As Israel celebrates its 70th birthday, Emory Healthcare cardiologist Yitzchak Hermoni is reflecting on his life as one of eight children born in Jerusalem on the first full day of the first independent Jewish state in 2,000 years.
The story of his birth is almost as incredible as the story of the nation itself, but Hermoni, called Yitz by his friends, would rather not brag about that eventful day. “It’s coincidental,” he said. “I really had no part in it.”
Hermoni was born at Hadassah University Hospital Mount Scopus on Saturday, May 15, 1948. The night before, David Ben-Gurion proclaimed the Israeli independence to a nation eager to take its first steps on the world stage.
Fania Tsipora Elkin, Hermoni’s mother, migrated to Palestine from Latvia in 1934. Her parents urged her to return home in 1941, but she stayed in the land of Israel.
That fateful decision would save her life and result in her marriage to Dr. David Hermoni and the birth of Yitzchak.
“It was 1941, and the concern was the Germans were advancing in North Africa and almost reached Egypt,” Hermoni said. “Her parents, my grandparents, were frantic for her to come home because they were scared that the Germans would go around to Palestine and kill all the Jews there.”
The Soviet Union had seized Latvia in 1940, and the Germans occupied it after invading Russia in mid-1941. Fania’s entire family was killed.
Seven years later, Fania found herself in active labor while Egypt, Jordan, Iraq and Syria bombed the newborn Israel. What was normally a 15-minute walk to Hadassah Hospital took three hours while she dodged shells, her son said.
“The war had started. There was no transportation, and it was a Saturday,” Hermoni said. “The story is, I was born a few hours later. The maternity ward was on the third floor, and one of the nurses said they needed to move the babies to the lower level, and the following day the floor was bombed and destroyed. On top of being born, my mother survived the shelling, and them moving my crib downstairs saved my life.”
At 10 years old, Hermoni graced the cover of The Jerusalem Post’s special issue for Israel’s 10th anniversary.
The Australian Jewish News wrote about him in 2014 after he was contacted by a long-lost cousin, Manny Shadur, who lives in Australia. Shadur is a cousin from his mother’s side, and until then, Hermoni had believed himself to be the last one from her bloodline.
He met Presidents Yitzhak Ben-Zvi and Shimon Peres.
“I have very special feelings for Israel. It was the country where I grew up, the country that saved my mother and the country my father immigrated to,” he said. “I feel very strongly about it; it’s basically my homeland.”
Hadassah Hospital continued to be a driving force in Hermoni’s life. He described Hebrew University Hadassah Medical School as the “Harvard Medical School of Israel,” where thousands of doctors were trained to practice medicine in the young nation.
The cardiologist even attended the medical school right out of high school, which allowed him to enter the Israel Defense Forces as a doctor and save lives.
“We are a Hadassah family,” Hermoni said. “My father was a part of the first graduating class at Hebrew University Hadassah Medical School. I studied at Hadassah. I was born in Hadassah. I went to medical school at Hadassah. My wife went to medical school at Hadassah. We did our internships and residencies there, and my kids were born at Hadassah.”
It was during his internship at Hadassah Hospital that he decided he had a strong affinity for the diagnostic side of cardiology. Hermoni was a part of the emergency heart ambulance team during the Yom Kippur War in 1973. It was an experience that changed his life.
“When I was in the army, I had to do some moonlighting in an EMT ambulance around the city. I was on the emergency heart ambulance or emergency cardiac care,” Hermoni said. “In training I found myself liking the cardiac work.”
Unable to find an opening in an Israeli program, Hermoni applied to programs in the United States. He had lived in Chicago from 1953 to 1956, so he was familiar with the English language. He was accepted into Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and jumped at the chance.
The idea was to move his wife and two daughters back to Israel upon completion of the program, but fate had other plans. Hermoni couldn’t secure a position in Israel after his residency, and that was a pivotal moment in his life.
“I must’ve gone to 20 institutions and asked and begged for a position and could not get in. It was one of the saddest days of my life in 1985 when I realized I couldn’t go back,” Hermoni said. “I was devastated because the entire idea was to come, train and go back. When I stayed here, it was because I could not return.”
Hermoni watched from afar as Israel grew into a developed country. He visited on occasion but never made it his home again.
“Israel is 70 years young,” he said as he recalled playing in the streets and dating in a nation building itself from the ground up. There weren’t many cars, so the children played soccer in the streets. When Hermoni began to date, he, like other teenagers, walked to pick up dates and walked back home.
“People didn’t travel much. Nobody had cars. This whole culture of traveling is a big deal,” he said. “We had relatives in Haifa. We would visit and go to the beach, and that was a big deal in those days.”
To Hermoni, Israel has come a long way in 70 years. The country changed as it became more developed, the doctor said. People identified less with the collective socialist mentality. Israelis were buying cars, traveling abroad and becoming more focused on private property, which was a big change.
While Israel evolved into one of the most powerful nations in the Middle East, Hermoni was becoming one of the most reputable cardiologists in Atlanta.
He has practiced medicine for 46 years and is described as a cardiologist with a holistic approach to medicine. It’s an attribute patient and longtime friend Leon Pomerance said he appreciates.
“We love him,” Pomerance said. “You see the physical manifestation of a wonderful event. The birth of a nation, the development of a nation and the mature nation paralleling the life of Yitz. It’s an outstanding statement and an outstanding individual.”
Hermoni and his family plan to visit Israel for his birthday this year, but there’s a duality to his existence. He also considers himself an American with U.S. citizenship. He has lived in the United States longer than in Israel, and the significance of a birthday that coincides with Israeli Independence Day doesn’t hold the same weight as it does in Israel.
“Do people know me here for my birthday or my work in medicine?” Hermoni said. “I think they know me better for my work in medicine.”