Dr. Rick Hodes is an Orthodox Jew who has devoted his life to “tikkun olam,” “healing the world. His motto is the Talmud’s statement that “He who saves one life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.” Dr. Hodes has spent most of his professional life working with the poor and sick in Ethiopia, treating hundreds of patients and taking seventeen children into his own home to raise them as his family. His salary is paid by the American Joint Jewish Distribution Committee, and he raises the money for his patients. A new 30-minute documentary about the doctor, his work, and the children will be shown on HBO. The director is Susan Cohen Rockefeller.
I spoke to Dr. Hodes by phone as he was preparing to fly back to the US from Ethiopia.
How did you come to Ethiopia?
I came first in 1984 because of the famine. I came as a relief worker. I was a resident at Johns Hopkins and I took five or six weeks off and worked in the famine camps. For a while I was the only doctor for several thousand starving people.
What surprised you about Ethiopia?
The depth of the culture, the depth of the ancient Christianity, how people in Ethiopia really know who they are. They don’t think of themselves as black. They don’t think of themselves as African. They really think of themselves as Ethiopian. Even their Christianity is very much involved with their Ethiopian identity. If you go to a Christian ceremony, it will be very Ethiopian as well, with the colors and flags. Ethiopians know who they are. They really like their culture. They have their own religion, their own food, their own system. If they’re not in Ethiopia and find someone else from Ethiopia, they feel very close to them, especially if they are from the same region.
I have heard that in Ethiopia everyone carries the children around, that everyone takes care of the children as though they belong to the whole community.
They carry the children on their backs, there’s a lot of physical contact, child abuse is much less here. The rate of psychological problems from lack of care seems to be lower.
As an outsider, was it difficult for you to gain their trust?
Once you start doing good things, they start coming to you. They will ask if I can help them, teach them, do something with them. And learning the language.
What led you to take over responsibility for the children?
Bewoket had run away from home because he was dying. And he ended up in the university hospital. They discharged him to a Catholic mission. I was volunteering there. He was very attached to me. And he was in such difficult shape it was actually easier to have him in my house, where I could care for him. Once I took in one, I met another one, and so on. I try to say that this is finished, but it’s not finished.
Do the kids get along with each other?
Any two people under the same roof will not always agree, but they do well.
What do you do for fun?
They play board games. The healthier ones play soccer. The less healthy ones play Monopoly and card games. It’s funny, three years ago they had not seen a car or a white person and now what gets them most excited is buying a hotel on Boardwalk.
Do they want to become doctors?
A lot of them do. One boy was dying in Gojam and his dad sold two goats to get him $30 to come to the big city. They came to Addis Abeba,, and they spent 20 cents a night to sleep on the floor of the hotel with 20 people. They had no money for the bus so they had to walk six or seven miles to get to me. I reached into my pocket and gave him $10 and I said, “Here, every time you come I will give you more, so spend this. Eat two or three meals a day, sleep in a bed, take the bus, take care of yourself.” And that is when he started getting better.
And now this boy, who had been in a remote school studying to be an Orthodox priest is in eighth grade, speaks fluent English, and wants to be a doctor. When he came to America he told his life story at a fund-raiser and we raised $1 million. There’s another girl who was an orphan, living in a medical college because she had nowhere else to go. I ended up bringing her to Addis Abeba, treating her TB, sending her for surgery, and now she is in 6th grade and wants to be a doctor. When I first met her she said she wanted to be a housemaid because then she would have a place to live and cook. Now she’s living in my house, she speaks English. For $10-12 thousand we’ve completely transformed her life.
What do Americans need to know about Ethiopia?
The depth of the culture and the niceness of the people. It is a poor country, but it is a proud country with a deep culture, a history, definitely not uncivilized.
How does your Jewish faith inspire and sustain you?
I really enjoy being Jewish. I pray three times a day and keep the Sabbath to the extent that a doctor with patients can do that. We just had a big Passover seder. It is an important part of my life, the daily schedule, the weekly schedule, the monthly schedule. It becomes all-encompassing. But one of the nice things about being in Ethiopia is that I feel very welcome here. I respect other religions. Most of the kids are Orthodox Catholic, Protestant, or Muslim.
What I’m personally trying to do is making the world a better place for a few people, helping as many people as I can in that sense. I’m sending 16 kids in May to Ghana for surgery. That’s the greatest thing in the world for me.
Photo credit: Photograph by J. Kyle Keener/HBO
I loved Beverly Cleary’s books even more when we read them to our children than I did when I read them as a child. It’s because she has a unique ability to capture the way a child sees the world, filtered through the sympathetic understanding of an insightful adult who also happens to be an exceptional writer. I am especially fond of The Ramona Collection but love all of her books, even her autobiography, A Girl from Yamhill. The television series with Sarah Polley was quite good and I am hoping the upcoming movie will be, too.
Happy 94th birthday, Ms. Cleary!
Sam Scalimoni is the director of Nickeoldeon’s new traveling “Storytime Live” show, starring its most popular characters, including Dora and Diego, the Backyardigans, the Wonder Pets, Kai-Lan, and more.
What is it like to create a show for the most enthusiastic audience in the world, pre-schoolers and their families?
We thought we knew what we were in store for, but we really didn’t know until we saw it in front of an audience. Last week we were at Radio City Music Hall and to see 6000 families come in and just cheer for all the characters — the young performers that we have definitely felt like rock stars.
How do you hold their attention? They’re a very squirmy bunch and very excited!
The great thing about our show as opposed to those in the past is that we have four different stories. So it’s like four mini-musicals of about 15 minutes long. And between them we have Moose and Zee from Nick, Jr. coming out and play puzzles with the audience and help them guess what’s coming up next. So they’re constantly being engaged and entertained with something new happening all the time, and being led through it, entertained and educated at the same time.
They’ve taken four of the most popular character groups from the Nickelodeon stories. And they’re very fun and clever and fast-moving and they never talk down to them. We like to think of our show as the first theatrical experience for young people. We have some very clever writing and parents have as good a time as the young people.
I approach this like any other project. It is about story-telling and it’s about clarity. We kept the focus on making it clear to anyone, not just young people. We use our paint-brushes, the costumes, the scenery, even the lighting to show you what’s happening next and where your focus should be. And I find young people have a better sense of reality than adults. They know the theater is a pretend kind of place. We have some fantasy — a dragon, a witch who flies, a monkey king who flies, a dragon that turns into a prince — we have those kind of thing but they are done in a theatrical way and the young people are right there with you.
You mentioned the costume design — what were some of the challenges?
The costume design is challenging because the characters are so well known and the kids want them to look familiar. But the actors are human and we did not want them to have big cartoon-y heads. And we wanted them to be comfortable and be able to do all of the movement they needed to do. So we were working with five different creative teams from Nickelodeon to get the essence of the character — real people and monkeys and puppetry — and make sure it was practical for what we wanted to do on stage.
We had very specific requirements. It very much reflects our audience, a lot of ethnic diversity, people who were tumblers, who could do the flying and all of that. But most important was we needed people who could be themselves, very honest performers, none of that phony kind of acting as opposed to really being a person so the young kids could connect to them.
Is there a moment that really gets a big reaction from the crowd at every performance?
When the monkey king flies from nowhere, he just appears, and it is very exciting. And Dora makes a magical transition into a princess and it always gets a big “Oooo.” And our finale is so exciting because it’s the first time Nickelodoen has let us mix the characters from all the shows, to see them all together in a really exciting dance number, the kids are all dancing in the aisles.
The Touring Schedule — Dates and Locations:
Celebrate National Library Week! This year’s chairman is “Coraline” author Neil Gaiman. Visit your public library to take a look at what’s available in books, DVDs, and audio — and to thank your librarian. A special thank you shout-out from me to my favorite librarian, my sister Mary.
And check out some of these movies about libraries and librarians. Here’s my favorite: