Bartenura 10

Bartenura 10

Beth Kissileff, Pittsburgh, PA, USA

"Willing or no, who will but what they must/By Destinie, and can no other choose?" (John Milton, Paradise Lost V, 533‑34)


As Wendy walked from the bus stop on Azza street towards the office of Dr. Daniel Hideckel at 10 Bartenura, the street behind Azza, she wondered how she would present herself. To make the appointment, she had merely phoned and spoken to a receptionist. None of the American efficiency of taking down information, putting forms in the mail, or questioning whether she had health insurance coverage. The Israeli system seemed to be casual and friendly, ‘okay, you want to come over, come,’ so inimical to the American penchant for advance planning.

Wendy was here in this Jerusalem neighborhood of buildings with stunning lack of complication in their angles and design, to ask Shaul’s psychiatrist whether she was implicated in Shaul’s death. As she looked for Hideckel’s building at number ten, she saw an older man go into an adjacent building, his face vaguely familiar from her trips to the Hebrew University library on Mount Scopus. She didn’t know the man’s name or field, but assumed he was a professor. Even though this man didn’t know her, she felt shame and embarrassment at her proximity to 10 Bartenura. Would anyone think she was crazy if they saw her here?  She did not want to be exposed as someone visiting a psychiatrist’s office.

                  Spotting number 10, Wendy walked in and on the row of mailboxes, saw the name, Hideckel, unit three, second floor. It seemed to be a completely residential building from the signs with family names on the gray metal mailboxes set into the wall, large enough for bills, periodicals, postcards, and any other items seen fit to transport via the inefficient Israeli postal service. 

She climbed the steps to the second floor. Even in the prestigious Rehavia neighborhood in Jerusalem, there was no elevator. On the first door at the top of the stairs there was a small plaque, in English and Hebrew, Dr. Daniel Hideckel, MD, licensed psychiatrist, the only indication of the nature of his profession. She opened the unlocked door, and found a small waiting room, three chairs with tan faux leather covering and metal arms and legs, looking as though they were bought used from an office furniture store in the early seventies or late sixties. A coffee table, of the same provenance, held a selection of magazines in English, Time, Newsweek, and the Jerusalem Report. Similar selections in Hebrew and German were on the side tables. She removed her purple canvas messenger bag from her shoulder and unzipped her coat. She began to thumb through the Jerusalem Report and came across an article about Jews and their attitudes to child rearing. According to this survey commissioned by a Jewish group trying to gauge what distinctiveness remained to American Jews in an increasingly assimilated society, Jews value being able to ask questions and think for oneself. This set Jews apart for only 32% of those of other ethnic groups valued this, as opposed to 78% of Jews. Other ethnic groups valued obedience (23%), being well liked (16%), working hard (18%) or helping others (11%) most highly. “I’m glad someone values questions. They certainly don’t seem to have helped Shaul. I hope this doctor will answer mine,” Wendy thought.

As Wendy continued to read the Jerusalem Report, she heard an inner door open and the footsteps of a person walking by. She did not want to see any fellow inmates of 10/3 Bartenura, and deliberately did not look up. A few moments later, she heard another pair of footsteps. This time, they were connected to a voice, which announced pleasantly, “Wendy Goldberg?” At her nod, he said, “This way,” and turned around to march back to his office. As Wendy walked down the corridor, she saw a kitchen on the left and a closed door beyond it, which she presumed a bathroom. They entered Dr. Hideckel’s office. It was filled by a dark crimson Oriental rug, a glass topped coffee table, and a window with a view of a garden behind it. It was flanked by bookshelves containing books in English, Hebrew and German; medical texts, novels and sociological studies shared the space. Hideckel gestured to Wendy to sit in a black leather armchair, while he took a white legal pad and seated himself on the matching sofa. She faced him and the window to her right, while in front of the window was a large desk, piled with papers and medical journals of indeterminate date, maybe recent, maybe from ten years ago. There was not a computer or typewriter. 

She gazed at the doctor wearing a plain black crocheted kipah, no designs on the edges. His black hair was gray around the temples, with more gray sprinkled through his head. He was wearing a white button down shirt, gray wool cardigan, navy blue slacks and sensible leather shoes. Everything about him seemed sedate and moderate. His brown eyes looked calm behind his reading glasses. She wasn’t sure what to do next, so she waited.

He began the conversation, looking at her, but with a pen in his hand. “What brought you here today? What are your symptoms? I’m here to listen.”

                  Wendy reached into her backpack for her own notepad. “This isn’t about me. I… interviewed your patient. Shaul Engel. Before his death…” She paused to take in a long breath of air, “I … need to know. Am I responsible?” 

                   Daniel Hideckel took off his glasses and gazed at her, hard. “I don’t know how to.. ...Okay…. “ he gave a long sigh also. “Shaul’s medical history .…there’s no way to point a finger at a specific cause.”   He stopped and looked through her, adding, “Shaul’s parents are thinking of suing the yeshiva. For negligence in not noticing signs of Shaul’s increasingly severe depression, and for letting you speak to him. I’ve received a call from the lawyer his parents hired. I told him there wasn’t much of a case. One can’t know what effect anything has on a person already sunk in clinical depression.”

Wendy looked at him and lifted her body into a more upright and proud position, and said, “I’m not to blame?” with a new lilt in her voice.
              Hideckel placed his pad and pen on the sofa and looked at Wendy. “You asked questions about changes he made in his life. When he responded, he started to feel that he hadn’t changed and he wasn’t the righteous person he wanted to be. He mailed me a copy of his suicide note, apologizing that he just couldn’t keep trying.” Hideckel paused to wipe the tears from his eyes and replace his glasses. “He wrote that it would be easier to be dead than to keep struggling. He just wanted to say ‘good night’ to everything, to let it end.”

                                    “If I hadn’t asked those questions would he still be here?” 

                                    “Impossible to answer.” He looked at her. “Legally, you should be fully exonerated. You didn’t intend harm to him; your questions haven’t had a negative impact on other subjects. I don’t think he would have made it this far had he not become religious. There is a phenomenon, research shows, among baalei teshuvah, the turn to religion can stave off symptoms of mental illness for three to five years. After that, religiosity has a negligible affect, the illness can return with the same potency. Another thing about suicide is that often the time of danger is when the patient seems to be improving. The patient has an awareness things are better, but once improved, he begins to grasp how far there is yet to go. That awareness of the distance to optimal health seems to propel some suicides.”

                                    “You mean I’m not really guilty?” Wendy said, surprising herself when the words left her mouth.

                                    “There is a saying in Judaism, ‘innocent in the eyes of man, guilty in the sight of heaven.’ In a human court, you’ve committed no crime. And, fortunately for you, Shaul’s parents are divorced and can hardly to agree on anything, much less a lawsuit.”

                                    Wendy breathed comfortably. “I hope you’re right.” She added,  “But what do you mean ‘guilty in the eyes of heaven?’”

                                    “There are higher standards than human ones. If you feel you’ve done wrong, atone.”

                                    ”Dr. Hideckel. I am feeling vulnerable now and I don’t want to get drawn to… some …  religious thing.I…I… didn’t expect that from a medical doctor, person of science.”

                                    “If you feel responsible, atone. You will also pay if you do nothing. Guilt has a cost.”

                  Wendy looked at him, steadily. “Point taken.”

                  “I know you’re under stress now, and, I’m just making suggestions, not forcing anything on you,” Hideckel said in sympathy. “There are ways Jews repent -- giving tzedaka, doing deeds of loving-kindness, praying, studying sacred texts… Doing any one of these might help you sleep better.”

                  “Maybe. I’m not a super-religious person. I go to synagogue here sometimes on Friday night, it’s social. I don’t have much money to give to charity. What else?”

                  “Study of sacred texts and deeds of loving-kindness. Since you’re a student, study might be a good place to start, you’re a student. What’s your field?”

                  Wendy responded palms flat on her knees in front of her. “American religion. I’m writing on ba’alei teshuva as an American phenomenon.”

“I’m sure you’d find my wife Atarah’s classes of interest. She teaches a class on the Torah portion. Her PhD is from Chicago in Social Thought, that’s where we met. She’s read all the religious phenomenologists  – Eliade, Levi-Strauss, Geertz…”

                  Wendy looked at him with a surprised expression. “Really. Most of the religious people I’ve come across here are either hostile to academic thought or positively anti-intellectual. This is new,” Wendy smiled, intrigued.
            Hideckel continued, “Atarah knows both traditional text study and modern literary theory. She meshes them. Her book is coming out this fall, Oxford University Press.”

    Wendy sat up, “Maybe I will try her classes. It might help me understand my subjects better.” Then she added, half-jokingly, “Can I come back for a prescription for sleeping pills?”

      “Absolutely. Anything else?” he added kindly.

                  “I don’t know.” She stopped and paused before asking what had been on her mind, “Why is it so hard for these returnees?”

                  "I am sure you have heard from your subjects of the difficulty of finding acceptance in the religious community. It wasn’t always like that. The rabbis of the Talmud said, ‘In the place where a penitent, a 'baal teshuva,' stands, a completely right­eous person cannot stand. ’  What I remember learning about it, and this speaks to the question of Shaul and his at­tempts to overcome his illness, is that the reason for the rela­tive greatness of the baal teshuva is his ability to withstand temptation.”

                  "I’ve never heard anything like this from my interviewees.” Wendy continued, “Why aren't baalei testhuva taught about the value of what they’re doing instead of con­stantly being made to feel ignorant?"

                  "The yeshiva isn’t at fault for Shaul's suicide. I was his doctor. I was the one who could have saved him,” he sighed sadly, “'Al ta'amod al dam rayek­ha' don't stand by your brother's blood. I should have admitted him to a hospital, to keep him safe. I didn’t."

                  Wendy said, "Have many patients under your care committed suicide?” She said this both afraid to pry into the psyche of this psychiatrist, yet unable to staunch her curiosity.

                  "Even one is one too many… Psychiatry is such a tough specialty, because each individual and course of illness has its own contours. One never knows with certainty whether the patient would respond better to hospitalization, or a course of ECT treatments, or a different combination of medications…” He sighed and stared into the distance for a few moments.

        Wendy fidgeted for a moment before responding, “I have an uncle who is a hand surgeon and he says that surgery is inexact too. Only another surgeon, going in to the incision and looking at what was done can evaluate the accuracy of a surgeon’s work. Most of us can’t evaluate whether the operation was successful because even though we can see the surface, we can’t know what went on underneath the skin.”

       Hideckel responded, “Right. Even the most exact of medical specialties can’t be evaluated externally.”

      They were both silent for a few moments until Wendy continued. "Is it common for certain events to trigger a suicide? With all the interviews there seems to be a certain degree of difficulty for the intervie­wee in realizing how far he or she has changed but also how the past lurks in the background, threatening to overtake the progress they've made towards becoming a new person."

                  "This physical metaphor, an old person waiting to lurch out like a panther or a ghost. Your imagery or your subjects?"

                  "My subjects. And that is why I feel so...” she paused and then said, “culpable… in Shaul's suicide. He had a hard time with my questions about how he had changed since he had become religious. He started saying he'd never get to where he wanted to be, that he was a failure... He became very emotional. I could tell it was painful for him. His eyes became almost watery. I could see that he was on the verge of tears. I didn't know how to react. I didn’t express any compassion and … I regret that." 

                  Dr. Hideckel sighed. "That was Shaul. Setting unreasonably high standards for himself and then feeling a failure for not reaching them. We worked on that, but unfortunately when people become religious often it magnifies particular aspects of their personalities, rather than really transforming them, as they may hope. They focus on those aspects of Judaism that are most compatible with their personali­ties. Shaul had a real sense of inferiority ‑ he used religion to reinforce it. Others who have a need for order, they will focus on the most punctilious ‑ though not strictly necessary ‑ observances of halacha. I wish I could convey to the rabbis at ba’al teshuva yeshivot that individ­ualism is not a threat to religion but a basis for it.” He put his hand on his chin and added, “One of the names for God in the Torah is ‘elohei ruhot,’ the ‘god of the source breath of all flesh.’” Rashi commented that in appointing a leader to succeed Moses, God must appoint someone who can deal with each individual in accordance with his own "ruah," temperament. Israeli society values the hevreman, the group-centered person, rather than the individual. “

                  Wendy added, “I’m with you. Conformity is not healthy.”


"For ba’alei teshuva, so much is new. The returnee isn't sure how to integrate new things with who she or he was before the teshuva process. Have you ever seen a plate in an anatomy book, all the different layers of a human, the circulation system, the muscles, the vital organs, the skeleton. If you see the whole, it is coherent. If you look at one layer, it won’t give you a realistic picture. Ba’alei teshuva focus so much on the religious layer of the self that they often miss the others. It is difficult to reach a point of person­al authenticity. That is the focus of your research, yes?"

                  "Not so much the layers, but what does the new picture look like? How is the present different when one sees the past behind it? Have you seen photos of Shimon Attie? He took pictures in  Berlin,  and then found archival photos of the exact location before the war when the area was a Jewish neighborhood. He su­perimposed the two. The montage is…haunting. One can't see those places as they are now without seeing what came before. It’s as though the ghosts have come back to life. My baalei teshuvah don't know how to look at themselves as a whole with these two aspects, past and present. They haven't been able to fuse the images and create a composite. Nothing coheres.”

“You’re right. Baalei teshuva don't feel there is room for a crisis of faith, they see things in stark terms ‑ religious or non‑religious, Jew or goy. One needs leeway to doubt and question. You know, I’ve found with my patients the ones with the most successful outcomes are the ones who come in most full of doubts about the therapeutic process.

“What do you mean?” Wendy felt perplexed by this comment she would not have expected.

“That they… well if they express their fears about the process, that enables them, from the beginning to admit their struggles and make our treatment more effective.” He stopped and saw from Wendy’s face that she was still perplexed, so he added, “Have you ever heard about the Bobover rebbe? He survived the Holocaust and had a crisis of faith after the war. He shaved his beard, didn’t want to be a rebbe. He eventually returned to his role as rebbe, he was able to attract followers because of his own doubts. Everyone needs to be able to step back and question.”

"Do you?”

He laughed. “I’m baal teshuva myself. My parents came to the New York from Germany in the 1930’s. They were secular and we lived in an intensely Jewish neighborhood in Washington Heights, where there were so many Jews and refugees. When I got to college in Chicago, I took a Jewish studies class, and was invited by another student for a Shabbat meal. I felt comfortable with Shabbat and the community at Hillel. I became religious.”

“Oh.” Wendy was silent for a moment and then asked, “Did your goals change after you became religious? Would have done something else if you hadn’t?”

“Hmmm. You know, it is a general problem, how to integrate youthful ideals into the realities of life, to merge dreams from the past with one’s present where they may or may not come to fruition. I always wanted to be a doctor, as a child of immigrants I was a caretaker in many ways, mature for my age. I wonder whether being religious heightened my interest in psychiatry… interesting to ponder.” He looked at his watch. “I’m sorry Wendy, but I have another appointment.”

She stood up and slung her messenger bag over her shoulder. She reached out to shake his hand. “Thank you so much for your time Dr. Hideckel.”

He shook firmly and said, ”A pleasure to meet. Good luck with your challenges in the next few weeks.”

She added standing, “One final question, relating to you and to Shaul. Why do some people cope with the fact that their present life and their past dreams need to create some kind of composite, and some can’t let go of their expectations from the past?” 

                  “I wish I knew. There’s so much we don’t know about ourselves and others,” he said as Wendy exited his office.


                  As Wendy left the building, she gazed at the Bauhaus buildings in the neighborhood, constructed by Jews like Dr. Hideckel’s parents, those who fled Germany in the 1930’s. She thought about how their well-crafted minimalism negated the complications of the lives of those who escaped. The forced simplicity of the buildings – was it a necessity? The attempt to reduce design elements so, on the surface, all could appear controlled, no frilly ironwork or odd angles to disturb the purity of the architect’s modernist vision. Wendy wished that she could do the same, reduce the messiness of her subject’s lives, and her relationship to them, to a particular kind of grid, these emotions here, those there, cause and effect, neatly sorted. She wondered about human attempts to purge their lives of messiness, and what the cost was. Obviously, for Shaul it had been high. Once he allowed that untidiness to return, to see there was still much that was preventing him from being the person he aspired to be, he felt the enterprise of changing himself entirely hopeless.

 Jerusalem’s buildings veered from the architectural purity of the Bauhaus style and became less elegant and simple as Wendy’s walk brought her closer to her apartment on Mishael Street in the German Colony, away from the Rehavia neighborhood of Hideckel’s office. She had been told that Mishael meant “who is asking” in Hebrew. Who was she to ask others about their lives?



Women in Judaism: A Multidisciplinary Journal Fall 2012 Volume 9 Number 2

ISSN 1209-9392

© 2012 Women in Judaism, Inc.

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