“Considering the issue of death and value of life is a prudent way of investing my time.”

Grateful but absent

I am writing to express my gratitude to Congregation Brit Shalom and Rabbi David Ostrich for the comfort you have given me during my recent cancer ordeal. In April, I was diagnosed with kidney cancer. Despite my age and health problems,  Dr. Jennifer Simmons, the diagnosing urologist said, “You look better than your medical chart.” She urged me to go to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York to seek immediate surgery before the malignant tumor spread. “Speed,” she said, “is essential.”

At first Dr. Paul Russo was reluctant to operate for fear my heart would not stand the pressures of an operation. After two trips from State College to New York and back for extensive cardiac testing, in August I returned to New York for a successful operation. Dr. Russo expertly removed the tumor, saved my right kidney, and ensured that for the next 10 years at least I will not die of kidney cancer.

I can always die of something else—the issue of death and the value of life seemed like a prudent way of investing my time. Rabbi Ostrich’s solace included giving me a lovely edition of The Psalms in Hebrew which as I slowly translated provided comfort. The Hebrew is so intensely beautiful. Funds from you in this Jewish community made the trips to save my life possible.

I have been absent from services and from Friday morning breakfasts with the gender neutral Bagel Boys (despite the name). In October my elder daughter Joanna married in North Carolina and I gave her away. As a paraplegic, flying out of State College airport is difficult because the small planes at a regional airport cannot accommodate my heavy mobility equipment which I had to rent upon arrival. My former wife Diana, who sat next to me, began crying at the ceremony and I handed her a clean handkerchief which she used with gratitude. The ceremony ended with the chaplain reciting in Hebrew “May the Lord shine HIS [HER] face upon you and be gracious unto you.” I wept without control. Diana handed me back my handkerchief.


The trip to North Carolina and back to State College exacerbated the recovery process from major surgery. I have recovered physically, but I am back at Congregation Brit Shalom only spiritually. A friend sent an article advising that there is a difference between ruminating and meditation (to which I include prayer). Ruminating over the past is deleterious to one’s health, the article said; meditation and prayer are good. This is nonsense. How can I not reflect upon an experience as intense as surviving cancer? What have I learned? I am 66 years old. What does God want me to do with my time here on Earth?

During these months, I have transferred out of bed to my wheel chair, gone to my computer, and have been writing prolifically. I have not otherwise been reliable, but words keep appearing published on my website www.joelsolkoff.com. On one blog posting, I thank the Jewish people (who else).

At the heart of my efforts is the solution for the problems of low-income elderly and disabled individuals for whom I am an advocate. During adolescence and college, I was active in the civil rights movement where I met Rabbi Abraham Heschel as we marched together with Dr. King.

I am proud of the role of the Jewish community in ending the overt barriers to racial segregation and hope to participate in Jewish efforts to promote disability rights.

I am equally proud of the Jewish community for the flowering of Hebrew that has developed noticeably in my lifetime.

Soon, I will return to you physically praying to God in Hebrew as well as English. There is an interpretation of Genesis that holds God did not create Heaven and Earth. God created the Hebrew alphabet and Hebrew created Heaven and Earth.

Until then, please accept my thanks.


Copyright 2014 by Joel Solkoff. All right reserved.

Note: The above expression of thanks to Congregation Brit Shalom, State College, PA, was published March, 2014 in the synagogue’s newsletter The Scroll.