During the Corona quarantine, we are living in Boca Raton with my daughter Chanie and her family. We reside in Beit Shemesh in Israel, but traveled here to spend Purim with her; we now have been her guests for over to three months.
Chanie homeschools her kids, and my wife and I have been the “scholars-in-residence” for the homeschool of our grandchildren. Last week I discussed the verse of Paul Laurence Dunbar, one of the first great African-American poets, with my granddaughter Sari. We focused on the poem “Sympathy,” the refrain of which is “I know why the caged bird sings.” That phrase is also the title of Maya Angelou’s famous autobiography, which describes the formative years of that American writer and poet who was known for her strong character and love of literature, both of which helped her to overcome racism.
Sari and I then discussed how being black can be an obstacle to being accepted into mainstream society and how it often prevented people from pursuing certain professions. Being a stranger, or outsider, created all sorts of obstacles. Based on a true story, The African Doctor depicts one real-life example of how prejudice towards strangers dramatically affected the arc of one person’s entire life.
Seyolo Zantoko, an African who has just graduated from a French medical school, turns down a job to be the personal physician of President Joseph-Desire Mobutu of Zaire because the country is known for its corruption. Instead, he applies for the position of a doctor in a small country town in France, far from the bustling business and fashion environment of Paris. The mayor hires him for his village of Marly-Gomont, but warns him that adjusting to his rural community will not be easy.
Once the family moves into the village, Seyolo’s wife Anne and his two children, Sivi and Kamini, are disappointed, having expected to dwell in a cosmopolitan environment. They did not comprehend that Seyolo’s ultimate goal in accepting this post was to give his children a superior education in France and to obtain French citizenship.
As their period of adjustment progresses, challenges emerge. The provincial town dwellers are suspect of newcomers, especially if they are black. HIs children are bullied at school, and almost no one comes to see him for medical services. Eventually, however, mutual understanding prevails, and there is rapprochement between Seyolo’s family and the townspeople.
Judaism has much to say about how to treat the stranger because Jews endured slavery in Egypt when they were strangers in the land (Exodus 23:9). Indeed, the more vulnerable the stranger, the greater is our obligation to help him. The stranger is bereft of family, friends, and the familiar, and he needs our support.
Jewish history is filled with stories of loners, strangers, who had to overcome prejudice to be accepted. Abraham was told that his descendants would be strangers in a strange land. Moses spent a good portion of his adult life as a stranger, an outsider, in Midian. The Jews spent years as outsiders in Europe; and every year at Passover, Jews recount the story of their marginal status in Egypt as a people without a homeland. It is the collective memory of being a stranger that eternally binds the Jewish people together.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks poetically writes: “You know the heart of the stranger because you were once a stranger in the land of Egypt. If you are human, so is he. If he is less than human, so are you. God tells us I made you into the world’s archetypal strangers so that you would fight for the rights of strangers – for your own and those of others, wherever they are, whoever they are, whatever the color of their skin or the nature of their culture, because though they are not in your image, says God, they are nonetheless in Mine. There is only one reply strong enough to answer the question: Why should I not hate the stranger? Because the stranger is me.”
The African Doctor reminds us of the evils of prejudice and functions as a clarion call to help the strangers among us.