They clasped hands. She wore dark green, and a lighter green bonnet, dark curls at her forehead, that creamy skin, hardly any wrinkles, those shining eyes. People surged around them, stevedores in baggy trousers, fezzed porters in kaftans.
Ephraim startled and looked to her left, to her right, tried to peer over her shoulder. ‘The porter promised to bring all the luggage,’ she said in the Belarusian of their youth.
‘But where is Sarah?’
‘In the end, she did not come.’ Rachel watched his stunned expression. ‘I am sorry. They kept her.’
It is 1860 and Ephraim has begun as a medical missionary in Saloniki, Turkey (today Thessalonika, Greece), at last reuniting with the wife he left in Brest-Litovsk ten years earlier. In Chapter 14, A Man Shall Cleave Unto His Wife, the mis-matched couple try for love while Ephraim struggles to convert the local Sephardic Jews to Christianity. And he fumes: will he never be allowed to meet his 12-year-old daughter?
…looking down at the revolving wooden operating table beneath the skylight high above, the patient already lying under white sheets; Ephraim and Burns adjusted their sightlines from the sixth tier. What would the surgery be?
The buzz of speculation quieted as Dr Wood entered, his black silk gown fastened tightly at neck and wrist — modestly black, as he had no need to display its evidence of previous operations, unlike boastful surgeons so proud of their blood-stiffened whites. His house surgeon followed, wearing an everyday suit, its left buttonhole dangling a dozen or so waxed ligatures ready for service.
In Chapter 13 Ephraim continues and completes his three-year medical course, with training practice at Bellevue Hospital in New York, 1858-59. The surgery demo scene (thankfully not pictured above!) is historically true, as is Dr James Rushmore Wood (1813-1882). Medicine had a long way to go and Ephraim grows with it. But for now, the 29-year-old has to wait to learn what destiny his sponsors plan for him. My thanks for medical history and the image to the Wellcome Library. In 1860, a year after Ephraim’s graduation, the college changed its name to Columbia Medical School
…had settled to a routine, the course of study at New York’s College of Physicians and Surgeons was intensive. The college had two main halls — the upper, with a skylight, was for anatomy, physiology and surgery. The afternoons saw Ephraim next door in the lab building, training in dissection and chemistry. His entire being — even that part of him committed to the Lord — was engaged, stimulated and challenged by the pace and breadth of learning. He thought of his father forbidding such worldly learning. He tried not to think of Mama at all.
In Chapter 12, Bellevue, Ephraim embarks on three years of sponsored medical study and training, finding friends and a new mentor but now severed from his wife and beloved Mama. It’s 1856-7 when advanced medicine relied on ‘heroic therapy’ — drastic treatments including purging, sweating and bleeding. Photo here is from the Science Museum, London, a case and lancet for opening a vein. It is dated 1792, but bleeding was the common treatment from earliest known history up into the later days of Ephraim’s practice as a physician.
A letter from home at last, but it was bordered with black, the only words: ‘O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom!’ At the bottom his parents names and the numbers 1829 – 1853: the dates of Ephraim’s birth and his revealed conversion to Christianity. They had declared him dead.
The room spun and he gripped the sides of the wooden chair he sat in. Trembling, he gathered his scarf and hat and hurried down the staircase into the biting air of gray November. He walked fast, blindly. He sped on, driven by grief, by horror: what had he done? He had found his own God. And now his parents had severed him.
Having successfully begun at seminary in Chapter 11, At Andover, Ephraim breaks down in health and mind at his family’s reaction to his conversion. He learns new lessons in endurance, finding support in the household of his teacher, Professor Calvin Stowe, and Mrs Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Will Ephraim see his wife and daughter again? When I am a physician, he vows, then I will rescue them.
though still raw, were welcomed with almost as much joy in Harrison as his erudition and possibly even his conversion. Side by side with Brother Solomon and others he worked the hundred acres. All the while,
every day, every evening, they studied, read, debated, interpreted. Linguistic disputation, phrase-by-phrase, sometimes word-by-word, discussion, the passionate rationality of Talmudic debate turned with all its strength to the New Testament. In the talk and learning, this inner exploration and pushing out of boundaries, this freedom to question everything, Ephraim experienced the pure oxygen of encouragement.
And so, in Chapter 10, Melioration, Ephraim spends three years among Hebrew Christians until he is rewarded with an offer of medical school — on one condition. ‘I wrote to Mama and Papa to tell them I am a Christian. I pray it doesn’t kill her.’
and set on a course of reading the Old Testament aloud to improve Ephraim’s English. Judge Sherman was avidly curious about his employee’s Hebrew insights. They read for half an hour most evenings, except when calving and lambing interrupted. Ephraim was fascinated
by the translation of his familiar holy writ into English. It seemed fresh, new, as if just written. Yet familiar and safe, the same Lord God he knew, the same forefathers, the same Israelites. Tonight’s reading was about the burning bush, a favorite of Ephraim’s from childhood: how could a bush burn with fire and yet not burn? ‘I should like to hear that in the Hebrew,’ said the judge. More and more frequently, he asked for the language he believed the first Christians prayed in.
Ephraim is still a farmhand, but with a kindly, intelligent employer. When an invitation to demonstrate his Hebrew at the local church ensues, Ephraim declines, although curious. By the end of Chapter 8 (I Will Put Ephraim to the Yoke) he is longing to be among Jews.
Susan Lee Kerr’s debut historical novel is more than just a portrait of her extraordinary great grandfather — it’s a story about Europe and America, Christians and Jews, science and superstition, and the impact of immigration, dislocation and modernity on three generations of a gifted but turbulent family. Ephraim Epstein’s journey is geographic, spiritual and psychological, and it takes him — and us — from the 19th century to the 20th in this compelling, surprising and carefully researched narrative.
— Glenn Frankel, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and author of