Herzl Spiro wanted to bear testimony.
Spiro, a psychiatrist, is an emeritus professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. At 85 years of age, he works full-time in Milwaukee. Last year, Spiro published his first book that is not technical in nature.
“Of Hope” is Spiro’s memoir, published by Balboa Press. The book covers three main areas: his work in mental health, his work in Israel chairing the Jewish Agency Committee on Absorption, and his family.
When he started to pursue the medical field, Spiro said he planned a career in internal medicine. He also thought about neurology. A professor thought psychiatry was the right path for him.
“He was right,” Spiro said. “That’s where my skills were.”
Spiro’s education included experiences in Vermont and at Harvard University, Rutgers University, New York Hospital and Johns Hopkins University. He illustrates his interest in the field with a story about Rabbi Abraham Heschel, a Jewish theologian and philosopher who Spiro said was his rabbi at Camp Ramah and for a Mechina course. Heschel joined Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s march from Selma to Montgomery to call for voting rights.
Heschel explained he participated in the march because he was “praying with my feet,” according to Spiro.
“If you pray only with your lips, God won’t hear you,” Spiro quotes Heschel as saying. “You have to pray with your feet.”
That’s how Spiro views his career in medicine. Psychiatry patients were some of the most mismanaged, Spiro said. Throughout his career, he has advocated for and helped develop community-based treatment models.
“Psychiatry is 100 years behind the rest of medicine,” Spiro said. “Yet the biochemistry of the brain and the pharmacology of the brain, combined with the importance of being able to be kind and talk to people in a warm and caring way, it’s the hardest part of medicine.”
Today, Spiro said, his work is focused on Milwaukee’s inner city through Outreach Community Health Centers. Spiro attributes his continued work to how the country has served him, including access to scholarships that opened opportunities for his life.
“I don’t think that Vermont and Hopkins invested all that money in me for me to go play golf,” Spiro said. “They invested a lot of money in me. I’m going to keep paying back as long as I can. When my mind isn’t sharp enough to do it, I’ll have to stop. But at 85, it seems to be sharp enough.”
Spiro said he expects his memoir will resonate with mental health professionals and the Jewish community. Although he’s not sure who will read the book, he wrote the book for his 14 grandchildren. Spiro said he wants them to learn to pray with their feet and not their lips. He wants them to have a strong Jewish identity, as he does.
And he wants them to have hope.
“My hope is (when) they face despair, because we all do at one time or another, that they understand that hope is the answer to despair,” Spiro said.