Joe Himelhoch by
(318 Stories)

Prompted By Family Medicine

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His office was in-home; a Tudor-style, something like this

I always burst into tears when we turned the corner and I could see the big Tudor house in a nice section of Detroit where Dr. Himelhoch also had his office. I was sure it meant I would get a shot in my rear end, a painful and humiliating experience.

Joseph Himelhoch was a large man with a white brush cut, thick black eyebrows and black-rimmed glasses. His wife, Sally, was his nurse. I have no idea how long they’d been married but my mother told me that Sally had converted to Judaism before they married. Dr. Himelhoch was a Reform Jew, but deeply committed to the religion. I’m sure he was a good, caring pediatrician, but his loud voice frightened me. He spent time with my brother and me at our annual exams and took great interest in both of us. He loved classical music, the arts and our family. My older brother Rick was devoted to music, even at a young age and the doctor joked that he’d been vaccinated with a record needle (a refreshing vaccination joke, and one that only people who know about turntables will understand)!

The Reform Jewish movement was VERY liberal in the late 1940s and early 1950s when I came along. Confirmation in 10th grade, rather than bar mitzvah at age 13 (girls definitely did not have bat mitzvahs yet) was the big thing at the time and my brother was not being prepared for his bar mitzvah. Dr. Himelhoch objected. I remember he said, “What happens if he grows up and wants to become a rabbi?” (The joke is: my brother DID grow up to become a rabbi.)

So, at about age 12, my brother began private tutoring in Hebrew and all the customs necessary for his bar mitzvah. Also at that time, our family began saying the blessings for Shabbat on Friday nights and going to Temple almost every Friday night (our Temple didn’t have services on Saturday mornings. Bar mitzvahs were conducted on Friday nights as well). And my brother was so smart and dedicated to learning, that his ceremony was only delayed by three months. We celebrated his bar mitzvah on Friday, May 5, 1961. My parents had a big party on Saturday night at a downtown hotel with an orchestra for dancing. I’m sure that Dr. and Mrs. Himelhoch were invited, but my brother must have those photos. I was eight years old and wore pink organdy. Eventually, my father became an officer of the Temple. Because of Dr. Himelhoch’s intervention, Judaism became a big part of our lives.

I was a sickly little kid. I was small, never weighed much and always got an annual case of the flu. I’d be in bed, throwing up for a week, with a bucket on a stool along side my bed. Mother also set up a small table next to my bed on which she placed some sustenance for me. On it, I also kept a photo of my favorite cousin, Connie. I’d been a flower girl in her wedding. Just looking at that photo made me happy and helped me feel better.

With Connie, March 13, 1960 (her parents’ house)

My mother would call Dr. Himelhoch, who would come to the house in the evening, after office hours. Of course he had his black doctor’s bag with him. He’d listen to my chest, take my temperature, advise me to drink fluids. He told my mother to serve me hot tea with lemon and honey. To this day, I can’t stand the smell or taste of black tea; a true sense aversion dating back to my days of throwing up. I would try to ingest some, but, since I didn’t like the taste of it, it frequently make me MORE nauseous. He would threaten that if I didn’t take in some fluids, I’d land in the hospital (I would eat Campbell’s chicken soup).

After checking on the patient, he’d sit with my parents in our living room (never the den), in the big wing chair in the corner of the room. Dad would offer him a drink (perhaps some schnapps) and the adults would sit and talk about weighty matters for some time. It was during one of those talks that the decision about my brother’s bar mitzvah was determined. I don’t remember if my mother was always present. Perhaps they talked some politics as well. I could hear their voices rise and fall. As I mentioned, Dr. Himelhoch had a loud voice. And we had a small, three bedroom house at the time.

But Dr. Himelhoch was not a well man. He was overweight. I believe he’d already had one heart attack. His wife, nurse Sally, fretted over him. I looked online for information about him, but only found a reference to them in the society pages, no death notice. Yet I know he died before my 12th birthday, as I had another pediatrician by the time I entered puberty. I believe he had a fatal heart attack and that put an end to the long family chats he had when he came around for house calls. We mourned his loss.


Profile photo of Betsy Pfau Betsy Pfau
Retired from software sales long ago, two grown children. Theater major in college. Singer still, arts lover, involved in art museums locally (Greater Boston area). Originally from Detroit area.

Characterizations: moving


  1. John Shutkin says:

    The doctor and his wife sound like lovely people, and so sorry for his early demise. I think doctors generally were less health conscious back in the day. Certainly, the ones I remembered smoked, including my father.

    But I loved how you also morphed this story into one about your brother’s brilliant advancements in his (eventual) rabbinical training and career.

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      Thank you, John. I think most people were less aware of how to be truly healthy (remember those TV commercials with doctors endorsing smoking). Also, not aware of healthy eating or keeping cholesterol low and the part it played in heart-related issues. Yes it is true that this doctor played an important early role in what became my brother’s vocation. One never knows whose influence will make a difference.

  2. Laurie Levy says:

    OMG Betsy, he was my pediatrician. Thank you for reminding me of the details. Your description of how he looked was spot on. And I had forgotten his Tudor house/office. In my story, he’s Dr. H. My mother always pushed hot tea with lemon and honey to cure what ailed us, and now I know why.

  3. Khati Hendry says:

    My family physician in high school also had intimidating black eyebrows–what’s with that? It sounds as if Dr. H. really knew the family on many levels, a pleasure that has certainly gone by the wayside over time. Lucky you, even if visits came with those awful needles. Physicians do actually have high levels of substance use and suicide, likely related to the endless stress many experience. They have developed more programs for physician health over the years. Fewer smoke however!

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      Funny correlation between thick eyebrows and family physicians; not funny between high rates of suicide and substance abuse, however, Khati. Yes, our doctor did know us well. We benefitted from his care and I know that is level of care is long gone; we are all poorer for it.

  4. As always Betsy you have such wonderful recall
    of events and people, and most importantly of the emotions of the moment..

    And thanx for the introduction to Dr Himelhoch and explaining his close relationship with your family, and his influence on your spiritual journey. How poetically just that Rick became a rabbi!

  5. Marian says:

    I love this story, Betsy, and appreciate the influence Dr. H. had on your family’s Judaism and your brother’s path. That’s amazing. We have something in common: being sickly kids and a total aversion to tea with honey. It must have been a common drink for sick kids in those days. My mother used to make me very weak Lipton orange pekoe tea with honey, which would make me vomit, and to this day I can’t have a cup near me without feeling nauseated. I can have strong black tea or Earl Grey without sweetener, or herbal teas, but no Lipton, ever!

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      Using hot black tea with honey must have been the cure-all in the early ’50s, Mare! How funny that we both were force-fed it and developed a life-long aversion to it. I, also can only tolerate herbal teas to this day (we didn’t differentiate between orange pekoe and Earl Grey; it was all nauseating to me).

  6. Love the vaccination with a record needle joke, and it made me remember that feeling of when we would rub our thumb against the needle on the turntable to see if it needed to be changed. I love remembering old feelings like that…dialing a phone, rolling up a car window…things that took longer. Now we’re so impatient waiting a few seconds for almost anything drives us crazy.

    A lovely portrait of your doctor and his rich relationship with your family. And how sweet that the photo of you and your cousin Connie made you feel better.

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      Thanks for picking up the record needle joke, Barb. It does take us back to a long-ago place and time…as you say, when we rolled down car windows and dialed phones. Very specific sensory feelings that are long gone.

      Connie and I remain close. I would bicycle over to her home when I wanted to escape from mine. She is now in her late 80s and is so hard of hearing that she has advised me to only text or FaceTime with her. After retiring as a physical therapist, she became a yoga instructor, so stayed in great shape. It pains me to think of her having such difficulties now.

  7. Suzy says:

    Betsy, I love this portrait of your family doctor, and especially the influence he had on your family’s Judaism. How funny that he said what if Rick grew up and wanted to be a rabbi – and then it actually happened.

    I never heard of giving tea for an upset stomach, that was the treatment for a sore throat. For nausea, my father used to give us coca-cola syrup, which did make it go away, but I hated the taste. I have never been able to drink any cola products as a result. Whereas I’m fine with tea.

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      Thank you, Suzy. I suspect it is coincidence, but still remarkable that Rick actually did become a rabbi after our doctor made such a strong plea for him to become a bar mitzvah!

      I’ve heard of drinking flat soda (like ginger ale) for an ailing stomach, but not coca-cola syrup, nevertheless, you now can’t tolerate cola products in the same way that I can’t stand tea. Different product but used for the same symptoms and therefore, same results. Funny how these things stick with us from our childhoods.

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