Grandpa Murray, rags to riches, American big shot, the man who dreamt even bigger for his first grandson when he placed a doctor’s bag in my crib . . . the proudest man
at my med school graduation.
-for Maurice O. Emhoff, DDS, 1898-1992
When the Jews were slaves in Egypt,
Pharoah’s molars crumbled from a diet
seasoned with desert sand. Two thousand
years later, the Jews are enslaved again,
this time in Galicia, my grandfather
fleeing to America, his earliest memory
getting down on his knees to kiss Liberty
Island’s earth and thank God for the USA.
Flash forward and “Doc” Emhoff is the first
Jew to graduate Columbia Dental School.
With an office across from Newark’s
City Hall, he drilled crooked mayors’
molars and pulled teeth from tough guys
who fixed my driver’s license road test.
A bear-hugging bulldozer of a man
decked out in pinstriped suits and a star
sapphire pinky ring, he carried a wad
of bills he peeled off and stuffed
into people’s pockets. Master of the quick
extraction, his power-grip fingers crushed
my loosened milk teeth as he ripped them
from my bloodied seven-year-old mouth.
Grandpa Murray, rags to riches, American
big shot, the man who dreamt even bigger
for his first grandson when he placed a doctor’s bag
in my crib, gave me stone skulls for bookends,
taught me to polish dentures in his cluttered lab,
and let me examine ten thousand pulled teeth
he kept in a stack of drawers, the proudest man
at my med school graduation, this immigrant
who spent his life looking into America’s mouth,
the stains and decay, bridges and crowns, the jolt
of his booming voice commanding every citizen
to smile, bite down, grind, and open wide,
the way America’s jaws had opened for him.
Dr Berlin is Instructor in Psychiatry, University of Massachusetts Medical School, Worcester, MA.