The Human Spirit: Sparks in Africa

Celebrating Shabbat in Addis Ababa: Friday night hymns and barley rolls instead of halla.

barbara sofer 88 (photo credit: )
barbara sofer 88
(photo credit: )
Friday night at the home of Rick Hodes in Addis Ababa. There's no Chabad House in the capital of Ethiopia, so visitors from near and far gather in this modest wooden structure with its big front porch and a punching bag in the front yard. More than 20 persons welcome the Sabbath standing in a large circle in the living room. Few claim English as a native tongue, but everyone joins in "If I had a hammer" - Pete Seeger's ballad of social justice. Even fewer are Jewish, but they all sing Shalom Aleichem. According to tradition, that Friday night hymn welcomes the angels who drop in to inspect the household and bestow their blessings. I imagine a pair of angels, accustomed as they are to drawing rooms with crystal goblets on crisp white tablecloths, smiling warmly at this gathering of humankind. Dr. Rick, as everyone calls him, blesses the 15 children one by one. And then, in a country where no one manufactures kosher wine or bakes halla, he makes Kiddush and then says the blessing on barley rolls: "Blessed art Thou our Lord, King of the Universe, who brings forth bread from the earth." These children understand the blessing of bread. They all grew up in African poverty, where a laborer's dollar-a-day wage has to pay for family food and lodgings. Then they lost even that. A smart and funny eight-year-old, for example, arrived in Addis from a village with his father after his mother's death. When the boy looked up from a game of marbles, his father had left too. Most of the youngsters suffer from serious illnesses. Four have hump backs from congenital malformations or spinal tuberculosis. Others have suffered from rheumatic heart disease, polio and the trauma of warfare. Two teenaged boys have each lost legs to cancer. They're the same size, so they share a pair of sneakers. ALONG WITH the children, the guests include a one-armed Orthodox priest with cancer waiting for a prosthesis, an international development-fund expert, a retiree tourist from Maryland, a Hindu college student volunteer from Detroit and a Jewish one from New York, and two visitors from Israel. The dinner begins with a hearty lentil soup served in tin mugs. For the main course, Ethiopia's high-protein sponge-bread called injera is served with a dozen stewed vegetarian dishes. Despite the prevalence of dire medical conditions, visiting the Hodes house feels more like a trip to Peter Pan's lost boys than a dwelling for the unfortunate. The kids discuss schoolwork and books and play card games. One boy who had never seen electricity loves to walk at night to see the lights of Addis. Another speaks of a day trip to the airport where Ethiopia's only escalator takes you effortlessly from one floor to another. The Shabbat repast includes a leading weekly question. Tonight's query is "whom do you appreciate?" and the first responder - one of the kids - answers "Galileo," and others suggest Ariel Sharon, the Wright brothers, a relative, a former ruler of Ethiopia. Several name our enigmatic host. Dr. Rick came to Ethiopia two decades ago after a childhood on Long Island, a university education in Vermont, four years in Alaska, and medical school in Rochester and Baltimore. He'd specialized in internal medicine, and landed a teaching job in Addis Ababa on a Fulbright scholarship. When the Jews of Ethiopia began their exodus to Israel, he returned to work for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, and continues to care for Ethiopian Jews and Falash Mura. He's also the volunteer medical adviser to Mother Teresa's Mission for Sick and Dying Destitutes. In addition, he pours his energy and resourcefulness into hundreds of personal rescue missions. Through connections and persuasiveness, he manages to do the impossible: arranging complex surgery for Ethiopian children in the United States, in Israel, in India and Ghana. Sometimes donors appear with generous gifts; often Dr. Rick signs for the expenses himself. When he is completely stuck, he gets a Divine boost or two. There was the time he was teaching medical students at Mother Teresa's when he mentioned that an expensive drug he was missing was produced by Novartis. An Italian visitor worked for a division of the pharmaceutical company and offered to supply it. In an elevator in the Sheraton, where he swims, the winsome physician chatted with a woman tourist and learned that she was part of a facial surgery team that had a dearth of cases. He brought her to Mother Teresa's to meet a woman with a melon-sized tumor and they fixed it. Dr. Rick adopted five of the children, moved by their medical needs, and later because he liked being their Dad, making sure they did their school work, gently teasing them through medical procedures and glum days. They have names that mean things like "And my wish," "Getting better," "Worldchild," "My Winner," and "Duke." In a continent plagued with poverty and disease, some would call his efforts a drop in the ocean. I prefer to use the vocabulary of the Safed kabbalists, who taught us to welcome the Sabbath queen. They spoke of sparks - those that glow inside us and those that we need to gather through good deeds. Walking back to my hotel from this far-flung outpost of the Jewish people, there were sparks aplenty lighting the dark African sky.