> Spirituality > Spiritual Odysseys

My Guru, Dr. Jacobs

May 9, 2009 | by Sara Yoheved Rigler

A funny thing happened on my way to saving the world.

When I was 19 years old, I wanted to save the world. And I knew that the way to accomplish this was through political movements. So at the beginning of my sophomore year at Brandeis University, I joined the radical leftist Students for a Democratic Society (infamous as the S.D.S.).

It was 1967, and the anti-Vietnam war movement was mobilizing. This was a cause I could champion with my whole heart. I was taught at teach-ins, sat down at sit-ins, and wielded a picket sign with a vengeance at anti-war demonstrations. My heart welled up in love and compassion for the poor, napalmed Vietnamese peasants, and blazed up in hatred for the armed forces, the Pentagon, the U.S. government, Exxon (whose interests had started the war in the first place), Dow Chemical (who manufactured napalm), the military-industrial complex (who profited from the war), all Republicans, Democrats who supported L.B.J., and anyone to the right of me (i.e. 95% of the American population).

At our S.D.S. meetings, we cast ourselves as the loving, compassionate ones, aligned against the cruel, unfeeling, mercenary warmongers. The incongruity between our professed love and our vociferous hatred might never have dawned on me had not our own S.D.S. chapter become a battleground between two opposing left-wing ideologies.

Our S.D.S. chapter was co-chaired by Leonard* and Phyllis*. It took me months to understand why Leonard and Phyllis never spoke a civil word to each other, and why our S.D.S. meetings usually regressed into screaming matches between them. Phyllis was a middle-class Jewish Socialist, devoted to a watered-down, benign version of Russian Communism with a good measure of civil liberties mixed in. Leonard, on the other hand, was a card-carrying member of P.L., the Progressive Labor Party, which looked to Chinese Communism as its ideal. He believed in rousing the proletariat to revolt against their Capitalistic masters, toward which end he tried to enlist our chapter to stand at the exit gates of factories and distribute leaflets calling for the Revolution.

How is it that we love the Vietnamese peasants, whom we've never met, but we can't stand the people we actually live with?

Personally, I didn't know any proletarians. I had never met a blue-collar worker, unless the television repairman could be considered one. A 19-year-old girl in an expensive private college, I would have felt ridiculous trying to convince a middle-aged factory worker to rise up in revolt and probably lose his job, when all he really wanted was a two-car garage in suburbia. I never attended the factory excursions, and I despised Leonard.

At every meeting, Leonard and Phyllis attacked each other with so much malice that I finally found myself asking, How is it that we love the Vietnamese peasants, whom we've never met, but we can't stand the people we actually live with?

The suspicion that I and my leftist friends were guilty of hypocrisy (the ultimate sin in the sixties) started to gnaw at me.

Around that time I read a sentence by Alan Watts, an American Buddhist philosopher, that changed my life. Watts wrote: "Peace can only be made by those who are peaceful." The searing logic of this statement splashed like ice water on my Marxist dream of political panaceas. I realized that the worthy goals of the Peace Movement could never be achieved by people like Leonard and Phyllis and me. First I would have to change myself; then I could change the world.

So for my junior year in college, I went off to India on a spiritual quest. My purpose was to attain enlightenment as a preliminary step to becoming a more effective agent in the political struggle. But a strange thing happened on my way to this goal…


I was traveling in western India with my friend Mary Lou. In Bombay, I bought a pair of water buffalo-hide sandals. Within two hours of wearing them in the hot, humid climate, I started to develop a blister.

The blister became infected. At each place we stopped, I sought first-aid, and was given ointment and the cutting edge of Western medical technology then available in India: a band-aid.

By the time we reached Aurangabad, my foot had blown up like a balloon, twice its normal size. I began to worry whether this infection could do irreversible damage to my foot. I decided to seek a Western-trained doctor, not the Aurya-vedic doctors so prevalent in India. But where in Aurangabad would I find one?

An expensive hotel where Western tourists stay must have a list of Western-trained doctors, I surmised. Putting my arm around Mary Lou's shoulder, I hopped to a bicycle rickshaw that took us to the Garden Hotel, Aurangabad's finest. To my beseeching request, the clerk at the front desk answered, "There is no such list. But we do have a guest in the hotel who may be able to help you. He's a doctor from England, sent by the United Nations."

A doctor from England? I could not believe my good luck. "Is he here now? Can I see him?" I asked eagerly.

"No, he works at the Aurangabad Hospital. But he always comes back here for lunch."

Mary Lou and I sat down and waited. A couple hours later, three white people entered: a young couple and a middle-aged, stocky man with thinning red-brown hair and a face that looked like he belonged to the Beth El Men's Club back home.

Mary Lou jumped up and intercepted them. "My friend's foot is badly infected. She needs medical care. Can you help her?"

The older man strode over to me and introduced himself as Dr. Jacobs. He looked at my foot and said, "Come with me to my room."

Dr. Jacobs led us to his room and right into the bathroom. There he bade me to wash the wound in steaming hot water. (Real, running hot water, the first I had seen since coming to India!) When the wound was thoroughly clean, Dr. Jacobs bandaged it and invited us to lunch.

Over lunch, the whole picture emerged: Dr. Jacobs was not from England, but from Cardiff, South Wales. He and the Johnsons, a British couple who were both doctors, had been sent to India for seven weeks by the World Health Organization to act as consultants in various pediatric departments. It was Dr. Jacob's second tour of duty in India.

Being rescued by a fellow Jew in an out-of-the-way place in India was such an unlikely encounter that I began to wonder: Who wrote this far-fetched script?


The next morning, Dr. Jacobs escorted Mary Lou and me through a tour of the pediatric ward of the Aurangabad Hospital. We passed between two long rows of beds. On each bed lay a dark-skinned child with stick-like arms and legs and a bloated belly.

"They're suffering from malnutrition," Dr. Jacobs explained. We stopped at the end of one bed and surveyed its occupant: a toddler, perhaps two years old, with a belly the size of a watermelon and limbs like Tinker Toys covered with flesh. She was naked, lying on the white sheet, staring blankly in front of her.

"Will she live?" I asked grimly.

"I don't know," Dr. Jacobs answered softly, thoughtfully, his eyes trained on the child in a look of sadness and compassion. " We're giving her the best medical care we can, but it may be too late."

It struck me that he worked with these children every day, but he was not jaded. Their suffering still moved him, still caused him anguish.

We continued walking, past the grotesque bodies with their skeletal limbs and swollen, hollow abdomens. At the far end of the ward, we exited into the corridor. Mary Lou collapsed on a wooden bench.

"I can't see any more," she sobbed, covering her face with the end of her sari.

Dr. Jacobs looked at me questioningly. "Do you want to go on?"

I was a glutton for experience. If I stopped here, what experience -- no matter good or bad -- would I miss in the next ward?

I nodded. Dr. Jacobs led me through the next door, into a smaller ward, with perhaps a dozen patients. Here the children, 10 or 12-year-olds, looked well fed and healthy. As soon as they saw Dr. Jacobs, they jumped out of their beds and flocked around him, calling out, "Dr. Jacobs! Dr. Jacobs!" They mobbed him, some hugging him, others jumping up and down. "Dr. Jacobs! Dr. Jacobs!" To each one, he gave a loving gesture, a pat on the head or a caress on the cheek, as he addressed each one by name.

I exhaled a deep breath. After the last ward, it was such a relief to see healthy children. Dr. Jacobs introduced me, "This is Sara Ann."

Now it was my turn. The children encircled me, hugging me, reaching to clasp my hands. "Sara Ann! Sara Ann!" they cheered. I imitated Dr. Jacobs, patting their heads, caressing their cheeks, flashing each one a loving smile.

"What's wrong with these children?" I asked Dr. Jacobs in English, figuring that they must be in the hospital for tonsillectomies, as I had been at their age.

"Rheumatic heart disease," he answered, continuing to shower them with love. "Their hearts are four times the size of normal."

My smile deflated.

"What will happen to them?" I queried.

"The same thing that happens to all mankind. Only sooner."

"What?" These children were more doomed than the living skeletons in the previous ward! I extricated myself from their grasp and fled to the corridor, weeping uncontrollably.

After a few minutes, Dr. Jacobs came out to find Mary Lou and me sitting together on the bench, sobbing.

"I'm sorry," he said. "I didn't mean to traumatize you."

I wiped away my tears and stood up. "This country needs a Socialist government," I declared ardently. "A government that will distribute the food and the wealth equally. India needs a government that will take care of its people. That's the solution to all this suffering."

Dr. Jacobs shook his head sagely. "A change of government won't help. What India needs is more love. Love is the only solution -- to India's problems and to all the world's problems."

It was hard to discount words that welled up from the mouth of a man whose hands executed his heart's ideals.

I looked at him in consternation. If a bearded, barefoot, bead festooned hippie back in Cambridge had uttered that statement, I would have lambasted him for his hopelessly quixotic, politically naive views. But here was Dr. Jacobs, standing in the sweltering corridor of the Aurangabad Hospital, big circles of sweat staining the underarms of his short-sleeved white shirt, in order to help dying children in India. It was hard to discount words that welled up from the mouth of a man whose hands executed his heart's ideals.

"L-love is the solution to all the world's problems?" I stammered.

I stood there facing Dr. Jacobs, flabbergasted at his political naivete. He represented everything I disdained: He was over 30, bourgeoisie, establishment, and apolitical. But he exuded everything I coveted: wisdom, love, warmth, and equanimity. I felt like I had commissioned an artist to paint a portrait of my hero, and when the portrait was unveiled, instead of a long-haired, bearded radical wearing wire-rimmed glasses, the visage staring at me from the canvass was a middle-class, balding, Jewish doctor.

An Indian doctor approached and told Dr. Jacobs he was needed in the ward. We bid each other good-bye and went our separate ways. The next couple days, with my foot almost healed, Mary Lou and I toured the impressive caves of Ajanta and Ellora. After that, we had planned to take a train north to Rajasthan.

But I was intrigued by Dr. Jacobs. True, I had come to India to learn from the enlightened gurus of the East, not from a Jewish doctor from Wales. But if I were a prospector on my way to dig for gold ore, and I happened upon a gold necklace lying on the grass, would I bypass it?

Dr. Jacobs's next assignment was a hospital in Hyderabad, a city in south central India. I decided to follow him there, while Mary Lou traveled north.


Dr. Jacobs had warned me that he had no time to sit around talking. The morning after I arrived, he went shopping to buy souvenirs for his family, and he said that I could accompany him. I met him at the local hospital.

As we walked out together, a beggar boy, around eight years old, accosted Dr. Jacobs. With his hand stretched out practically in Dr. Jacob's face, the boy demanded, "Bakshis, bakshis".

The boy was barefoot and bare-chested, wearing only a dirty lungi, a knee-length piece of cloth tied around his waist. His black hair was streaked with blond, a two-tone look I had considered fetching on Indian children until Dr. Jacobs apprised me that it was a telltale sign of malnutrition.

"Bakshis! Bakshis!" the boy insisted, standing squarely in Dr. Jacob's path.

How to respond to the begging children was the major ethical dilemma of my life that year.

I was fascinated to see how Dr. Jacobs would respond. This was indeed the acid test. The hardest part of living in India, far more challenging than the heat, the mosquitoes, and the culture shock, was the begging children.

They swarmed around the railroad stations and the city streets, thin, barefoot, dressed in rags, genuinely hungry. We white-faced students were an easy mark. At every train stop, hordes of begging children thronged us, reaching their thin arms through the open train windows, or, if we dared to step off the train to buy a snack of papadam, surrounding us so that we could barely walk.

On my first train ride, to Calcutta, I had stepped out on the train platform at the first stop. I was immediately besieged by a dozen begging children. I opened my wallet and gave each one a coin. But when I looked up I saw two dozen more surrounding me. "Bakshis! Bakshis!" My coins were used up. I had bills with me, enough rupees to pay my expenses in Calcutta. If I gave them away, where would I stay? What would I eat? "Bakshis! Memsahib, Bakshis!"

Guiltily, I closed my wallet and retreated back to the train, making my way with difficulty through the throng of hungry children, their hands protruding, their voices pleading. Only the train's chugging its way out of the station rescued me.

How to respond to the begging children was the major ethical dilemma of my life that year. The obvious answer was to give, but even had I given every rupee I had, it would not have been enough.

How would Dr. Jacobs solve the conundrum of begging children, I wondered, as the beggar boy blocked his way. How much would he give him?

Dr. Jacobs did not even reach for his wallet. Instead, he patted the boy's head and smiled at him, looking him straight in the eyes. Then he continued walking, with me trailing along. The boy persisted. "Bakshis!" he called out. Dr. Jacobs, without slowing his gait, caressed the child's cheek and again smiled at him. The boy ran along side him.

We stopped at the Hyderabad Cottage Industries Emporium and went in to shop. When we came out, a good half hour later, the beggar boy was standing there waiting for us.

Dr. Jacobs flashed him a warm smile and patted his head. "Bakshis!" the boy called out. Did he really think that Dr. Jacobs would break down and give him a sum large enough to make it worth his while?

We continued down the street, the boy at Dr. Jacobs's side. Now they were engaged in a running exchange: The boy would stretch out his hand. Dr. Jacobs would clasp it and give it a hearty shake. The boy would yell, "Bakshis!" Dr. Jacobs would smile and look at him fondly.

We entered the second shop on Dr. Jacobs's list. When we emerged, we found the beggar boy squatting in front of the shop.

Dr. Jacobs gave him a big hug. The boy beamed. There were no more cries of Bakshis! Skipping and laughing, he followed Dr. Jacobs around for the rest of the day, without ever receiving even five pice.

That hungry child was starving for love even more than food.

Karl Marx taught that economics is the driving force in human affairs. Dr. Jacobs maintained that it was love. The beggar boy confirmed Dr. Jacobs's conviction. Clearly, that hungry child was starving for love even more than food.

That day in Hyderabad I came to understand something that reversed the rotation of my world. I had regarded the world as a machine that needed to be fixed mechanically -- with tools such as progressive legislation and social programs. Dr. Jacobs taught me that the world is organic. It doesn't need to be fixed; it needs to be healed. And the tinctures are love and compassion and selflessness. Becoming a loving, compassionate, and selfless person is not a prelude to making the world a better place. It is the cure itself. The world is a better place simply because people like Dr. Jacobs live in it.


Two decades later, when I started learning the teachings of the Torah, I understood why this is true. If human beings were primarily bodies, then you could satisfy their sense of well-being by handing them something physical, like money. But human beings are primarily souls. And while the body's minimal needs for food and shelter must be met (as the Talmud says, Without flour, there's no Torah ), souls are fed by love.

Marx missed the mark because his doctrine, aptly called Dialectical Materialism, takes into account only the materialistic, most superficial, level of reality. Judaism, on the other hand, addresses itself to the spiritual sub-stratum of reality, where compassion and selflessness are a more valued currency than dollars and cents.

If Marx were right, all rich people would be happy. Instead, Judaism is right: all loved people are happy.

While Jewish history is replete with political leaders and social reformers, the two Jewish heroes who most profoundly impacted the world were Abraham and Moses. Abraham, the father of the Jewish people, gave the world the paradigm of loving-kindness. Moses qualified for the job of leader of the nation because of his compassion. According to the Midrash, while Moses was working as a shepherd, a lamb ran away from the flock. Moses chased the lamb a very long distance until he found it drinking from a mountain spring. Moses said, If I had known you ran away because you were thirsty, I would have carried you here.

Dr. Jacobs was a true scion of that Jewish tradition.

*These names have been changed.

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