When I worked at the OU Israel Center in downtown Jerusalem in the mid-1980s, my co-workers had names like Anne and Ilana, Phil and Shai.
But when the doors closed for the break between 4 and 7 p.m., in would come Abu Nabil, an Israeli Arab from Silwan, in East Jerusalem. Abu Nabil was accompanied by Daveed, the “maintenance manager” (read: the Jewish worker in charge). Abu Nabil was his assistant (read: the one who did the clean-up work).
Daveed had been born in Iraq and spoke with Abu Nabil in fluent Arabic. Abu Nabil spoke very little Hebrew, and when he came to clean my office we communicated mostly with hand motions. When he came in I would ask in Hebrew, “How are you?” His response was always, “Hamdilila! Be’seder v’chetzi!” (Praise God! O.K. and a half!)
Abu Nabil was about my height, 5’3”, with short cropped hair that was somewhere between brown and gray. It was hard to tell how old he was due to his smooth skin, but he had deep lines furrowed across his forehead. I heard from Daveed that Abu Nabil had a number of children, and one of his sons worked in a hotel in Eilat. It seemed the son was not giving his father the nachas parents hope for. Even when Abu Nabil smiled, there was a sadness in his eyes.
Because of the language barrier, I had only a superficial relationship with Abu Nabil. Even so, I was fond of him, and I appreciated that he tolerated the mess in my office. I was in charge of programs for students from abroad, and my office was often strewn with papers. Boxes of sweatshirts or sandwich cookies were often stacked on the floor. Daveed frowned at the disarray, but Abu Nabil just cleaned around the obstacles without ever a disapproving glance, year after year.
One afternoon there was a Torah class in the library, which continued after 4 p.m. Abu Nabil was working, and Daveed had stepped out. I was sitting at my desk, trying to finish my work for the day, when Abu Nabil rushed into my office, toilet paper wrapped around one hand, with blood dripping.
He had been cleaning in the bathroom and had stuck his hand into the trash can, not realizing there was a broken light bulb sticking out with a sharp, jagged edge.
I am unusually queasy. The sight of blood produces an extreme visceral reaction: my stomach clenches and pain radiates outward up to my chin and down to my knees. I become weak and nauseated.
When I saw Abu Nabil’s hand dripping blood I realized in a split second that I had no time to give in to my own sensitivity. I knew I had to help him, but I didn’t know what to do. I ran to the library and frantically asked if anyone knew first aid. A young woman name Chava bolted out of the room, her wavy hair and Indian print skirt flying behind her. She (unlike me) remained calm. She motioned to Abu Nabil to hold his hand up high to slow the flow of blood, and she bandaged him with a long roll of toilet paper as best she could.
Although we were across the street from Bikur Cholim Hospital, someone told us we had to go to the hospital on duty for emergency care. The hospital on duty was Hadassah Ein Kerem, clear across Jerusalem. Thankfully, Chava offered to go with us in a taxi. When we arrived at the hospital the waiting room was full. Chava asked if I could manage without her and took her leave. Finally, Abu Nabil was seen, given stitches, and bandaged. He winced but did not cry or even make a sound.