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Giving a Hand

April 19, 2013

It never occurred to me that he is Muslim and I am Jewish. We met at a party to welcome the young international workers who arrived in our seaside community in Maine to work at the hotels and restaurants for the summer, to have a cultural exchange, and to learn English. I had been reading Snow, a novel by the Turkish author, Orhan Pamuk, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2006. Sechkin and his girlfriend, Dilek, both from Turkey, were familiar with the book and were eager to talk about it and have a conversational partner to improve their English.

Milton and his wife at the wedding of Sechkin and Dilek in Turkey.

We met a few times. I took them on hikes, and my wife and I invited them to dinner one night. Both of them are genuine and warm people, and we laughed a lot about their take on American culture. Sechkin was struck how Americans keep a marked physical distance between themselves when talking. He told me once that I was "eunuch." I corrected him and said that I though he meant "unique."

One day, Sechkin appeared with a bandage around his thumb. He had cut it on a tin can and had gone to the local ER to have it sutured. The doctor told him that he had severed a nerve, and surgery was scheduled to reconnect it.

Several days after the surgery, he called to tell me that he was having excruciating pain, and had gone to see his surgeon, who gave him some pain medication, but it was still very painful. He asked me to take him to the ER. He was seen by a physician who, like the surgeon, did not look at his thumb but gave him a prescription for a strong narcotic.

Over a period of many days, the three of us traveled from one hospital to another. At a regional hospital in New Hampshire, a nurse opened the bandage and looked away as she saw the effects of his infection. When I saw that it was black and oozing, I, too, looked away. When I looked up at his eyes, I saw Sechkin crying.

Sechkin speaks some English but, given his anxiety and pain, he asked, at my urging, for a Turkish interpreter at the hospital. The nurse looked at us coldly and told us, "This is America. We speak English here." Sechkin was deeply hurt. I got angry.

The hand specialist took him into surgery the next day and after de-breeding the wound, the surgeon came out to talk with Dilek and me. He told us that Sechkin might lose his thumb. I was dumbstruck and tears came to my eyes. Dilek was in shock. The injured thumb, having been ignored, was now infected to the bone. The doctor told me that the nerve was gone, and the tendon was badly damaged. He was admitted as an inpatient for the administration of intravenous antibiotics. A few days later, he was referred to Mass General Hospital in Boston for corrective surgery by a well-known hand surgeon. Nothing went easily. While at MGH he finally felt safe. The doctors and nurses treated him like a prince from Arabia, not knowing that between Sechkin and Dilek, all they had in the world was less than two hundred dollars. After a week at MGH, he was scheduled for yet another surgery to graft skin, blood vessels, and a nerve from his hand and arm to reconstruct his thumb.

Sharing such an emotional experience brought us very close; it was a very stressful time for each of us. Dilek didn't want to leave his side. I went into my rational mode, calling lawyers, doctors, and everyone I knew who might be of help. Sechkin and Dilek had very little money to start with and now, with neither of them working, they could ill afford medications, rent, or food.

Before long, friends of mine were dropping off money and groceries, and wondering what more they could do. This was disconcerting for Sechkin and Dilek. They were, at first, concerned about becoming charity cases. As a Jew I tried to explain to them the concept of tzedakah.

Tzedakah is very different from the idea of charity, which suggests a magnanimous act by the wealthy for the benefit of the poor. Tzedakah suggests, instead, an act of justice and righteousness. In Judaism, giving is an act of fairness, the performance of a duty, giving the poor their due.

I learned from Sechkin that there is a similar concept in Islam. One of the Five Pillars of Islam is zakat or alms-giving. I found it intriguing that the two words were so similar. It is the responsibility of all Muslims to ease economic hardship for others. Here too, the emphasis is on the elimination of inequality. Zakat consists of spending a fixed portion of one's wealth for the benefit of the poor or needy, debtors, and travelers who find themselves in difficult situations.

Sechkin and Dilek, travelers in our country, understood that what we were giving them was not charity. We shared a deeper experience of equality and justice.

As Sechkin and I got to know each other better, I moved beyond teaching him English and started to teach him some Yiddish expressions, too.

He is an apt student and, in fact, when he was explaining how they had taken grafts from his arm and his hand to reconstruct his thumb, he remembered what I had taught him, and he put his hand on the side of his face, and, pressing on his beard, he cried, "Oy vey!" I responded, "Eyvah!"

Four years later, my wife and I traveled to Turkey. They wanted us to be part of their weddings. Yes, two weddings, one hosted by his parents and one hosted by her parents in the small towns where they lived. They taught us how to do Turkish dances, and I am sure that while we were dancing together I heard the band play Hava Nagilah with Turkish lyrics. Halfway through one of the weddings, the bride changed from her "Western," white wedding gown into a traditional Turkish gown and the women danced around her while she had henna painted on her hands. At each of the weddings, Sechkin and Dilek performed a zakat, announcing to which charities they were donating money in honor of their marriage. It is a Muslim tradition. They asked us to accompany them on their honeymoon to Bodrum and Ephesus. Sechkin, a Muslim, and I, a Jew, are like family, our religious traditions and cultures playing complimenting the other.

Hebrew for "righteousness," it usually means "charity" or "righteous giving." In Judaism, it refers to the religious obligation to do what is right and just, including giving to those in need. A language, literally meaning "Jewish," once widely used by Ashkenazi communities. It is influenced by German, Hebrew and Slavic languages, and is written with the Hebrew alphabet. It is comparable to the language of many Sephardi communities, Ladino.

Milton Davis is a retired psychiatrist living in Maine. He and his wife have been married over 50 years and together have two sons, one son-in-law, one daughter-in-law, and two grandchildren. For each of them, family is valued very highly.

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