From pediatric surgeon to author, Susan Adelman has pursued her many passions to reach her goal of making the world better.
Photography by Sacred Overstreet-Amos
When Susan Hershberg Adelman was growing up in Rochester, N.Y., she felt she already had a larger purpose in life.
“When I was a small child, it was my hope and belief that I would make great contributions to the world,” she said.
Now, as a 77-year-old woman living in Southfield, she has truly made her mark on the world. Adelman, who retired from pediatric surgery in 2002, was among the first female surgeons in Metro Detroit. She was the first female president of the Michigan State Medical Society and has done so much more than just help children who have needed her medical care.
Since she was 5, Adelman has been creating art. She continues to paint and create jewelry when she’s not traveling the world with her husband of 57 years, intellectual property attorney Martin Adelman. He is also a professor with George Washington University Law School and gives lectures on his specialty from Seattle to Tokyo.
Oh, and let’s not forget that about a year ago, Sue Adelman published her second book, After Saturday Comes Sunday, a far-reaching exploration of the history of Christian and Jewish communities in Iraq, Syria and adjacent countries, and the language that unites them: Aramaic — today often referred to as the Chaldean language.
“I’m very aware that life is short,” she said. “If you don’t take the opportunity to make the world better, you will lose that opportunity.”
Adelman came to the Detroit area in the late 1950s to attend the University of Michigan. She received a bachelor’s of science degree at U-M in 1962. She then enrolled in the master’s program in geology at Wayne State University.
“My husband pushed me to think about medical school,” she said. Following his advice, she received her medical degree from Wayne in 1967.
“I went into surgery because I work with my hands,” she said. “Surgery was an unusual choice for a woman at that time, and it seemed to me that people might better accept a woman in pediatric surgery.”
Adelman was one of the very first female surgeons to set up offices in Metro Detroit, one at Children’s Hospital and another in Dearborn. It was in 1974 that she met the Hakim family, whose cousin needed an operation to treat internal cysts.
“His treatment was lengthy,” Adelman said. During that time, she met Norma Hakim, her young patient’s aunt, who helped interpret the family’s Chaldean language for Adelman so she could understand their questions and concerns. She was also the beneficiary of Norma’s wonderful cooking. Since the time of this surgery, Adelman and her husband have remained close friends with the Hakims, taking part in their family celebrations or just sharing a meal.
And it is Norma’s story that figures into Adelman’s writing After Saturday Comes Sunday, a reference to the Sabbaths of the two religions, Saturday for Jews and Sunday for Christians. It also references the fact that first the Jews were exiled from Iraq due to persecution. More recently, Christians have been forced to leave Iraq or be exterminated, following the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in 2014. In more sinister terms, it refers to first the Jews being wiped out due to their religion. Now, it’s the Christians’ turn to face termination, as Adelman explains.
Norma Hakim, who turned 94 this month, came to America in 1937 from the town of Telkaif in Northern Iraq. She was almost 12 and was married to a man who was then 25, Karim Hakim. She was raised by Karim’s mother, who taught her how to clean house, follow the Hakim family recipes and to cook for almost 50 people a day. Norma first became pregnant at age 14 and went on to have eight children.
Adelman has considered Norma a mother figure for herself for the 40-some years she’s known the Hakim family. And it is because of this familiarity with Chaldean culture and family life that Adelman took notice of the terrorism being perpetrated by ISIS on Chaldean Christians in Northern Iraq.
In her book, Adelman writes about the diaspora of the Christian community and links it to the reasons why Christianity is disappearing from Iraq and Syria, both Islamic countries. She says the diaspora has increased in the last 15 years due to the American invasion in Iraq in 2003 and the rise of ISIS in 2014.
Hundreds of thousands of Chaldean Christians living in Iraq and Syria have been killed by ISIS, Adelman says. This, she says, has direct implications for Aramaic as a language and for its very survival as a spoken language.
What is Aramaic?
The Aramaic language, today often known as Chaldean, has been spoken in the Middle East for about as long as Hebrew has — around 3,000 years. Aramaic is most likely the language spoken by Jesus and is the language of many critical Jewish historic and religious texts, including the Talmud, not to mention poetry, songs, folklore and myths.
“From a religious aspect, [the preservation of the Aramaic language] is important,” Adelman said. “From a scholarly aspect, it is absolutely critical.”
Currently, in Metro Detroit, there are between 120,000 to 150,000 Chaldean residents, according to the Chaldean Chamber of Commerce. Adelman felt it was important to spread the word about the struggle of the Chaldean Christians living in Northern Iraq and the threat that terrorism poses to the culture and language.
“I feel very passionate about the importance of getting their story out, letting readers know about these people and getting the United States to be proactive in getting involved in the Chaldean community,” Adelman said.
“The best possibility of getting Christianity re-established in their own villages is in Northern Iraq. And, in terms of Aramaic being spoken, that’s gone unless these people are able to live in their villages.”
Some of the Hakim family speak Aramaic/Chaldean, including Norma and some of her eight children.
Karen Jalaba, 66, one of Norma’s daughters, says her older siblings speak Chaldean “pretty well” while her mother is fluent in it. Karen, however, cannot speak it though she understands the language.
“We’re pretty Americanized,” she said. “I have friends who can speak it fluently. I wish I knew it more. The language could easily go away.”
Jalaba of Farmington Hills said her mother is very proud to have her story told in Adelman’s book. The larger story, though, specifically the attacks on Christian communities in Iraq and Syria, is very troubling to the Hakim family.
“We’ve been very upset by what’s happened,” Jalaba said. “I was looking over her book, and I couldn’t believe how much I don’t know” about the situation in Iraq and Syria.
Adelman said the U.S. Congress has passed a bill, H.R. 390, called the Iraq and Syria Genocide Relief and Accountability Act of 2018. The bill, signed into law in December 2018, was drafted to provide relief for victims of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes, who are members of religious and ethnic minority groups in Iraq and Syria, for the accountability for perpetrators of these crimes and for other purposes.
The bill’s text notes that the number of Christians living in Iraq has dropped from an estimated range of 800,000 to 1.4 million in 2002 to 250,000 in 2017, according to the U.S. Department of State’s annual reports on international religious freedom. Christian communities in Syria, which accounted for between 8 and 10 percent of Syria’s total population in 2010, are now “considerably’” smaller as a result of civil war. The law also focuses on assisting other affected ethnic minority groups including Yezidis and Shia.
Adelman, in a recent essay for the scholarly publishing company De Gruyter, wrote that if the United States can assist in developing a federal structure in Iraq, it would provide an example of how minority populations can gain political representation in other countries in the region. This, in turn, would stabilize a key portion of a “volatile” Middle East against both internal disruptions and outside interference.
She also wrote that if Christians can settle in a designated safe haven, they will be able to protect their land from ISIS or its successors.
“Chaldean religious leaders in the Middle East have been begging those of us in the West to help their people to return to their own churches and villages, not to lure them away in a diaspora that dilutes their culture to a thin gruel,” she wrote.
“This book has suddenly become especially relevant because the latest Turkish invasion of Syrian Kurdistan is an attack on the exact area where a majority of the Syrian Christians have been living and, along with the Kurds, the Christians are becoming refugees all over again,” she said recently.
Adelman feels in writing this book, as well as a previous book about world-renowned Indian attorney and politician Ram Jethmalani, that she has met a life goal.
“I feel certain that I’ve fulfilled one of my dreams and I feel these books were very worthy of my efforts,” she said. “It was a real coup to have written (Jethmalani’s) biography.”
Currently, Adelman continues to serve as a delegate from Wayne County for the Michigan State Medical Society and is president of the Detroit Medical Academy. She also is editor emeritus of the Detroit Medical Journal, a publication she edited for 17 years.
She and her husband are members of Adat Shalom Synagogue in Farmington Hills, are involved with the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York and have been involved in sponsoring Israeli students. They also help raise money as part of Friends of Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
“We’re particularly interested in education,” Adelman said.
Along with her professional, religious and philanthropic pursuits, Adelman wants to continue focusing on her creative life, specifically selling her custom-made jewelry and paintings. She even has an idea for a third book, one that would explore why so many Jews, including those living in Israel, feel comfortable in India, a country she and her husband have traveled to 20 times among the 60 or so countries the couple has visited.
“There is a more mystical and philosophical reason for that connection,” she said, beyond the fact that India has become quite pro-Israel and the more mundane facts that it is inexpensive to travel to India and that the two countries share English as a spoken language.
“I think there’s an atavistic connection between the two religions” of Judaism and Hinduism, she said.
Adelman notes that she lives by a simple philosophy in remaining active, even when she has the choice of slowing down after accomplishing so much in her lifetime.
“If you don’t stay active, you die,” she said. “If you’re not part of this world and making contributions, you’re in God’s waiting room. You need a raison d’etre,” which means having a reason for living.