergency Room physician in the Hadassah Center for Emergency Medicine and head of Hadassah’s Emergency Transport Unit, iMER. He is rightly described as a “doctor extraordinaire” – to which we add a “wonderful mensch” – human being.
Another key is the daily devoted care by Melamed-Cohen beloved wife Elisheva, who says, “He is the love of my life,” and is a helpmeet in every sense of the word. Miraculously, Rachamim and Elisheva are celebrating their 60th wedding anniversary this month.
Their romance began in the Ezra youth movement where they were tasked with co-coordinating camps for new immigrants. Marriage took them to India, where Mumbai University appointed Melamed-Cohen professor for Jewish Studies, followed by his appointment as head of all Jewish Agency emissaries in Great Britain.
Accolades abounded, including a singular father-and-son double achievement with his charismatic father, Yaacov Melamed-Cohen – receiving the prestigious Yakir Yerushalyim, Worthy Citizen of Jerusalem, prize.
Among Melamed-Cohen’s many professional achievements was the creation of his international award-winning 1950s video, Mirroring. In it, Down syndrome children viewed and were enabled to arrange their features and walking patterns in front of mirrors. Thus transformed, they became socially attractive joyful individuals. Many, in what was then a groundbreaking concept, became absorbed into the regular educational system rather than, as previously, being isolated in stigmatized schools.
TRAGICALLY, AT only 57, his stellar career was increasingly cut down when he was diagnosed in 1994 with the dreaded ALS. Three years when he regained consciousness after a life-threatening coma doctors asked him in a whisper if he wanted to go on living.
“No, I don’t. I won’t be a burden to my family.”
He underestimated Elisheva’s determination and heard her say firmly, “Rachamim will go on living.”
In the searing film Heroes against Their Will, Dr. Noam Reches, chairman of Israel’s Medical Ethics Committee and leading proponent of euthanasia, looks at the wheelchair-bound Melamed-Cohen, with respirator tube connected to the tracheotomy in his neck and says, “You can’t breathe on your own; you can’t feed yourself. You can’t hug the people you love... If I were in your position, I’d want out.” Melamed-Cohen and Reches continue.
“You wear glasses do you not?”
“Indeed, I do.”
“And I have a breathing and feeding tube?”
“Indeed you do!”
“And many wear hearing aids.”
“So, we see how you and I and many others are dependent on some form of outside support to enhance our lives. These are the most beautiful and happiest years of my life. Believe me, my life is no less interesting than yours. I wish to live – not die – with dignity.” To prove it, knowing time was of the essence, Melamed-Cohen has worked creatively and relentlessly. From the confines of his wheelchair/bed he has painted scenes – with one eye, using an eye-operated computer keyboard – and chosen Torah quotations for widely sought and distributed annual calendars. His 20 or more illustrated books, ranging from education to poetry, include a favorite poem called “In the Blink of an Eye.” His miraculously accomplished artistic paintings on the theme “Eyes in the Bible” merited an exhibition in the Jerusalem Theater.
During our pandemic, Melamed-Cohen’s words aptly ring for us.
“I want the opportunity to convey the message of optimism and that life is holy. I could have missed out on the best, most beautiful years of my life. Before, I didn’t believe that I had such inner strength. I learned that every human being has sparks that he can transform into a burning flame,” he said in a 2006 interview with Sara Yoheved Rigler.
Judy Montagu reported how two British men were petitioning the Court of Appeal for protection from prosecution for people who could help them “end it all.” How apt is Judy 2013 depiction of Melamed-Cohen as a “hero against his will” in The Jerusalem Post in 2013.
We may find another answer to the question of how to combat the pandemic in his resilience and faith. As Melamed-Cohen says, “The message of Judaism is that one must struggle until the last breath of life. Until the last moment, one has to live and rejoice and give thanks to the Creator.” Comforted and consoled by those who care for him and for whom Rachamim cares in return, echoes of his sentiments are offered by Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe, of blessed memory, who suggests meaningfully that “Life is for loving.” Blessedly appropriate as well for Rachamim and Elisheva Melamed-Cohen, is “A Song for All Lovers” by John Denvers: “I hear them singing a song for all lovers/ A song for the two hearts beating only as one.” We concur with these sentiments as this devoted pair prepare to celebrate their 60th wedding anniversary! May we all join together in wishing them and their clan, of which I am a part, hearty mazal tov!
And, as is their motto, chazak, chazak v’nitchazek – be strong, be strengthened and of good spirit!
The writer, her late husband Neville and three sons arrived in Israel from England 45 years ago. Their son Dov married Efrat, daughter of Rachamim and Elisheva Melamed-Cohen, and she feels privileged to be part of their family. As psychotherapist and organization development consultant, she worked for the Social Welfare Ministry.