Orphan Num­ber Eight: A Novel

  • Review
By – May 19, 2015

Rachel Rabi­nowitz is four years old in 1919. When her moth­er dies and her father dis­ap­pears, she and her broth­er, Sam, are placed in New York’s Orphaned Hebrews Home. While there, Rachel becomes a sub­ject in med­ical exper­i­ments per­formed by Dr. Mil­dred Solomon, a radi­ol­o­gist study­ing the poten­tial uses of X‑rays. Dr. Solomon is more con­cerned about estab­lish­ing her rep­u­ta­tion in med­ical research than she is about the wel­fare of the chil­dren in the home.

In 1954, Rachel is grown up and work­ing as a nurse in the hos­pice wing of the Old Hebrews Home. Her new patient is Dr. Solomon, and Rachel real­izes that the tables have turned: Dr. Solomon, in severe pain as she dies from bone can­cer, is now under her con­trol. Will Rachel choose for­give­ness or revenge?

This com­plex sto­ry unfolds in chap­ters that flash back to Rachel’s child­hood along with accounts of events in her adult life. The book rais­es com­pelling eth­i­cal ques­tions about med­ical research and exam­ines com­plex fam­i­ly rela­tion­ships. It is based on his­tor­i­cal doc­u­ments that the author dis­cov­ered while doing fam­i­ly research at the Cen­ter for Jew­ish His­to­ry; her great-grand­moth­er worked at the Hebrew Orphan Asy­lum and her grand­fa­ther grew up there. Some of this pri­ma­ry source mate­r­i­al is includ­ed in an appen­dix to the novel.

Read­ers will learn a great deal about Amer­i­can Jew­ish his­to­ry while read­ing this book. In addi­tion to expe­ri­enc­ing life at the orphan­age, they will vis­it Coney Island, Chica­go, and Leadville Col­orado. They will also learn about med­ical research, can­cer treat­ments, and the sex­ism and dis­crim­i­na­tion against Jews and homo­sex­u­als in the ear­ly part of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry. The his­to­ry and the eth­i­cal issues raised in the sto­ry make this an excel­lent choice for book groups as well as indi­vid­ual readers.

Bar­bara M. Bibel is a librar­i­an at the Oak­land Pub­lic Library in Oak­land, CA; and at Con­gre­ga­tion Netiv­ot Shalom, Berke­ley, CA.

Discussion Questions