A whole book about washing your hands?
That entirely basic bit of self-maintenance that you learned to do when you were a kid? And still do? Most of the time?
Uh, most of the time…
Yes, Dr. Miryam Z. Wahrman of Teaneck, a professor of biology at William Paterson University (and also the Jewish Standard’s science correspondent) has written an entire book about hand washing. (And this Thursday, May 5, was World Hand Hygiene Day; to mark it, Dr. Wahrman organized a forum on hand hygiene.)
“The Handbook: Surviving in a Germ-Filled World” is in some ways a scary piece of work. Each of us, Dr. Wahrman says, is surrounded by our own specific swarm of microbes; were it visible, we each would look like Peanuts’ Pigpen (a character she finds not horrifying but oddly endearing).
But, she says, there is hope. Simply washing our hands has made us safer throughout human history; continuing simply to wash our hands will continue to make us safe.
And there is a Jewish component! Beginning with God’s mandate, in Exodus, that Aaron and his sons wash their hands (and their feet) before they enter the Tabernacle, “lest they die,” Jews have been washing their hands. Ritually, yes, but the relationship between ritual and health is both real and fascinating, Dr. Wahrman says.
Let’s start at the beginning.
Dr. Wahrman and her brothers, Rabbi Tzvee Zahavy of Teaneck (yes, this paper’s Dear Rabbi Zahavy) and Dr. Reuvain Zahavy of Manhattan, a college math professor, grew up on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Their father, Rabbi Zev Zahavy, headed Congregation Zichron Ephraim, the prominent Orthodox synagogue now better known as Park East.
Zev Zahavy, who was ordained at Yeshiva University by Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, was a man of wide-ranging interests. He was a very public rabbi; in those days the New York Times frequently reported on sermons, and his often were featured. He often showed up on Sunday morning religious TV programs. He earned a doctorate when he was in his 50s, and after about 20 years left the pulpit to teach English at Kingsborough Community College.
Eclectic minds ran in her family, Dr. Wahrman said. Her father’s maternal grandfather, Harris Epstein, an immigrant from Russia, held patents for an extension ladder and a folding umbrella. (Is there something symbolic about an immigrant to this huge, teeming country inventing devices that involve starting small and then unfolding and occupying more space?)
Rabbi Zahavy was “brilliant and an inspiration and a character,” his daughter said. He was glamorous — the famous photographer Roman Vishniac took a matinee-idol-like picture of him — and “a man of consequence,” she continued.
Dr. Wahrman’s mother, Edith Medine Zahavy, also was brilliant, her daughter said. She taught in a public elementary school; in her spare time, she founded Park East’s nursery school. “She ran it as the rebbitzin, as a volunteer, as part of her duties,” Dr. Wahrman said. “She really loved to teach. It was the right profession for her.
“She developed a reading program in the public school, using a reading laboratory, before anyone else anywhere did that. She would take groups of students out from the classroom to the reading lab. She was ingenious. She also went back to school, to Hunter, for a master’s.”
Both her parents “taught us that we should wash our hands,” Dr. Wahrman said. “They would always say, whenever we came home, in from outside, ‘Wash your hands with soap and water. Wash them up to your elbows.’”
Part of it, she said, is that one of the first rituals that observant Jewish children are taught is netilat yadayim — literally, washing hands. And part of it simply was her parents’ awareness of the importance of cleanliness.
Ironically and terribly, her mother probably died earlier than she would have had she not been subject to infection. “When my mother got sick, she went to the hospital for cardiovascular issues,” Dr. Wahrman said. “She had bypass surgery. She didn’t die from that. But she was in intensive care for 5 ½ months, because she contracted a hospital-acquired infection that ultimately took her life.” That was in 2000. Rabbi Zahavy died in 2012. “He had a full life. He went to all his grandchildren’s weddings, and he enjoyed his four great-grandchildren,” Dr. Wahrman said.
So part of Dr. Wahrman’s interest in germs was personal. Some was professional.
Her doctorate, in biochemistry, is from Cornell; her research, in “the properties of cancer cells compared to normal cells,” was mostly done at Sloan-Kettering, Dr. Wahrman said. “This started me out as germ-aware.” That’s because she worked on cells grown outside the body; “when you do that, you have to be scrupulous about keeping them uncontaminated. You learn all about aseptic techniques that keep germs out of your petri dishes.”
Next, in the early 1980s, very soon after Louise Brown, the first so-called test-tube baby, was born, Mount Sinai hired Dr. Wahrman to set up the first in-vitro fertilization lab in New York State, she said. Although that work was still new, and the lab’s approach was “rudimentary and not highly successful, I did gain a very deep respect for the principle of keeping everything as germ-free as possible,” she said. “You really don’t want embryos to be contaminated. Remember, these are human embryos.”
In 1984, Dr. Wahrman began her work at William Paterson University. “I was hired to develop a program in biotechnology,” she said. “At that time, it was brand new. No one was teaching it. There were no courses. There were no books. We had to come up with our own.
“We set up a master’s program. A lot of the faculty there had the insight that such a program would be very important. We were ahead of our time.”
She was well situated for that job. She had experience in biotechnology from the in-vitro work, from her cancer research as a graduate student, and from the recombinant DNA research she did as a post-doc. Now, she could combine those things “to mold a new discipline.”
In 1986, she and her husband, psychologist and more recently attorney and administrative law judge Israel Wahrman, moved to Teaneck (Like Miryam, Israel is Dr. Wahrman.) They have lived there ever since. “It’s a great place to live and raise kids,” she said.
“I also discovered that I loved to teach,” she said. In the 31 years since she joined the faculty, she has reinvented her role on campus many times. Once, when she studied marine biology, she and her husband, poor souls, had to go to the Caribbean. “We collected specimens by scuba diving for them,” she said. “My husband was my unpaid assistant and my dive buddy. It was a biologist’s dream.”
She worked as an administrator as well as a scientist and teacher; now, along with her other work, she teaches a course in bioethics. As she had done before, and as her mother had done before her, she was forging new ground. “It was a brand new discipline when I started teaching it,” she said. “It was around 2003 or 2004. There were no courses on bioethics, no books about it, or not many, and I said that I had to develop a course.”
She did. “It addresses a broad area of bioethics, including health sciences, genetics, reproductive biology, and end-of-life issues,” she said. “I teach bioethics as a course where we ask more questions than we answer. Frequently the questions have multiple answers.”
Not only did Dr. Wahrman write for the Jewish Standard, but in 2002 she wrote her first book. “Brave New Judaism,” published by Brandeis University, is, as its name implies, a look at the way various parts of the Jewish world approach scientific innovation.
This year, the university will honor Dr. Wahrman with the William Paterson University Faculty Excellence in Scholarship/Creative Expression. She will be given that award at William Paterson’s main graduation ceremony, at the Prudential Center in Newark, on May 20.
So — hand washing.
On the one hand, germs are all around us; that hand, of course, demonstrates how hard it would be to live a hand-free life. We touch everything. Most of the time, it’s fine. Most of the time, we’ve evolved ways to deal with the dangers we handle.
But sometimes we haven’t. On the other hand, we have to be very careful.
Dr. Wahrman cites a British study that sent three groups of volunteers to public areas in London, where they touched different surfaces. When they returned to their headquarters, one group washed their hands with soap and water, one with just water, and one did not wash at all. When their hands were tested, unsurprisingly, the group that had not washed was covered with bacteria. (Gross, no?) The group that did wash had far less. The surprising part was that the group that washed just with water had half the number of bacteria as the unwashed group did.
A study in a rural, impoverished section of Bangladesh — where people had little access to water and children often suffered and died from diarrhea — showed that if the adult serving food could rinse even one of her hands with water, that rate would be cut drastically. Of course, it’s far better to wash thoroughly, but not everyone has that luxury.
That’s where the Jewish hand washing ritual comes in. “It is a symbolic ritual, but the side benefits of the hygiene should not be discounted,” Dr. Wahrman said.
When Christianity flourished at Judaism’s expense, ritual hand washing was considered one of the stringencies that faith in Jesus superseded, she continued. It became a test of a person’s Christianity not to wash. “Jesus’s message of clean hands and a pure heart was a spiritual rather than a literal obligation,” she said. “The disciples ate with unwashed hands because it was one of the things that differentiated Jews from gentiles.”
In “The Handbook,” Dr. Wahrman offers both the practical along with the more theoretical. She gives readers lists of surfaces to avoid and stratagems to deal with having to touch them, along with a history of such figures as Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis, the (not Jewish, despite his Jewish-sounding name) physician who ruined his own life but saved the lives of countless women by his radical insistence that doctors wash their hands between performing autopsies and delivering babies. She looks not only at Jewish views on hand washing, but at the Christian and Muslim takes on them as well. She considers the science and leavens it with personal reflection.
And in the end, if she leaves us, her readers, with anything at all, it is the strong clear understanding that you owe it to yourself, your family, and your community to just turn on the water — warm but not too hot — lather on the soap, wash your hands, with the soap, under that water, for about as long as it takes to sing “Happy Birthday Dear Whoever” twice, and then wipe them thoroughly with a single-use towel.
Just wash your hands!