A kick out of life

The Jerusalem-born US college placekicker never forgot his dream: to become a doctor and return to the homeland

The young Amnon Gimpel (photo credit: REPRODUCED BY COURTESY OF AMNON GIMPEL)
The young Amnon Gimpel
Football fans in the US South may be familiar with the name Amnon Gimpelevitz, who in the mid-’60s was one of the first to use a more effective approach to kicking field goals.
People in the medical profession know the former star kicker of Louisiana College as Amnon Gimpel, one of the world’s leading experts on attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
Gimpel was born in Jerusalem, in August 1943. At that time his family lived in the Geula neighborhood. Six months later they moved further into town, to Shammai Street.
His mother, who was born and raised in Ukraine and studied pharmacy in Romania, was a pharmacist at the original Shaare Zedek hospital, which was generally referred to as the Wallach hospital, because its founder Moshe (Moritz) Wallach, a German-Jewish physician, remained its director for 45 years.
When Gimpel was a little boy, his father, who made aliya from Bialystok in 1915 and had helped drain the malaria- infested swamps, regularly went to the Old City to pray at the Western Wall. Gimpel has no recollection of going to the Wall. What he does remember is running along the ramparts of the wall surrounding the Old City. It was a joy to climb the steep staircase leading to the ramparts, and then to run along the top.
From his home on Shammai Street, he could see movies at the long-defunct Orion Cinema, even though he couldn’t hear the sound track. There was no air conditioning in those days, so the windows of the cinema were opened in summer, and the family could see the screen from the balcony of their apartment.
Another childhood memory is of standing in line waiting for water when Jerusalem was under siege. As soon as they heard the truck bearing the water tank, Gimpel and his brother ran into the street to stand in line until their mother arrived with containers in which to carry home the precious liquid.
Because of the siege, many Jerusalemites raised chickens, and grew their own herbs and vegetables.
The area between Shammai Street where he lived and the Old City walls was an open field where children often played and sometimes kicked around a soccer ball.
During the War of Independence, following the bombing on nearby Ben-Yehuda Street, the family relocated to Jaffa Road, where Gimpel’s father had a carpentry shop. They lived in a cellar with four other families.
When Gimpel started school, his parents wanted him to have the best education possible, and instead of sending him to the nearest institution to where they lived, they sent him to Beit Hakerem, which was considered to have one of the better schools in Jerusalem.
He stayed there until completing the sixth grade, after which he transferred to junior high school at Beit Hayeled, located behind the Inbal Hotel, which did not exist in Gimpel’s day. For highschool studies, he was back at Beit Hakerem, which later c h a n g e d its name to “ L eyada” (the Hebrew Unive r s i t y High School), and is considered one of the best high schools in the capital.
As a teenager he played soccer with the Beitar Jerusalem youth team, and they often practiced on what was then the YMCA oval, which was where most soccer games in Jerusalem took place prior to the construction of Teddy Stadium. “Beitar was not as racist then as it is today,” he recalled in an interview with The Jerusalem Post.
In the army, he was drafted to the Galilee, where he was instructed to form Scouts groups, which operated in a similar fashion to Hesder yeshivot where students study half a day and spend the other half as soldiers. The Scouts groups were secular, involved in Scouts movement activities for half a day and soldiering for the other half.
Gimpel’s heart was set on becoming a doctor, and after leaving the army he applied to medical school, but was rejected because his grades were too low.
With hindsight he says he spent so much time playing soccer that he didn’t pay sufficient attention to his studies.
Still determined to study medicine, he decided in 1964 to try his luck in America. He had very little money, aside from which Israel’s strict foreign currency regulations at that time would have severely limited the amount of money that he could take with him even if he had ample funds. A ferry sailing from Haifa to Naples cost him $50. From Naples he took a train to Cherbourg in northwestern France, and then boarded the Queen Mary on one of the ship’s last voyages to New York. Strapped for cash, he was in a Class D cabin way below deck.
He had no relatives in New York and only one friend, who was studying film production and was living with his uncle, who was on vacation in the Catskills. The friend met Gimpel on the wharf and took him to his uncle’s house, where he was able to stay briefly until just before the uncle came home.
Gimpel’s next stop was at the Riverside Y, where he was able to get a dormitory room for $5 a night. As his money was running out, someone he met suggested that he take a summer job with a Brooklyn Jewish youth club. His CV instantly advanced him to the position of camp director.
He learned from Barron’s Guide to Universities that in the US, before being admitted to medical school, he had to earn a bachelor’s degree.
His choices did not depend on which of the best colleges would accept him, but which one was the most affordable. Louisiana College was charging $750 for room and board for a semester, and that, to Gimpel, appeared to be his best bet.
The Southern Baptist college had a quota system that enabled one Jew and two foreign students to attend. As Gimpel was both a Jew and an Israeli, it meant the college had room for one more American, but not an African-American. He sent an application, and was immediately accepted because he was an Israeli. The other foreign student was from Taiwan.
Segregation, which Gimpel had never encountered before, was still rampant in Louisiana. He had $250 left out of the money he had taken out of Israel, and at the summer camp he had made $600, which together covered his first semester and left him with a little change.
There was one phone for each dormitory school, and within a few hours of his arrival, there was a call for him. The caller was Dr. Bernard Kaplan, who welcomed him, asked if he was busy, invited him to dinner and assured him that he was coming to a kosher home.
Gimpel was amazed. How did Kaplan know that a young man from Israel had just arrived?
The school dean happened to be one of Kaplan’s patients and had mentioned that an Israeli student had registered.
Kaplan made Gimpel an offer he couldn’t refuse. He told him that it was his ambition for his children to speak Hebrew, and if Gimpel would tutor them, Kaplan and his wife would finance Gimpel’s tuition and board.
It was a win-win situation.
In his sophomore year, he was invited by fellow students to come watch a game of American football. He had never heard of American football, and he went along out of pure curiosity.
It puzzled him that the offense kept missing an easy shot through the goalposts.
Commenting that the miss was silly, he was taunted as to whether he could do better. He said he could and was invited to prove it in a demonstration soon after.
Approaching the ball as if it was a soccer ball, he demonstrated that his was not an idle boast. The people around him thought it was a fluke, and asked him to do it again. Someone called the assistant coach who came to see what the wonder boy from Israel could do.
The ball he’d been given was a basketball that wouldn’t stay still. Gimpel saw some caps from Coca-Cola bottles on the ground. He moved them down to the 35-yard line to help balance the ball. The coach expected him to come from behind the ball as the Americans did, but Gimpel came from the side at a 45-degree angle so that he could run, swing his leg and hit the ball from his instep. The assistant coach asked if he could do it again. He could and he did. The ball was then moved to the 40-yard line and subsequently to the 45-yard line.
In next to no time the head coach put him on the team, and made him the kicker. Lots of publicity followed, with one memorable headline stating “Jewboy stars in a strange game.”
Gimpel was being wooed by headhunters, including one from the NFL’s Chicago Bears, who wanted such a talented placekicker on their team, but Gimpel politely declined each offer, saying he had not come to the US to play football. He had come to study medicine.
The problem was that his English at the time was far from fluent, and he had to work very hard to keep up. He was constantly tired, so Kaplan gave him Ritalin, which boosted both his energy and his alertness.
From Louisiana, he went to the University of Oklahoma College of Medicine where he met his wife, Lynn. She was one of three women in a class of 125 students. From Oklahoma, he went to Atlanta, Georgia, and at Emory University, specialized in neurology and psychiatry.
He stayed in Atlanta, always meaning to come home, but deferring the move because so many young people needed his help.
He was among the pioneers in diagnosing and treating children and adolescents with ADHD, and developed methods that helped adolescents overcome drug dependency for relief from their condition.
Following the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War in October 1973, Gimpel received a call from the Israeli Embassy telling him that the country needed psychiatrists. With two babies at the time, he boarded the last flight before the suspension of civilian flights to the region. He was sent to Sheba Medical Center in Tel Hashomer to work with shell-shocked and traumatized soldiers.
In 1991, during the Gulf War, his son Daniel dropped out of New York University and came to Israel in a measure of solidarity.
Gimpel’s brother met him at the airport and brought him a gas mask. It didn’t take long for Lynn Gimpel to come and make sure that he was all right, bringing with her 11-year-old Jeremy, the youngest of the three Gimpel sons.
As a result, Gimpel was on a frequent commute between Atlanta and Jerusalem.
At the time, there were many household gadgets that Lynn was used to but was unable to find in Jerusalem. Before each of his flights, she called her husband to ask him to drop into Ace Hardware to buy whatever it was that she needed. It almost became a ritual.
Ostensibly, Lynn had come to Israel on a sabbatical, but when friends made a farewell party during one of Amnon’s visits, she announced that she wasn’t leaving.
Amnon wound up his psychiatric practice in Atlanta, but wasn’t sure that he could start up again in Israel, even though he also had Israeli certification.
Remembering how often Lynn had asked for products from Ace, he persuaded the company’s management to grant him a franchise for Israel, and together with investors Dovrat Shrem and HGII Building Materials Marketing Ltd set up the first of the Ace stores, which are now fixtures all over the country. Flushed with Ace’s success in Israel, he decided to expand and went to Russia to launch Ace there. He remained in Russia for a few years, and Lynn flew periodically from Jerusalem to join him, but she wasn’t happy there, and Amnon was also homesick for Jerusalem.
So he came back, resumed his medical practice, and in 2007 wrote a book called Brain Exercises to Cure ADHD. It has been published in English, Hebrew and Russian, and a Chinese edition is on the way.
These days Amnon and Lynn Gimpel live in Jerusalem in a beautiful sunlit apartment with a garden. All three sons and their families live in Israel – two in Neveh Daniel and one in Efrat.
Gimpel had never intended to remain in America. He had always planned to come home, but lost some of the motivation when his father died.
Asked nowadays whether he misses America, his answer is: “No. This is my home.”