The desire to play “what if” with our lives seems to be a basic human impulse.
What if we’d gone to a different school, made different friends, studied more, worked harder, played harder, chosen to be a lawyer or a doctor or a dentist or a ceramicist or a florist or a ballerina or a spot welder? Or not chosen to be a lawyer or a doctor or a dentist or a ceramist or a florist or a ballerina or a spot welder?
Dr. Mandell Ganchrow of Fort Lee is not immune to that impulse; in fact, he’s gone along with it in a big way. He’s just published his first novel, “The Five Day War,” a book that allows him not only to explore what a protagonist like but unlike him might have done with an opportunity he actually was offered, but also what the larger world could do to make things not only different but better.
To back up, Mendy Ganchrow — he isn’t sure where his mother came up with the name Mandell, he said, but only people who knew him from elementary school or never met him use it, and he uses it “only when I am being really serious or writing a check” — has had an eventful life, full of choices that led to ever-wider horizons.
He’s a retired colorectal surgeon, a former president of the Orthodox Union, a man whose walls are filled with pictures of him and his wife, Sheila, with American presidents and senators and representatives and other politicians, as well as Israeli prime ministers and Knesset members. And those wider horizons are physical as well as metaphoric. The Ganchrows live in an apartment with the sort of panoramic, calming, exciting, jaw-dropping Hudson River view that makes a visitor want to stand and stare. Never mind this interview stuff…
But we digress.
Dr. Ganchrow was born in Brooklyn; his parents, Kate and Morris, both were American-born as well. His father, a rabbi, worked for Yeshiva University’s development department. Dr. Ganchrow was educated in Orthodox schools; he went to the Crown Heights Yeshiva, Yeshiva University High School, and then Yeshiva College, before he moved to Chicago for medical school. Once he was through medical school he moved back east, first to Brooklyn and then to Monsey, in Rockland County.
All perfectly straightforward for a good Orthodox boy. But then Dr. Ganchrow went to Vietnam.
“When I was in medical school — I graduated in 1962 — there was a draft, but we weren’t in Vietnam yet,” Dr. Ganchrow said. “They came to us and said, ‘Listen, you are subject to the draft when you finish your internships. You can decide to take a chance, but if you are drafted, you will go in as a medic.’” That step down would not appeal to a doctor.
Instead, the interns could take advantage of the so-called Berry Plan, which would allow them to finish their internships and then spend two years in the military, practicing their medical specialty. One year would be at home, and the other in service. That’s the option Dr. Ganchrow chose.
“Of course, when I finished my training, the war in Vietnam was on, so after one year in Fort Monmouth they sent me to Vietnam. I was married and I had a daughter, and at the time it seemed like the worst possible thing in the world, to be that far from my wife and my daughter, but as I look back I see that I gained surgical experience and self-confidence there.” He also earned the ability to make emotional connections to the politicians he’d meet later who also were Vietnam vets. “I knew John McCain well for some time,” he said. He also functioned as a chaplain for Jewish soldiers; he led a seder that drew large numbers of them — few of them Orthodox — and was deeply emotional, he said.
When he returned from Vietnam, Dr. Ganchrow established himself professionally. “I was the senior man in a four-man surgical group,” he said. “I was a professor of surgery at New York Medical College, I had written 19 papers, finished a few-year stint as chief of colorectal surgery at Good Samaritan Hospital,” and had many other professional accomplishments on his bio. In 1994, he retired. “My father died at age 56, and his father died at 54,” he said. “So I decided that if I could afford it and if I was in reasonable health, when I get close to that age I will retire and devote myself to the Jewish people.”
The year that he retired he became OU president, its first and so far only lay leader to work fulltime at the volunteer position. From there, and from his leadership at AIPAC and other Israel advocacy groups, he went on to have a long-term effect on the Jewish world.
But meanwhile, Dr. Ganchrow had never completely forgotten an incident, minor but puzzlingly odd, that he could not quite figure out.
“About 15, 20 years ago I received a letter on very heavy parchment, with gold, from the ambassador of Saudi Arabia in Washington, inviting me to be chief of colorectal surgery at the Saudi air force base in Riyadh. “I thought it was ludicrous. I showed it to a few people, as a joke.
“And then I went online and I saw that there was a medical job search service in Stuttgart, Germany, that was looking for a colorectal surgeon in Riyadh.” That was odd.
And anyway, he thought, if it was a joke, why spend so much on such clearly high-quality, expensive parchment?
Maybe it was real.
“I figured out that probably they really did need a colorectal surgeon. How would you go about that? You’d go to the College of Colorectal Surgery. But not that many countries have that. We do, but in most countries it’s mainly done by general surgeons. So they probably took the list, took the obviously Jewish names off it, and sent the letters.
“And Ganchrow is not an obviously Jewish name.”
Dr. Ganchrow eventually threw out the letter — something he regrets now — but that “what if” that it represented ignited his imagination.
And so, now, one memoir and four books of Torah talks later — those last four books hold essays that he has collected, not written — Dr. Ganchrow has done a great deal of research and written a novel based on that letter.
“If you are writing a biography, that’s one thing, but it’s different writing a novel,” he said. “I decided to give it a whirl — but how do you put together a plot that would be interesting?”
He decided to base it on the range of his experiences, and have the main character be someone like him — if his own choices had been entirely different.
Dr. Ganchrow’s protagonist is a childless, unmarried young doctor whose parents divorced, whose mother remarried, and whose new stepfather changed the boy’s Jewish surname to a non-Jewish one, thus allowing him to pass as gentile.
This protagonist — Rob Savarin, ne Goldberger — gets the same letter Dr. Ganchrow got, and decides to follow up on it, but not before getting in touch with the Mossad and finding out how he could use his position in Saudi Arabia to help Israel and world Jewry.
A complicated plot takes Dr. Savarin through a range of adventures, putting him close to the Saudi king, giving him a satisfactorily if belatedly fulfilled romance, and allowing him to change the course of world history by causing Israel and Saudi Arabia, as well as other parts of the Sunni world, to realign by making common cause against Iran. Dr. Ganchrow’s extensive work in Israel and with Israeli and American diplomats gives him the opportunity to make it sound plausible, because he knows what he’s talking about. There even is a father-son reconciliation.
So what is Dr. Ganchrow going to do next? Probably not write another novel. “My wife says she will divorce me if I try that,” he said. But he’s done enough unexpected things —when he was in medical school, he got a red card that allowed him into fire zones as a surgeon, thus, he said, impressing some of his dates, and that’s just one of many exploits — to know that his next venture isn’t necessarily predictable either.
Dr. Ganchrow will be at a book signing in Fort Lee this week and in the JCC Rockland next month.
Who: Dr. Mendy Ganchrow
What: Will talk about his book and sign copies
Where: At the Young Israel of Fort Lee at 1610 Parker Ave
When: On Wednesday, October 18, at 7:45 p.m.
For more information: Go to www.yiftlee.org.
AND HE ALSO WILL BE
Where: At the JCC Rockland at 450 W. Nyack Road in West Nyack, N.Y., as part of the JCC’s Arts, Books, and Culture series.
When: On Sunday, November 19, at 7 p.m.
What else: There will be wine and cheese; it costs $18 in advance, $25 on Sunday. A book is included; $10 of each ticket will be donated to Leket, which works to alleviate hunger in Israel.
For more information and to buy tickets: Go to jccrockland.org/abc