Edward Arthur Beeman - Eliyahu Aharon ben Dov uVilahby Rabbi Michael L. Feshbach
A few weeks ago I came for one of my visits to the Beeman home… and Ed wanted to talk. He was upstairs, in a chair in a den, and it was one of the good days. After a moment, it became apparent that this was a pretty serious conversation, so I borrowed a pad, sat back, and started writing. Much of what follows, then – not all, but much of it – are Ed’s words, and his reflections, not about a single trip… but the journey of his own life.
He opened with the quote of a Yiddish play, I think, called Livitzky at the Wedding.. Three things a man accomplishes, he said. He is born, he takes a bride, and he dies.
A man is born. Well, actually, this first part Ed did not tell me; I learned this yesterday instead, but, as Jean said… Ed was one of the few people who was born at home, and died at home. He was, actually, rather dramatically, born on the kitchen table of the family home outside of Boston, in Roxbury, a place Ed called the home of the “unwashed and unafraid.” He was born on May 1, 1923, the oldest of three children of Benjamin and Bella Beeman. Ben was trained as an accountant, but worked as a pawnbroker, at a shop he acquired in Roxbury Crossing. Ed said that he used to work in the shop, and became friendly with the priest from Mission Hill who dropped in. He asked Ed if he knew how to make holy water, and was told that the way to do so was… to boil the…heck… out of it.
Eventually the family grew to include his sister Helen and his brother Sidney. Apparently Ed was studious from an early age, and Sidney was athletic, so that when Sidney would be outside playing ball one of their parents would say: “Sidney, why can’t you be more like your brother, and finish studying.” But Ed would hear: “Ed, why can’t you be more like your brother, and get outside!” But that wasn’t totally fair: Ed did love the outdoors… He told Cindy that if he hadn’t gone to medical school he would have wanted to have been an oceanographer… he loved the sea, loved sailing, loved to fish. [In fact, that love of the sea and sailing, the fact that he passed it on… Judy said that this might have been responsible for her ending up with her husband. To that degree, then, the lesson to learn is that anything we teach our children… anything we share… may have ramifications and implications that we can never foresee, and which remain with us forever.]
Ed spoke of his “modest” academic accomplishments, graduating cum laude from Harvard, and magna cum laude from Boston University’s Medical School. It was high school, however, which he said provided the greatest academic challenge of his life: Boston Latin, the oldest high school in the country, and the motivating factor in the formation of another institution… Harvard College, apparently, was founded in 1635 for the purpose of matriculating the graduates of Boston Latin School.
This particular graduate of Boston Latin, however, took a circuitous path to Harvard. At the time the high school would only send out two transcripts, and Ed had decided that he did not want to take the College Boards; he was going to apply only to colleges that did not require them. So he applied to Tufts and Bowdoin, and was, well, rejected from both.
Not knowing quite what to do next, he looked through the mail at home and saw the bulletin from Washington Square College, at New York University. If I have this quote down correctly, apparently he said something like: “Oh, well, I’ve got nothing else to do,” so he applied there. After some parental pressure on the Boston Latin school to send out one more transcript, at age 16, he headed off to an amazing experience in New York City, although he remained convinced that the best part of New York was, in fact, the train back to Boston.
Ed roomed with another high school classmate, in a squalid apartment, and all there was to do was study. He landed straight A’s, but when, boarding that train back permanently, he did transfer to Harvard, they counted those A’s only as the lowest passing grade… 3 C’s and a D, despite what they really had been… and still he graduated with distinction! Dean’s List, student honor’s society, Sigma Si – just not Phi Beta Kappa, because of those early grades.
And then, despite such a record… Ed came face to face with the anti-Semitism of his era… the Jewish quota for medical and other professional schools. He applied to 31 med schools… and was rejected by 29. He made the waiting list only at B.U. and Tufts, and, finally, when Ed, encouraged by his father, went in to have a personal conversation with the dean at B.U., he noticed a Sigma Si key, asked about it, had a pleasant conversation about a coincidentally shared fraternity, and then was told “Well, I think we have a place for you in next year’s class.” [Many, many years later… at a Harvard reunion, Ed found himself sitting next to a friend who had been admitted to Tufts Medical School, and then gone on to become prominent in the administration and admissions department there. Ed said that he asked his, in light of his position, if he could do him a big favor, and his friend got nervous, until Ed said: “Listen, if you have any clout at all, can you please tell them to take me off the waiting list.”]
After Medical School, Ed had an internship at University Hospital connected with Massachusetts Memorial, and became acquainted with an assistant resident who knew of his interest in infectious diseases. Residencies were hard to come by at a time when many slots were taken by those returning from the service, but this friend knew of something at NIH, so Ed came to Washington for a couple of years, from 1948-1952.
It was here that Ed met Jean Saperstein. Jean said that one of her best friends had a friend who also worked at NIH, and these two friends wanted to fix Ed and Jean up. Both Ed and Jean have now told me – separately – that they always wondered what it meant about their relationship that the two who fixed them up both wound up in mental institutions, but they seem to have been in their right minds with this match. They all went out as a foursome at first, and then Ed used to take Jean, every Sunday, to the free concerts at the National Gallery of Art. They would often end up at the Hot Shoppes on the corner of Wisconsin Avenue and East West Highway. And Ed did tell me that “it was love at first sight… and I’ve been loving her ever since.” He knew it was a good sign when Jean’s mother started feeding him… but more on Jean’s mother’s cooking in a moment.
When Ed told his family about Jean they thought she must not be Jewish, because she was Reform. It is true that Jean’s parents did not have a traditional upbringing at all… her mother had come from Morgantown, West Virginia, where all the miner’s children dropped out of school after 4th grade, so in order to get any education at all her mother wound up at a convent. When Ed’s parents came to meet Jean and her family for the first time, Jean’s mother made them her best dish… her famous Virginia ham. Turns out, they requested it again, every time they returned for subsequent visits.
The wedding was also in the grand tradition of the Washington Hebrew Congregation of the time… The presiding rabbi refused Ed’s polite request to honor his family’s wishes by wearing a kippah, and the esteemed clergyman told them that if they wanted something broken, they could smash all the glass they wanted to in the hotel after the ceremony.
Jean said: “I was attracted to his intellect, his kindness, and thoughtfulness. He was just a nice person.” She said that one day, on their way somewhere else, Ed pulled into a parking spot outside the Old Post office on Wisconsin Avenue, and said to her: “There’s been something I’ve been meaning to ask you for a long time.” And that is where he proposed.
Much of Ed’s research and many of his scientific accomplishments took place during those years at NIH, but he and Jean soon headed off to Minnesota, where he began a residency in internal medicine at the Mayo Clinic, with a certified subspecialty – one of the first in the country – in infectious disease. He would later call the gatherings of his colleagues in his chosen subspecialty the Puss Club.
Barbara had been born here, but Judy and Cindy were born in Minnesota… and Robert after the family’s return here. After the Mayo Clinic Ed spent one rather unhappy year at a clinic in Detroit – he characterized the place he worked that year as “a combination of a salt mine, a snake pit and a brothel” – and then he and Jean returned to Washington, permanently. He opened a practice in Silver Spring, which he maintained from 1957 until his retirement in December of 1993. The climate for the practice of medicine was easier here than in Boston, where hospital affiliations were doled out only to graduates of Boston schools, and only after years of paying dues. There was a house on Oakmont Avenue – with peeling paint and no air conditioning -- and then Tulsa Lane. Barbara remembers her father’s black bag, and the house calls he would make. Cindy, who later went to work with him, remembers the variety of his patients all over the city, how he went out in the middle of the night, and how, if someone was having a hard time, even financially, it was never an issue.
Ed worked very, very hard… leaving the house in the early hours of the pre-dawn morning, and not getting home until after dinner – and then he would be up in his study, reading, working, staying up to date on the latest medical journals. And he had a distinguished career – he was chief of medicine at Holy Cross and was on duty when George Wallace was shot at a rally nearby, and brought in. He was able to identify the outbreak of Salmonella at a local Wendy’s, originating in tainted lettuce. And then there was the famous psittacosis diagnosis… the occasion, when an Orthodox man came in with a disease almost always associated with the eating of undercooked pork… Ed cleared his name and the suspicion of his neighbors alike, I suppose, by tracing the source to a worker at a local plant who was unknowingly violating health and ritual rules alike by processing his own personal meat in the grinder after hours.
Ed published numerous articles on virology and on the Coxsackie A Virus throughout his career – as well as a special paper on Stanley Nehmer’s tumor. And Ed continued his intellectually active, scientifically meaningful work even after retirement. He became a docent at the Army Medical Museum at Walter Reed; he continued to go to grand rounds every week at Holy Cross and Suburban, and he never stopped learning. He loved being on the staff at the history office at NIH; he laughed about the fact that they actually put him on payroll for a while… and while he was there he wrote and published two important works, two medical biographies… the first about an amazing scientist, Dr. Robert Huetner, one of the greatest epidemiologists the country has ever produced…and the second about Dr. Charles Armstrong, also an outstanding virologist who spent much of his career with the United States Public Health Service.
Ed and Jean were members of Temple Emanuel upon their return from Minnesota and Michigan, and fell in with a group of friends, some of whom were the founders of Emanuel, who became disenchanted and left to form what would become this congregation. Jean says that they left strictly to stay with their new friends. Jean then found, and arranged to rent for only the cost that would cover the tax due on the property, a little house on the corner of Bradley Boulevard and Wisconsin Avenue, where a fire station now stands. There, in the very earliest days of Temple Shalom, Ed Beeman was the “rabbi” and John Lewis the “cantor” of the new congregation. Barbara remembers the ladies bringing the food. Cindy remembers the creaky floors.
Ed Beeman was a caring, loving father. The girls remember heart-shaped boxes of candy on Valentine’s Day, going to the beach, learning to love sailing and fishing. Robert remembers growing up in a household of books, and his father’s love of history, as well as riding to Sunday school listening to WGMS… how he couldn’t stand it at the time, but how he now finds classical music soothing. Cindy remembers her father getting up during the Ed Sullivan Show, and laughing as he danced right along with the dance numbers on TV. Ed loved pirate movies, and if you’d reach for something during a meal he’d say: “Move or you’re going to draw back a bloody stump!” Ed would come back from his travels with 100,000 pictures, and make everyone watch slides for hours, mostly of buildings with no people – I actually remember several such pictures he brought to me – he’d be so excited about the historical significance of a place he had seen. He remembered Europe by culinary moments as well: “On Tuesday we ate such and such, so that meant we were in this town.” When Ed dropped Cindy off at college, he instructed her carefully. “Promise me something,” he said. “That you’ll make me a father-in-law before you make me a grandfather!”
Eventually Ed became both, a father-in-law and a grandfather. He was welcoming in one role, and proud in the other. And, in the end, what a tribute it is to Ed and Jean… that all four of his children… married… and stayed married.
Ed Beeman was a presence of warmth, wisdom, and wit. He was always ready with a literary reference, a sense of depth. And, of course, the ubiquitous phrase… “as a matter of fact.”
Eliyahu. Ed Beeman’s Hebrew name… is Eliyahu Aharon. Today, we perform a pivot in time, we Jews. We turn from Purim, and we begin to face Pesach, Passover. At Passover there is a custom… an additional setting, an untouched cup… an extra seat at the table. It is Elijah’s cup, a taste, and a place set aside.
For me, it is not only this Pesach. Every time I study in the Chapel downstairs, every Shabbat Morning Worship and Study service, every Thursday class session I will look slightly to my left. And there, for me, is Elijah’s chair, Ed Beeman’s place, where wisdom sat, where Ed should be.
And maybe, if we are good enough, and lucky enough, and receptive enough… maybe there will be a sense…of a warmth that remains, a wit in whose memory we delight, a wisdom that can teach us still.
Zecher tzadik livracha; may the memory of this special man be a blessing to all who knew him, to all who loved him.