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November 21, 2009
Lights and Miracles on American Samoa
In a few hours it will be Shabbat-the Jewish Sabbath-in American Samoa. I'm relaxing behind the hospital at my apartment, preparing to light candles later and enjoy dinner with new friends.
I turn on the TV expecting to see another CSI rerun. Shows are broadcast two weeks later here than on the mainland. It's mid-November, and Halloween commercials just ended.
Instead, there is a documentary in a language I've heard before but is probably not heard too often on this island. It is Hebrew.
The documentary's subject is military history during Israel's early statehood. Not having much interest in war and artillery, I would certainly have changed the channel if it weren't for the curiosity of hearing Hebrew in Pago Pago.
But the show takes a different perspective than what I'd expect. It's called "Against All Odds: in search of a miracle."
The show describes the first hand experiences of soldiers during the War for Independence. All survived battles that should have resulted in their slaughter. In each instance, the attacking Arab armies had more guns, more tanks, better trained fighters, tactical advantages and massive numbers.
Israel had two assets: teenaged defenders and the certainty that this fight would end either in the survival of the Jewish nation or its obliteration.
The documentary features religious and secular Jews, warriors and historians, retired generals and academics. The message from each is the same, echoing David Ben Gurion: "To live in Israel and not believe in miracles is not practical."
This week brought its challenges, including the loss of my 5-year-old patient and the knowledge of how much his family is suffering.
Today I was invited to his funeral.
Samoan culture puts great value on honoring lives lost and gathering the entire community for every funeral service. Graves are visible. Burials are often done in front of a family's home, not hidden or relegated to a remote cemetery.
I told my cousin Rivi about what happened. She wrote to me from Tel Aviv an email message that I kept rereading.
I don't think she meant her email to be a poem, but that's what it is:
With the coming of Chanukah to a tiny American territory in the Pacific, I will light candles and set them in my window. And next week, I'll add a stone to the grave of a child.
Linda Halderman, MD, FACS
Department of General Surgery
LBJ Tropical Medical CenterPago Pago, American Samoa