During the 1920s, a polio epidemic swept across the United Sates. My uncle, then a baby, was one of its victims. As a child, I heard the story of his recovery many times from my mother, his sister. At the time she was about 10 years old, and witnessed the miracle firsthand.
At the urging of friends, I am sharing his story.
My mother’s family lived in a poor Jewish neighborhood in New York City, crowded with other recent immigrants from Eastern Europe. Contagious diseases were common and claimed many lives. This was before the invention of the vaccines that have all but eliminated polio from the list of dreaded childhood diseases.
Grandma took her sick baby from doctor to doctor. Each doctor recommended a different treatment – special diets, baths, injections, putting a splint on his paralyzed limbs. But none of them worked. Grandma pawned her jewelry to pay the doctors’ bills. She prayed and wept, but my baby uncle remained paralyzed.
As an indication of how desperate Grandma was, my mother recalled the following: One of the doctors advised that a certain nutrient in bacon might help him recover. Grandma was a very pious Jew, a rabbi’s daughter. Nevertheless, she obtained a portable stove and hired a gentile nurse to cook bacon and feed it to my uncle. I can only imagine how embarrassed she must have felt as the odors of the non-kosher meat wafted through the hall of the tenement where she lived with other Jewish families. At any rate, the bacon did not help.
One day Grandma was out on the street, shopping for groceries. My uncle was in her arms. My mother and her middle brother tagged along. Suddenly, grief overwhelmed her and she started to cry. An old woman approached and asked in Yiddish, “Why are you crying?”
Grandma showed her the paralyzed baby. The old woman said, “Take him home and rub his arms and legs with butter.”
Whenever my mother would reach this part of the story, I could hear the amazement in her voice. How could an old woman know how to heal polio, while all the doctors did not? How could such a simple treatment work, when the most up-to-date medicine of that time had failed?
But it worked. Grandma rubbed the baby’s arms and legs with butter, and they became strong again. My uncle grew up large, tall, and blessed with a healthy body. He married, raised a family, and lived to see grandchildren. He enjoyed a long career as a teacher, and passed away after years of happy retirement.
Grandma believed that the old woman was none other than Elijah the Prophet in disguise, sent by Heaven to relieve her desperate, grieving heart. That’s what she told my mother, and that’s what my mother told me. To my mother, these events were more than just a childhood memory. They were an anchor for her faith against the tide of secularism that she encountered as an adult.
When deciding to write this story, I first did a little research on the history of polio in the 20th century. That’s how I discovered the following:
During the 1930s an Australian nurse, Sister Elizabeth Kenny, showed that vigorous massage could restore functioning to limbs damaged by polio. More than 10 years would pass before doctors in the United States recognized her work. By then my uncle had already recovered, and was growing up as a strong and active child.
Which leads to this question: What is a miracle?
We celebrate Chanukah, when a single day’s worth of oil burned for eight days. But we also celebrate Purim, when the miracle came “clothed in nature.” The king just happened to be looking for a wife; Esther just happened to be his choice; Mordechai just happened to overhear a treacherous plot against the king. And so on.
How would an old woman in New York City know that massage might restore strength to paralyzed limbs? There’s no need to look beyond nature for an answer. Perhaps it was a folk-remedy, like peppermint tea for a stomachache. Sister Kenny herself may have learned it from a folk-healer. But then, this old woman just happened to be in New York City, on the same street as Grandma, at the same time, in front of the same store. She just happened to notice her, out of all of the hundreds of people on the street. She just happened to speak Yiddish. And – this, too, is important – all these events just happened to occur when Grandma, having exhausted every other option, was desperate enough to try anything, no matter how absurd it seemed. How likely is it that all this came together by chance?
If you believe in miracles, the answer is obvious.