COVID Claims Etty’s Life, Not Her Endless Love.

Carol Jacobson Villano (left) congratulates our family’s matriarch, Ethel Jacobson Hamburger (r.) on the 8th Annual Wellness Run which she successfully organized.

A little less than three years ago, Carol Jacobson Villano and I were walking around downtown San Francisco when my cellphone rang. 

The number that appeared was that of our 89-year old cousin, Ethel Hamburger — the matriarch of Carol’s family — calling from Philadelphia.

We were scheduled to see her soon for an annual non-profit fundraiser she organized, coupled with my book tour that would take us up and down the East Coast. Etty had arranged for me to speak about my book at the congregate care facility in which she lived, just outside of Philly. I would be speaking to a group of residents — ages 80 through 100 — who were interested in learning how to write their memoirs. When I saw Etty’s phone number appear, I thought something had happened.

“Hi Etty, it’s Steve. Everything OK?” I asked.

“Yes, yes, everything is fine. How’s Carol and Matthew and his family? ,” she said, always sure to mention the most important things first.

“They are all very well, thanks, Etty. Did you get my book yet? “ I said. We had just mailed her a copy of my own memoir “Tightrope,” out to her, so she could have it in plenty of time for the book reading event she arranged.

“GET IT?” she said, shouting into the phone. “I already READ it. I loved it.”

Etty, who had known me for more than 40 years, went on to say what she liked about the book, and how much she enjoyed the writing and wanted to tell everyone about it.

“But, listen” she said, getting to the point. “We’ve got to market this book. I’ve put together a list of many of the Jewish publications in and around Philadelphia and I think it would be advantageous for you to contact them before you come down here.”

I laughed. “Etty, I love this idea. Plus, I may be the only new author with an 89-year old Jewish grandmother for my press agent.”

Delighted, Etty paused and than corrected me. “Great grandmother,” she said.

It was vintage Ethel Hamburger. Loving and precise; gentle and caring, and always looking to do whatever she could to help. I fell head over heels in love with Etty the first time I was introduced to her, 46 years ago.

Carol and I had just moved down to Washington, DC, one week before Richard Nixon resigned the Presidency. We were barely married two years, knew no one, and were instantly welcomed into the Washington wing of the Jacobson family.

When Rosh Hashanah came the following month, Etty invited us to join her and her husband Irvin, their four children and a few friends and neighbors for the Jewish Holiday. They lived on a quiet, leafy street in Chevy Chase, Maryland, in a big house that never ended, just like their love.

We were given a seat at their table, with the rest of the family and friends, and always felt as if the chairs had been waiting there for us, all along. Although not yet a Jew, I was touched by how warmly Irv and Etty welcomed me, and how patient and understanding they were with my questions and quizzical looks.

I observed closely how comfortably faith fit this family, and how easily their envelope of love was expanded to include all comers. Nothing was a big deal; no one was a stranger. It was my first introduction to a living, thriving, comfortable form of Judaism, and I found it exhilarating.

Over the course of our next year in Washington, Etty’s effervescence made us an essential ingredient to family gatherings, especially after the birth of our son, Matthew. Etty’s children craved cradling this crinkly little cousin, and they were first to offer to babysit, giving us an occasional night out, before “date nights” were a thing.

The following Spring, when our son was less than 6 months old, we moved into a townhouse in Crofton, Maryland during the middle of Passover. Undaunted, Ettie came bearing gifts of Matzoh Ball Soup, to make a special Seder for us in our new home. My mother, a devout Catholic, who was visiting us, joined in Etty’s traveling Passover meal, experiencing generous portions of her caring, joy and ecumenical love. It was a gesture of genuine kindness that my mother talked of with admiration for years, even on her deathbed in 2007 at the age of 92.

A few years later, I began contemplating converting to Judaism. As I studied, I kept visualizing the effortless way Etty & Irv and their warm family ladled out large scoops of love with faith, without condescension nor attempts at conversion. They had taken an ancient religion and culture, and made it contemporary; had perfected a set of precepts into the practical realities of everyday life; had crafted an art-form of family and love, using faith and food, compassion and intelligence, respect and reflection, and taught indelible lessons of life, love and learning.

Etty’s ease of educating and embracing us into their family, were powerful catalysts behind my becoming a Jew, and raising our son in the faith as well. We were the embodiment of musician Paul Simon’s “one and one-half wandering Jews,” and were welcomed into the tent.

Now, more than four decades after Ethel Hamburger expanded her family, and her already big heart, to include Carol, Matthew and me, this beautiful human’s life was claimed by COVID 19.

 She lived to reach her 92nd birthday, as my mother did. And, just like my mother, Etty’s indefatigable thirst for life, and generosity with her love took many forms: in her cherubic smile; her schoolgirl innocence; her bright, dancing eyes; her cooking, and teaching, and writing — always writing.

For her 90th birthday in 2018, a book of Etty’s poems — created over many years — was published by her children. The book is packed with photos and stories of family members from every generation, and tales of Etty’s childhood, growing up as a Jacobson outside of Chicago, Illinois.

Essentially Etty, at her 90th Birthday Party.

Entitled “Essentially Etty,” it is a living, breathing 136-page ode to love and life and family, impossible to read without hearing Etty’s lilting and uplifting voice. I’ve read and re-read her poem “Living and Loving” (see below) and each time I do, I see those eyes and that sweet, warm smile, welcoming us into her cozy home, to share life, and love and learning.

I will not live an unloved life

As I will live, I will love.

To have the capabilities of all my senses

To wake up each morning

Ready to experience anew

Whatever life has to offer.

I love to encounter new adventures

I love to be with people

I love the opportunity to help others

To share their joy when personal needs are met.

I love to learn new things,

To expand my knowledge and capabilities.

I love to greet each new oncoming season

The fresh buds and flowers of springtime

The warm sun on my shoulders and walking barefoot at the water’s edge;

The majestic colors of fall

The heavenly beauty after a white snowfall.

We live in a great, magnificent wonderful world

I love being alive.

You still are, Etty; and to me, you’ll always be

Time for St. Anthony to Take His Shot.

Director of the National Institutes for Allergies and Infectious Diseases, Dr. Anthony Fauci.

It would be easy to get caught up in the campaign for canonization of Dr. Anthony Fauci.

The Director of the National Institute for Allergies and Infectious Diseases since the Presidency of Ronald Reagan, Fauci is the only believable spokesperson in the Trump Administration on the COVID 19 pandemic. His colleague Dr. Deborah Birx, the Administration’s Corona Virus Response Coordinator, crushed her own credibility by telling the Christian Broadcasting Network the preposterous lie that “The President is so attentive to the scientific literature and the details and the data.” Birx also gratuitously embellished Trump’s criticisms of the World Health Organization, and dissembled more than once on the matter of testing — probably the single most important, and missing factor — in mapping out any Corona Virus Response, for which she is responsible.

Unlike “Ambassador” Birx, who comes across like a wealthy, well-dressed dilettante, bemoaning being unable to host “dinner parties for 20 yet,” because of social distancing, Anthony Fauci is a down-to-earth, likeable 79-year old, highly educated Italian professional from Brooklyn — still bearing scraps of his Brooklyn accent — who played basketball in High School and rooted for the Yankees despite growing up on Brooklyn Dodger turf.

That training in street toughness, highlighted in a recent New Yorker article by Michael Specter, entitled, “How Anthony Fauci Became America’s Doctor,” should have made Fauci fight more furiously, against the anti-science prejudice and profit-over-patients Darwinism rampant inside the Trump White House, and frothing from the mouths of Ingraham, Hannity, Carlson, and even the fallacious Dr. Phil on Fox News. Unfortunately, like the good point guard he was on his high school team, Fauci stays in his lane, highly disciplined, especially when it comes to forcefully exposing lies and intentional falsehoods by Presidents and others with more power and bigger megaphones than he thinks he has. In fact, at this moment in history, no one in this country has more power nor a bigger following than Dr. Fauci — and no one is in a better position to save more lives by fearlessly using that force.

He wasn’t always so afraid to exercise his power, nor be so confrontation-averse. After graduating Medical School, Fauci choose to enter the Public Health Service, as a constructive alternative to going off to War in Vietnam. He didn’t pretend to have bone spurs to avoid service. Instead, he wanted to serve people and save lives the best way he knew how — by improving public health.

In the early days of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, Fauci, then at NIH, immersed himself in learning about this mysterious new disease. Unfortunately, he was buried in the bowels of the homophobic Reagan Administration where AIDS was laughed at, and the name of the disease wasn’t spoken for seven years by the President. For three of those years, Fauci served as the Director of the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases, a position he still holds 36 years, and five Presidents, later.

“ My face was the face of the Federal Government,” Fauci told The New Yorker’s Specter, in discussing his early role in fighting the AIDS epidemic. Specter wrote that Dr. Fauci asked the same question every day: “Why wasn’t the Administration moving faster?”

It’s the same question Dr. Fauci should be asking every single day today — with far more power than he had four decades earlier — of another fact-denying Administration. Unfortunately, now, under Trump, as he did under Reagan, Fauci has limited his effectiveness by limiting his aggressiveness. Again, he’s the high school basketball point guard, choosing to stay in his narrow lane.

Fauci was hated by AIDS activists, like Larry Kramer, founder of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, who first called him a “murderer,” Michael Callen, and Sean Strub. They found Fauci to be “uncooperative,” as Strub wrote in his book Body Counts (Scribner, NY, 2014), too tightly bound to the research scientist’s sometimes myopic mantra of focusing only on the data, and not seeing the patients most affected by the disease.

But it was this disease and it’s catastrophic effect on patients, unlike anything Dr. Fauci had seen before, that pushed the point-guard hard over the line.

“Everybody died,” Fauci told Specter for The New Yorker. “I was used to treating people who had so little hope, and then saving their lives — that was so wonderful. But with AIDS in those days, I saved no one.” AIDS transformed Fauci, Specter wrote, from a “ conventional bench scientist to a public health activist.”

Fauci’s transformation was gradual, like a butterfly emerging from its comfortable cocoon. Over time, he became one of the most influential voices in the United States and the world on HIV/AIDS, winning the trust and respect of AIDS activists who previously loathed him. It was also his voice which was most influential in the creation of PEPFAR — the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief — a landmark achievement of George W. Bush’s, considered to be a model for addressing global epidemics and credited with saving more than 17 million lives worldwide.

Fauci had morphed from being a “sinner by silence” to Saint Anthony on HIV/AIDS over 25 years, making him the perfect addition to Trump’s public-facing phalanx of medical/scientific professionals when COVID 19 crashed into the United States. The conventional bench scientist in him knew all the data about how strong and early moves to mitigate the effects of a pandemic — and early and continuous testing — could reduce the number of deaths. Fauci told CNN’s Jake Tapper that much on State of the Union, on Easter Sunday, April 11, 2020, when the number of COVID 19 deaths in the United States surpassed 20,000, and appeared to be out of control:

“Obviously, you could logically say that if you had a process that was ongoing and you started mitigation earlier, you could have saved lives. But, there was a lot of pushback about shutting things early in the outbreak.”

The following day, with Trump hovering over the 5’5” Fauci at the White House Press briefing the way he lurked behind Hillary Clinton during a debate, the Infectious Disease expert walked back his statement — viewed as highly critical of the Administration’s failure to act swiftly — by tamping down the word “pushback.”

Yet, the question that was not asked of Fauci at that moment was whether he, Saint Anthony, was part of that “pushback,” to start mitigation and testing earlier and consistently? If so, how hard did he push? The question was the same Larry Kramer raised about Fauci before the good doctor’s transformation on HIV/AIDS: “Had Tony Fauci done all he was capable of doing?” (Strub, Body Counts, p. 328.) And, oddly, it was the very same question Fauci himself raised about the Reagan Administration 35 years earlier while a part of it: “Why wasn’t the Administration moving faster?”

Similar questions could have been raised about why the first batch of the CDC’s COVID 19 tests were defective (and who was responsible for them), and why, based upon Fauci’s extensive experience with epidemics, wasn’t he aware of the abysmal condition of the federal stockpile on medical supplies essential for use in any epidemiological emergency?

The easy, facile answer is that “it wasn’t in his lane,” which would push him back to being nothing more than a conventional bench scientist again and not one of the world’s leading public health advocates, which he has become. It’s an excuse which his old colleague and former NIH Director Dr. Harold Varmus gave to the New Yorker’s Specter:

““Tony isn’t running C.D.C. He’s not running FEMA. To tell him to stockpile defense mechanisms or to move forward surveillance tools into massive operations around the world — that’s just not his remit.”

That just doesn’t wash when one is talking about Tony Fauci at this stage of his distinguished career, where the world’s health is “his remit.” No one else has the enormous capacity, knowledge, record of accomplishment, depth of expertise, passion for public health and access to power as Dr. Fauci does. In fact, the answer was right in front of Fauci, in his own words and beliefs which defined his transformation from “bench scientist” to “public health activist” over HIV/AIDS, 30 years earlier:

““Everybody died. “I was used to treating people who had so little hope, and then saving their lives — that was so wonderful. But with AIDS (COVID-19, today), I saved no one.”

So it’s legitimate to ask if Saint Anthony has done all he is capable of doing at the peak of his power and influence? Has Fauci fought hard enough to mitigate the death and suffering of the COVID 19 pandemic, in nursing homes, poor urban and rural communities, among African Americans and health care workers abandoned by the present American president whose Administration is “not moving fast enough”? Is Dr. Fauci ready to jump out his comfort zone one more time to save even more lives? Or will he retreat to being a conventional bench scientist, and not the public health activist and truth-teller we know him to be? Is Fauci doing “everything he possibly can to stop the worst from happening,” as he told the NewYorker? Is Fauci moving fast & forcefully enough?

At 79 years old, with over 50 years of stellar public service, I pray that Saint Anthony is not distracted from his calling, nor diminished by his daily dealings with Donald Trump. Facing the biggest public health challenge of his lifetime — and ours — Dr. Fauci needs to amplify all of his courage and faith once again, to move out of his safe, familiar lane, and take the shot.

Healthcare Heroes: Fighting AIDS & COVID-19.

New York State Governor Andrew M. Cuomo’s fierce and focused fight to find enough hospital beds to combat the Corona Virus pandemic ripping through NYC and State, is not the first time a Governor of NY named Cuomo became a healthcare hero, grappling with a great public health crisis.

“I don’t want the hallways of hospitals to be overflowing with COVID-19 patients on gurneys,” Andrew Cuomo said, at an Albany press briefing last week, describing the nightmare medical scenario we experienced with AIDS patients in the 1980’s when his father, Mario Cuomo was NY’s Governor.

With the HIV virus that caused AIDS being discovered only four years earlier, I walked the hallways of public hospitals in NYC with Mario Cuomo and his State Health Commissioner Dr. David Axelrod in 1985, to see first hand just how bad things were. Gurney after gurney was gridlocked, one behind the other like shopping carts waiting for Costco to open during these days of COVID-19. Each portable hospital bed on wheels was occupied by a gaunt, gay man, curled in a fetal position, bedsheet pulled tightly under his chin. When a nurse or doctor came through, we had to move sideways to create enough space for all of us.

Dr. Axelrod, a Harvard-educated infectious disease scientist who worked at the National Institutes of Health before coming to NYS’ Health Department in 1968 to head the State’s Infectious Disease Center, led us down toward a special section of the Pediatrics floor. There, babies who were born HIV-positive were kept, apart from their mothers. In the days before anti-retroviral drugs could be given to pregnant HIV positive woman to prevent the passage of the virus onto the newborn, these were the Children of the Epidemic, born prematurely, many to drug-addicted mothers infected by using a dirty hypodermic needle. The babies’ emaciated bodies were so tiny, they could fit into Mario Cuomo’s large hands.

We left the hospital and headed out into the waiting, unmarked State Police car, with Dr. Axelrod and me climbing into the backseat. Mario Cuomo was silent for several minutes, numbed by what we just witnessed. Finally, he turned around from the front passenger seat, and looked at his Health Commissioner, whom he affectionately referred to as “The People’s Doctor.”

“These hospitals don’t have enough beds, David,” Mario Cuomo said. “We’ve got to get those patients out of the hallways, off those gurneys and into a room where they can get properly cared for. Where do we find more beds?” The corridors of carnage we just came out of had shaken Cuomo.

“Well, Governor, “ said Axelrod, the son and grandson of Orthodox rabbis, “ the only places where there are empty hospital beds are in the Catholic Hospitals.”

The Governor grimaced. A devout Catholic, but not a favorite of the Catholic Church’s hierarchy in New York because of his Notre Dame speech on Abortion the previous year, Cuomo followed the French Jesuit theologian Teilhard de Chardin’s prescription for service to others as defined in The Divine Milieu (Harper & Row, English translation, 1960). It was a deep spirituality, anchored in concrete acts, and the Governor was determined and bound by a powerful sense of practical and moral duty to do more.

Catholic hospitals and their Church, in denial of the issues of sex and sexuality, and unaccepting of gay men, were, just like Ronald Reagan, silent on the matter of HIV/AIDS. If it was happening in a community they didn’t recognize existed, then it wasn’t happening at all. Following the lead of their new and imperious Cardinal John J. O’Connor, New York’s Catholic hospitals resisted accepting AIDS patients, most of whom, at the time, were young, gay men. O’Connor was an outspoken opponent of homosexuality and impervious to the enormous suffering being inflicted upon NYC’s gay community by the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

Dr. Axelrod reminded the Governor that the Catholic Church had vast tax-exempt landholdings throughout New York City and State.

“All you have to do, Governor, is remind Cardinal O’Connor of that, “ Axelrod smiled impishly, “and tell him of the State’s critical needs for more hospital beds for people with advanced AIDS-related illnesses.”

Cuomo’s eyes twinkled with delight. There was no one in public life Mario Cuomo admired more than Dr. Axelrod, whom he also dubbed “Dr. Disaster,” making him Chairman of the Governor’s Commission on Disaster Preparedness, essentially the State’s Czar in dealing with matters of public health or safety.

As New York State’s Public Health Commissioner under two Governors, Axelrod was one of the few public officials in the nation who immediately grasped the immensity of the AIDS Epidemic. Over the next 35 years, 675,000 Americans would die from AIDS-related illnesses, 100,000 of them New Yorkers.

The first wave of illnesses and deaths crashed into New York during Mario Cuomo’s first term as Governor, and Axelrod wasted no time in responding, organizing the NYS AIDS Institute and AIDS Advisory Council, just months after Cuomo took office in 1983. Dr. Axelrod instituted a full-court press against the AIDS epidemic: immediately supporting widespread testing and public education; pushing confidentiality protections for people with HIV and legal protections against Insurance or workplace discrimination; and advancing universal precautions against the transmission of infection.

But for now, the issue of the most urgency was the availability of hospital beds — the same critical issue which Andrew Cuomo instinctively knew he had to quickly resolve when the Corona Virus walloped New York 35 years later.

Mario Cuomo seized upon the solution offered by his Health Commissioner and the message was communicated to Cardinal O’Conner that the Catholic Church could best serve the interests of public health, and the Church’s own, by opening up their hundreds of hospital beds to people with AIDS.

Miraculously, within days, O’Connor announced to great fanfare that the City’s Catholic hospitals would be opening their doors to all AIDS patients. The Cardinal, crowing about his humanitarian “decision,” reminded anyone who would listen that the Church could embrace the sinner, but not the sin.

New York State’s first Governor Cuomo and his extraordinary Health Commissioner Dr. David Axelrod — who would propose universal health care for all New Yorkers in 1989 — were fearless in forcing open hundreds of unused hospital beds, scoring a life and death victory for public heath and HIV/AIDS care in the teeth of a terrifying new plague, as well as an epidemic of ignorance and discrimination.

A full generation later, as the Corona Virus pandemic spreads like wildfire, another Governor Cuomo from New York has teamed up with top public health professionals like his own Health Commissioner Dr. Howard A, Zucker, and Northwell Health System’s CEO Michael J. Dowling, in a relentless hunt for hospital beds, ventilators, Personal Protective Equipment, and more healthcare workers to battle this new terror around the clock.

Like their superb predecessors in public service in the 1980’s, and the activists who battled the AIDS epidemic, these public health warriors will not rest until testing is widespread, patient care is under control, work on a treatment for COVID-19 patients is underway, and a vaccine is available to save lives. For these healthcare heroes and thousands like them, there is no other option.