Forget What I Said! Jewish Moms Tell Nudniks Not to Be Doctors

Not long ago, Ida Goldberg scandalized the ladies at her Wednesday mah-jongg game. Mrs. Goldberg, a 72-year-old Long Island grandmother of nine with pinkish hair and sparkling dentures, said she didn’t think it was such a good thing that her son, Stuart, became a doctor.

“What he goes through, how long he works, how good at it he is, he should be a millionaire by now!” she told them. “But he can barely pay for his kids to go to school. For me, there is no naches in the medical profession anymore!”

Her friend Dorothy, whose daughter-in-law is a doctor, got up abruptly and went home. The other ladies, Hannah and Gertrude, sat in stunned silence. “Gertie didn’t understand,” Mrs. Goldberg said. “‘A Jewish mother couldn’t ask more than to have a doctor for a son,’ she said.” But their friend Hannah became emboldened. She, too, had her well-hidden doubts. “She said the Jews should leave doctoring to the Indians and the Chinese,” Ms. Goldberg said. The mah-jongg group hasn’t met since.

This is a secret haunting mah-jongg games from Great Neck to Boca: Jewish mothers are turning against the medical establishment. Those who once dreamed of their children becoming doctors are having regrets. Those with younger children no longer have such dreams. Blame it on H.M.O.’s. Blame it on new opportunities in finance, law and politics. Blame it on assimilation. Whatever the reason-and it’s probably a combination of several factors-medicine no longer has the appeal that motivated generations of Jewish children … and their mothers.

For maybe a thousand years, there was no surer prescription for naches than medicine. “I think maybe it’s because, in the Middle Ages, all of the great rabbis were also physicians,” said Rabbi David Posner of Temple Emanu-El. “Take Maimonides,” he said. Moses Maimonides-maybe the No. 1 rabbi ever-was also court physician to Sultan Saladin. “People always wonder why doctors wear white,” Rabbi Posner said. “Well: the [Jewish] priests wore white-and they were the healers.”

In his new book, Medicine and the German Jews: A History , John Efron, professor of Jewish history at Indiana University, says Jewish doctors helped bring a forlorn tribe from the exile of medical superstition (amulets, healing spells) into the promised land of modernity (think Jonas Salk). “In Germany,” he wrote, “the first Jewish intellectuals to reject a life of Torah study chose instead the practice of medicine. … [T]he turn to medicine betokened the emergence of the modern Jew with critical sensibilities. As an exponent of science … the Jewish doctor was a harbinger of modernity.”

Not to mention the yichus . That, Mr. Efron explained, is what the mah-jongg ladies call prestige. “Europeans are somewhat reluctant capitalists. Many Jewish medical students, their fathers were merchants,” he said in an interview. “Medicine offered them a way to live a bourgeois lifestyle to which they were accustomed-but you still had the yichus .” But Americans, Mr. Efron said, are less reluctant capitalists. “I still think medicine is sort of a high-status profession. But, where once it was at the top of the earning tree, it’s really fallen. It’s behind law and working on [Wall Street]. The rewards are not what they once were.”

Dr. Martin Blaser, chairman of the department of medicine at the New York University School of Medicine, agreed. “If there is a decline in the number of Jewish doctors-if there is-maybe it’s because the 1990′s were such a pro-business period,” he said. “So many bright young people went into business-related fields and not into medicine.”

Jewish mothers-ever mindful of the latest trends in achievement-seem to have caught on. Wendy Wasserstein, the playwright and author of Shiksa Goddess , recently became a Jewish mother (her daughter, Lucy Jane, is 18 months old). “It’s years and years of school,” she said of medical school. “You meet someone who’s a cardiologist, they’re out of school at 26. I don’t think becoming a doctor is like a get-rich-quick scheme or anything.”

Gertrude Steiner, 90-year-old mother of ESPN anchor and commentator Charlie Steiner, certainly has reason to be glad her son isn’t spending his days filling out claim forms. Charlie Steiner is one of ESPN’s most recognizable faces, one of the network’s stars. “I didn’t think my son would be as successful as he is,” she said, no doubt meaning it in the best possible way. “I think children should get satisfaction out of the work they choose to do. In my Monday bridge group, it’s the same thing: ‘My son, the doctor’ is no longer the thing to say.”

Lila Siegel, who lives in North Shore Towers on Long Island, supported Mrs. Steiner. “When he was growing up, I decided my son Jay should be a dentist. He has golden hands-the hands of a saint. He could have gone to N.Y.U. Dental School. We had a friend, a big shot at the school. All we had to do was make a contribution to the school. It only cost a few bucks.” But it was the 1960′s, and Mr. Siegel was undone by his hippie accouterments. “He had this big afro,” his mother said. “Our friend at N.Y.U. said he’d never admit a kid with an afro.” She didn’t know it then, but it was the best thing that ever happened to her son. “He didn’t want to be a dentist,” Mrs. Siegel said. “He was just doing it to please us.” Jay went into business; now he drives a Corvette. “Of course I’m proud of him!” Mrs. Siegel gushed.

Lure of Finance

A lot of Jewish kids have been following Mr. Siegel’s lead. Bea Blumenfeld, a mother of two who splits her time between Oceanside, N.Y., and Florida, said the “hard discipline” of medical school no longer has its attractions, not with other avenues available. “Jewish kids we know who have get-up-and-go went into some kind of finance,” she said. “The kid next door went to Merrill Lynch. He’s making a million dollars a year. Another neighbor, their son went into corporate law. He also is enormously wealthy. The kids that were going into medicine are going into finance.” As for prestige, well, Mrs. Blumenfeld had her own heretical thoughts: “I don’t think there’s much prestige in medicine, either,” she said. Certainly not now, when doctors so often seem less involved in healing than they are in shuffling paper.

Dr. Blaser agreed that life as a physician isn’t what it used to be. “Many doctors are working at several hospitals,” he said, “or several offices. The relationship with the government, and with insurance companies, has really changed.”

In addition, the new diversity of Jewish-mother-approved professions has diluted the yichus from medicine. “In an earlier generation,” Dr. Blaser said, “a lot of careers were closed to Jews. Jews couldn’t get jobs on Wall Street. Many Jews of my parents’ generation changed their names. Medicine was the traditional field for Jews. Now there are so many different ways that a young person can achieve.”

Gladys Barr, a 74-year-old Jewish mother from Queens, agreed with that assessment. “There are more options today than there were when our children were growing up. The whole tech world didn’t exist then, for one thing.” Still, Mrs. Barr’s son is a doctor, and her grandson is going to Amherst in the fall as a pre-med. But she wondered whether his interests might change in college. “When I was growing up,” she said, “most of the people went to school in the city. Our horizons were altogether different. Nowadays, you’re not as much under home influence. There’s a whole big world out there. That’s why so many are intermarrying, by the way.”

Shiksas and Immigrants

Ah, intermarriage-the dreaded mingling of blood. It’s sort of a metaphor for the yichus -drain in medicine. Mrs. Blumenfeld-an agnostic-mentioned it: “There’s a huge amount of intermarriage,” she said. “And a big dilution of Jewishness.” So did Ida Goldberg. “Stuart married a shiksa!” she said of her son. “Ge is her name. She’s a doctor, too, from China originally. Can you believe-to marry a doctor anyway, couldn’t she be a Jew? Not that I really care.”

Leona Bornstein-Turner, a 65-year-old New York Hadassah maven who now lives in Florida, put it more mildly: “You have a lot of competition to Jewish doctors from foreign doctors who come into this country that you didn’t have before. Where I live, there are doctors from Trinidad, Haiti, all the islands. Immigrants just strive more.” Neither of her sons became doctors; one works in finance (“He has a boat and a Jaguar!”), the other, David, does the morning drive on 1010-WINS. “To me, now, it seems like it’s not worth being a doctor,” Mrs. Bornstein-Turner said. “The long hours, the hard work, and very little respect. Certainly not the same respect for doctors there was years ago.”

Dr. Blaser spoke of the diversity at his medical school’s recent graduation. “The graduates,” he said, “are Jewish, Korean, Chinese, Russian, Italian, Indian, African-American, Hispanic-American-those are just some of the ethnic groups that came up to get their diploma.”

In John Efron’s view, “Medicine is about the drive for respectability. It is so important to immigrants to be seen to have arrived in a social sense.” Today, he said, Jews are well enough established in the United States that they don’t really have to be doctors anymore to earn respect and prestige. They can run for office (apparently a source of pride for certain people).

When Jews do go into medicine, it’s more as an “altruistic expression,” in Mr. Efron’s words. The kind of thing you do to pay your moral debt to society-like Catholics joining the priesthood, or Barry Diller getting married. Ms. Wasserstein said her daughter “owes” her doctors. “That’s why I told her doctor to give her a stethoscope to play with. I’d be delighted if she became a doctor-Chekhov was a doctor, you know.”

The fact is, Jewish mothers don’t know what they want their kids to do anymore. Mrs. Bornstein-Turner said the ladies in her mah-jongg group were proud that all their kids had done what they liked (none went into medicine). “We’re a very different mah-jongg group,” she said. Maybe so, but they seem to understand a basic fact of Jewish-American life: There’s very little yichus in any job nowadays. Academics are ascetics. So, increasingly, are doctors. Lawyers are nasty. Stock brokers are usurious. So where’s a Jewish mother to push? Shirley Luchter, a 73-year-old Long Islander, had one suggestion: “Court stenographer. My friend’s kid does that. It’s a good job. Respectable. Very good pay.”