This Narrow Space: A Pediatric Oncologist, His Jewish, Muslim, and Christian Patients, and a Hospital in Jerusalem

Waldman, Elisha

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Annotated by:
Field, Steven
  • Date of entry: May-29-2018


The author is a pediatric oncologist who grew up in the United States, went to medical school in Israel, returned to the United States for fellowship and to begin practice, and then, feeling unsettled both personally and professionally, moved to Israel for a “dream job” opportunity and out of a deep sense of belonging.  The twelve chapters of this book catalogue Dr. Waldman’s journey along both domains, the personal and the professional.  We get to meet his patients, children drawn from the various constituent populations of Israel:  Jewish, Muslim, and Christian, religious and secular. 

Each chapter tells the story of a patient (or two), framed within a brief narrative of the history, religious aspects, and geopolitical vagaries of the city of Jerusalem as well as the nation.   The simultaneous and chronologically coherent narrative thread of the book is the author’s growth into his job, his interactions with the realities of present-day Israeli government and society, his exposure to and subsequent decision to devote himself to pediatric palliative care, and ultimately the career decisions he has to make.  


This is an elegantly written memoir of a doctor’s journey, in several senses of the word.  We get to meet the children, many of whom will ultimately die within the pages of this book, and all of whom in composite—along with the nurses, the physician colleagues, and the families—form the author’s professional world, and we witness his evolution as a physician within that world. We also get a snapshot of life in the Israeli medical system, different in many ways from our own, and what it is like to function in that system.  And we are privy to the author’s thoughts on religion and philosophy; most notably, his struggle to deal with the concept of theodicy, the idea that a just and compassionate God allows for evil and suffering in the world, a dilemma which certainly resonates with the world of pediatric oncology. Because of this approach, this book is much more than a simple telling of anecdotes. 

Waldman’s ability to weave his commentaries seamlessly into and around the various stories he tells makes this compact volume easy to read; the reader does not feel overwhelmed by the human tragedy (and it is not all unrelieved tragedy) because of the interspersed non-clinical sections.  But this is first and foremost a book about patients.  The style is conversational yet literary, and the fact that it is chronologically structured gives the book a direction along which the reader moves easily.  When the author discovers his life’s mission in Palliative Care the reader senses his excitement, and when toward the end of the book the author has to make choices about his future, the reader feels his ambivalence.  Of note, the book’s ending—dealing with the ambivalence and the ultimate choices that are made—seems to happen rather quickly and precipitately, and based on the feeling one gets of Dr. Waldman’s personality and caring, one suspects that this was a longer and probably more conflicted process than the book describes. 

I personally would also have liked to hear more about how he wrangled with that question of theodicy, but his introduction of the topic in this clinical setting provides a jumping-off point for further discussion among readers.  Moreover, that would have been a slightly different book, and a book that would have traded away much of the readability, the immediacy, and the punch that this book has.             




1 edition (January 30, 2018)

Page Count

258 pages