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Poor lore

At 92, Dr Leon Majaro’s son Simon has written about his father’s life as ‘The Doctor of the Poor’ in Jerusalem

26 August, 2021 — By Dan Carrier

Simon Majaro

THE ancient Greek code of medical ethics known as the Hippocratic Oath has guided the work of doctors for nearly 2,000 years. It states that “Into whatsoever houses I enter, I will enter to help the sick.”

This undertaking was at the heart of Dr Leon Majaro’s life work – and what this vow meant to a young Jewish émigré in Palestine in the 1920s forms the basis of a new biography.

Written by Leon’s Hampstead-based son Simon Majaro, this memoir describes his father’s work and tells the story of growing up in Palestine and Israel in the mid-20th century.

“When my father reached the age of 90, and after 60 years of devoted medical care of his mixed constituency of Jews, Arabs and Christians, the Municipality of Jerusalem awarded him a new title: ‘The Doctor of the Poor’,” reveals Simon.

“He was thrilled. It represented the successful fulfilment of his aspirations and dreams.”

Simon, 92, left Israel to study law at UCL as a young man, and was called to the Bar in 1954. In his spare time, Simon nurtured a talent for making violins, and with his late wife Pamela, established the Cavatina Music Trust, which takes chamber orchestras into schools.

His father’s story started in Odessa in Russia. Strategically important as a warm water port, the Russian government won the city from Turkey but once occupied, they faced a lack of workers. Migrants were encouraged by a liberalisation of laws that restricted where Jewish people could live and work.

With a third of the population Jewish, Odessa became the fourth largest in Imperial Russia, renowned for learning and trades.

Simon’s ancestors, called the Mojarowskys, were early arrivals.

“By the time [Simon’s father, originally named] Liova was born they were well established,” writes Simon. “His father was a lawyer who became a director of the famous local newspaper, Odesky Novosty.”

Liova’s first love was playing the violin.

“Through his school years he was not sure if wanted to become a doctor or a professional violinist,” writes Simon.

Graduating in 1916 from medical school, Liova was called up to the Russian Army and joined a Cossack unit, where he treated cavalrymen for typhoid rather than battlefield injuries.

Revolution ended the war in 1917, and Liova’s father advised him to leave Russia. Liova, who became Leon in Israel, put his violin under his arm and set off across eastern Europe. In Constantinople, he met a group of Jewish citizens who had been deported from Jaffa by the Ottoman government. Now the British had established a mandate in Palestine, the group wanted to return – and Liova joined them.

The barber, his young assistant and Dr Leon Majaro in Lydda

Leon, as he was now called, spoke French, Russian and German. But he knew he would need Hebrew, Arabic and English to practice – and when he heard of an Arab village called Lydda that lacked a medic, he headed there.

“For a young Russian doctor, unfamiliar with the habits and customs of the Arab population, and not speaking the language, it was foolhardy to expect to find work,” says Simon. “Nonetheless, with his charm, he succeeded.”
Leon set up a surgery in a barber’s shop.

“He learned about the customs and attitudes of his patients, who were in the main agricultural workers,” he recalls.

“He never encountered a single hostile hint or innuendo about his Jewish background.”

Simon describes his father as “non-political”, a man whose moral foundation was reflected in his desire to help others. He knew there was no difference between the body of a Jew or Arab – and his openness towards cultures made the conflicts he went on to witness in his adoptive country even more tragic.

For a family brought up on the sanctity of human life, watching violence ferment between neighbours was heart-breaking, and how to solve the problems played heavily on Simon’s mind. It also led him, as a teenager, to leave his school under something of a cloud after answering an essay question, “Our Country In 20 Years.”

“I researched avidly for a country that found a harmonious existence despite its multifarious social, linguistic, demographic and ethnic strata,” he says. “Switzerland appeared to be the perfect model. Few people realise what a combative and bellicose country Switzerland was centuries ago. The various cantons were in constant military conflict.

“Reading about Swiss history, I came to the conclusion that the regions were exhausted and were seeking an acceptable end to fighting. I was hoping war fatigue could ultimately bring the Jews and Arabs to a meaningful negotiating forum.”

Simon’s idea was based on establishing a confederation with a parliament in Jerusalem. Each citizen, regardless of religion or ethnicity, would have one vote for a government responsible for finance, defence and foreign affairs.

Local government would be based on cantons, allowing autonomy to develop social structures that suited regions best. Instead, Simon watched as the UN divided Palestine into two entities. He felt then, as he does now, that historic errors were made.

“Let us create a Switzerland of the Middle East, was my unorthodox message,” he recalls. “In political terms I believed this approach might appeal to the more sober and sane leaderships of both sides…” But written a year before the state of Israel was founded, the essay was deemed politically unacceptable by his teacher. He was banished from class, and decided not to return.

Simon recreates the atmosphere of Jerusalem, marrying the political situation with childhood memories.

Aged 14, Simon was given an apprenticeship with a wood craftsman called Pinky – his father believing if Simon had a trade, no matter where he was, he would always have work. Pinky’s influence continues today, as his apprentice became a master violin maker in his spare time.

The story of the Majaro family casts light on daily life in Jerusalem against the backdrop of a nation forged in turmoil. It offers a timely reminder of how war, at is base, is fratricide.

Jerusalem’s Doctor of the Poor. By Simon Majaro. SML Publications, £15. All proceeds go to the Cavatina Music Trust. To obtain a copy please email: simon@cavatina.net

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