Rick Hodes cures sick African kids. With a reassuring manner and a brightly colored hat (bearing the Amharic words “peace” and “health”) the director of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s medical programs in Ethiopia treats the crippled and cancerous, the diseased and debilitated, the invisibly infirm and the grotesquely malformed children of Addis Ababa.
His work is addressed by both Susan Cohn Rockefeller’s short documentary “Making the Crooked Straight” (airing on April 14, on HBO2) — for which, surely, the word “heartwarming” was coined — and Marilyn Berger’s new biography, “This Is a Soul: The Mission of Rick Hodes” (William Morrow). Both give us a brief glimpse of Hodes’s “quiet heroism” (as best-selling medical author Abraham Verghese labels it on the book jacket).
Christopher Hitchens joked that “The Missionary Position” (Verso), his 1995 biography of Mother Teresa, should have been called “Holy Cow” because of her stance on birth control and dictatorial manner. Hodes is an attending physician at Mother Teresa’s Mission in Addis Ababa, but he’s no Mother Teresa. Apart from being joyously Jewish, he has the kind of practical ego that allows him to believe he can achieve something worthwhile while appearing to reserve all judgment of those around him.
His solution to providing health care to a number of the children without insurance was to adopt them, and his “family” Sabbaths include not only his 17 adopted children, but also medical workers and interested visitors. Rockefeller’s 30-minute documentary has an affecting but short sequence of a Kabbalat Shabbat where the candles are lit and the group links arms to sing “If I Had a Hammer.”
In documentary and biography Hodes comes across as one of those people whose presence and practical goodness show up those of us who under-donate our time and money to the truly needy. As well as Verghese, dustcover recommendations come from Christiane Amanpour, Alan Alda, Natalie Portman and, obscurely, Henry Kissinger.
Hodes, from Syosset, N.Y., trained at the University of Rochester Medical Center and arrived in Ethiopia during the famines of the mid-1980s. Since then, apart from lending his medical expertise to refugee missions around the world, he has been based there. He says, with no regret, that he has no personal life anymore, but you get the feeling that his children and all the children of Addis Ababa are his personal life. With more Ethiopian doctors in Washington, D.C., and Maryland than in the whole of Ethiopia, Hodes is redressing a cosmic balance.
When diagnosing a little girl with a heart murmur, Hodes gives the child the stethoscope and asks her to listen to his heart and her own. She notes the difference, and he congratulates her acuity before organizing the surgery necessary to cure her. He never listens to his own heart, perhaps because he’s too busy following it.
Dan Friedman is the arts and culture editor of the Forward.
Watch a trailer for “Making the Crooked Straight” below: