many he was a saint. The Doctor Samuel Sobel stories
were often repeated whenever people who knew him were
gathered together. His good works might not have been
far reaching. He applied his medicine in a small area
of the Bronx, performing accomplishments anonymous to
the rest of the world. Hearing the stories of him
across the decades, I can imagine him as one of the tzaddikim
nistarim (also called the Lamed
Vuvniks), these being thirty-six
righteous men of Jewish folklore for whose sake the
world escapes destruction, because their existence
justifies the purpose of mankind to God. They neither
know each other, nor are they aware of their role,
and when each dies, another is born. Doctor Sobel was
a righteous man, a blessing to those in his care.
I have no direct memory of the man. He delivered me.
He took care of me through a number of childhood
illnesses and saved my life with surgery when I was
just three and a half. But my family moved from the
Bronx when I was five. Still, I remember his house
among the towering apartment buildings. It was a
large, brick home that faced out across Pelham
My sister is six years my senior. She remembers
Doctor Sobel as the kindest and gentlest of men. When
she had tonsillitis, she cried when Doctor Sobel
prepared to give her a shot. "Why are you
crying?" he asked. "I don't want a
shot," she replied. "Don't be silly, it
will all be over before you can count to ten."
So my sister began to count, "one...," and
it was over before she reached two. After that she
was never bothered by injections.
My older sister did not have the honor of being
delivered by Doctor Sobel. As my mother explained to
me, when my sister was born in 1945 at Doctors'
Hospital in Manhattan, the pediatrician charged $300
for the delivery, even though my mother doesn't
remember him being there. He had been annoyed with
her going into labor at night when he needed his
sleep. He then advised my mother that she would need
to find another doctor to provide for the newborn's
care. When I came, in 1951, Doctor Sobel, my mother's
new doctor, charged $50 (or maybe it was $75) and
this covered both the delivery and first year of
care. The doctor delivered a lot of babies in that
Harry and Helen, the neighbors downstairs who had
recommended Doctor Sobel to my parents, told the
story of Harry's sister-in-law. Following a
miscarriage, the sister-in-law was told by her doctor
at the time that it would be too dangerous for her to
have children. Desperate for another answer, they
found their way to Doctor Sobel, who told them that
of course she could have children. Her job was to get
into a family way and he would see as to the
The sister-in-law became pregnant. The doctor told
her the fetus was healthy, with an exceptionally
strong heartbeat. In the ninth month, rather than
allow a natural birth, Doctor Sobel performed a
cesarean. He lifted from her a healthy boy to show
the mother and was taking the newborn into the next
room when the nurse called out, "Doctor, there's
another one in here." She had twins and both
boys grew to be over six feet tall, while the father
was only five. He came to refer to his son's as
I was a difficult delivery. As my mother tells it, my
shoulders were too wide. The doctor had to cut her
and a mask for ether was applied. My mother, never
having had ether, didn't realize she was allergic to
it. That discovery came on the operation table.
I was born shortly after midnight. The next morning,
when Doctor Sobel visited, my mother bantered with
him, proudly crediting her self for having me early
enough for the doctor to get home and catch some
sleep. The gracious Doctor Sobel thanked her for this
consideration, but after he had departed, the nurse
revealed that he had stayed and watched over her the
entire night, concerned about the stitches and her
reaction to the ether.
For this essay, I took my mother to dinner at Café
con Leche in Newtown. A very nice, little restaurant
down an alley way, entered by a back door, then
several steps down into a cozy basement. Together we
reviewed the tales I had heard before, while she ate
the roast pork loin and I the chicken Marsala.
"He never turned anyone way. On weekends his
office was filled with poor Latin Americans, people
who other doctors in those days would not see."
She retold the story of friends, a young couple,
whose little boy developed a fever of 105-106 degrees
Fahrenheit. They were in a panic, but it was late at
night and their own doctor wouldn't come. They called
four more without success until they reached Doctor
Sobel. Sobel came and quickly grasped the seriousness
of the child's condition. They packed the child in
ice and rushed him to the hospital for surgery.
Afterwards, Sobel told the parents to call their own
doctor, because he would be more familiar with the
patient. Meanwhile, the hospital's intern told the
father that it was Doctor Sobel he had to thank for
the boy's life.
When their regular doctor arrived, he would not begin
until he was paid. The father, who had only slipped
on pants and thrown a coat over his pajamas to get to
the hospital, did not bring his checkbook. The
hospital office had to supply the father with a
counter check, and only then did the father realize
he hadn't offered to pay Doctor Sobel. Later, he
contacted Doctor Sobel. Sobel replied, "Did I
ask you for money?"
"That was just like him," said my mother.
"He knew when families were struggling to earn a
living. He would say, 'When your husband's business
is doing better you can pay me.'" He said as
much to my mother when my father's business was
But not everyone in the community trusted Doctor
Sobel. What kind of doctor didn't wear a suit and
tie, was not always clean-shaven, and didn't drive
around in a Cadillac or some similarly fancy car?
Doctor Sobel drove about in a little, red, two-seater
roadster that, from my mother's description, sounds
like it was the MG T-Series.
Then there was the hypochondriac neighbor. She didn't
like Sobel at all. She had visited him just once,
deciding her doctor was too far away. But after
examining her, Doctor Sobel refused to prescribe her
any medication, telling her there was nothing wrong
with her. "What kind of doctor doesn't give you
medicine?" she complained. Her own doctor gave
her plenty of medicine, so she went back to him.
There is a dark story, too. It is a rumor that he had
his license suspended for doing the kind of surgery
that the Supreme Court has since declared legal in
the United States. He was a good man, whose
open-mindedness put him ahead of his time for
tolerance and understanding; according to the rumor
he spent those next few years abroad.
There were plenty of nights when I was sick, my
mother tells me, and the doctor arrived, like the
father in my earlier story, with his jacket and pants
thrown over his pajamas. To reassure my parents, he
stayed until my fever would break. He did this so
often, he'd make his own coffee in their kitchen.
"He would finish his examination," my
mother described, "then he would take the time
to light his pipe before giving the diagnosis."
And she told me there was a time when she was sick,
but she could smell the smoke of his pipe coming from
the living room and she felt safer.
There are more Doctor Sobel stories than space here
permits. I have retold these few to remind my readers
that at any given time there exist good people in the
world. If we have not yet destroyed ourselves, it is
because of them.