Local | Senior Lifestyle

From Navajo reservation to exotic cruises, medical career is window to world

Dr. Seneca Erman and Cantor Janece Cohen at Congregation Or Chadash in 2016 (Elliot Framan)

The Navajo cradleboard at Tucson’s Jewish History Museum held Cantor Janece Cohen when she was a baby. It continues to hold many stories for her and her father, Dr. Seneca Erman, 88, who gave a gallery chat at the museum on Feb. 3.

Newlyweds Dr. Seneca and Dottie Erman in Tuba City, Arizona, in 1955 (Courtesy Seneca Erman)

Erman had done a two-month internship in Fort Defiance on the Navajo Nation Reservation as a medical student in 1954, focused on control of tuberculosis. After he graduated, he and his newlywed wife, Dottie, moved to the reservation at Tuba City, where he would work from 1955-1957. Dottie worked as a teacher in a one-room schoolhouse. Erman davened by himself. In order to keep kosher, every two to three months they would have a quarter of a cow shipped in from Denver and keep it in the deep freeze.

They developed many good friendships among both the Navajo and the Hopi people who lived in the area. At the gallery chat, Cohen said a Hopi man got permission to bring her parents to the kiva, the chamber reserved for tribal members to pray, while her mother was pregnant. “During the drumming, I was dancing in utero and they knew I would be a cantor because I responded so strongly to religious music,” said Cohen.

A neighbor, Mark Begay, whose wife was a nurse working with her father, made the cradleboard. There is a tradition that the board must be made the day of the birth and finished by sundown.

Another neighbor was one of the Windtalkers, the Navajos who used their language as a code during World War II. The difficulties of the tonal language made it a good choice for a code, Cohen explained. In a later interview, Erman noted that the Windtalkers also used slang, such as “butterfly” to mean a B-27 bomber. Erman learned Navajo from the daughter of the chairman of the Navajo Nation, who worked as an x-ray technician at the hospital. He developed sufficient proficiency to do a medical history and physical in Navajo. But he laughed remembering one mistake: After he gave an elderly woman instructions to take a medicine in the morning, at noon, and before going to bed, people laughed, explaining that he had said, when she went to bed with him!

The tribe “adopted” her parents because her father had such respect for their traditions, said Cohen. He invited medicine men to participate in caring for patients instead of taking an attitude of “we’re the real doctors,” she said.

At the Jewish History Museum talk, Erman explained that the Post Office building on Speedway used to be a tuberculosis sanitarium for Navajo patients. It was no longer needed after an effective TB regimen was developed on the reservation. Erman gave the pills to medicine men to give to patients so he would be sure patients would take them. In a later interview, he explained that he convinced these healers that a tiny microorganism could kill people by showing them slides of the progression of disease in mouse blood.

Asked about similarities between Navajos and Jews during the gallery talk, Erman smiled. He said the families are very similar, with no boss except for the mother. He added that once a Navajo befriends you, you are a friend for life, and there is nothing they won’t do for a guest.

The Navajo are very ethical, he said, and while they do not observe a Sabbath, they believe in one Great Spirit. Their spirituality is expressed in ceremonials called “sings” and through sand paintings.

Among the Hopi, the kachina (dancers representing ancestral spirits) are like angels in that they are messengers, he added.

Dr. Seneca Erman holds his son Russ, whose bris he performed, in Sells, Ariz., in 1961, with Janece at his side. (Courtesy Seneca Erman)

The Ermans left the Navajo reservation so Erman could do a surgical residency. They moved to the Tohono O’odham reservation in Sells in 1961, where he was in charge of the hospital. Their younger son, Russ, was born in Sells, and Erman performed the bris himself, with some friends driving out from Tucson to attend, he said.

While the Ermans became involved in the spiritual life of the community of Sells, it was different from Tuba City since there had been more Spanish influence. He attended Bible study at the Catholic church and sang in the Episcopal choir, but if there were any traditional O’odham events happening then, the Ermans were not invited, he said.

With two small children, they drove weekly to the Jewish Community Center in Tucson for preschool activities. While his wife taught in the school at Sells, she did not think it was adequate, and the family moved into Tucson after one year in Sells.

They joined Congregation Anshei Israel when it was near the university, but because that was a distance, Erman was one of the founders of a shul at 22nd and Wilmot that no longer exists, but served a need until Anshei Israel moved to its current location at 5th Street and Craycroft Road, Erman said. When Rabbi Marcus Berger was not available, Erman served as a substitute mohel (person who performs ritual circumcision), and served as a second cantor during the High Holy Days and a substitute at other times.

He also joined Congregation Young Israel and was instrumental in hiring Rabbi Yossie Shemtov. When Janece became a cantorial soloist at Temple Emanu-El at age 16, he joined there as well.

When Erman opened a practice in Tucson in 1962, taking emergency room shifts and filling in for other doctors helped him through the lean times. Having an office near Tucson Medical Center made him more convenient to patients than some other surgeons, so he received more referrals. He also built his reputation through his leadership in the Masons, Lions, Elks and Shriners, he said.

Erman also went to ERs in outlying areas in the earlier days, including to Benson, where in 1980 he became one of the first full-time hospital doctors, working five days a week for a fixed salary. Prior to that, when surgeons took shifts at the ER, they were only paid by patients for procedures. He and another doctor had pitched the idea of a hospital doctor in Tucson to a cool reception, but it is now the standard practice, Erman said.

In 1985 he witnessed a major car accident and ran to help. He not only suffered a major coronary, but also hurt his arm, with the nerve injury preventing him from doing surgery again. He continued to do ER work, but not as a surgeon, and that year started working at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, after a brief stint in family practice, where he found the bureaucracy too limiting.

During medical school, Erman had made his living first as a busboy and later as a chef in the Catskill Mountains in New York. For Janece’s wedding reception, when the caterer got sick four days before the event, Erman pulled together a salad buffet for 600, with six tables making the shape of a Star of David, so that people could move through more quickly. For Rodeo Days, he continues to serve the Lions club, but now “supervises” as Janece cooks the hamburgers and hotdogs.

He still enjoys cooking for fun and served delicious chocolate chip cookies for our interview. He recently got off cholesterol medication that was weakening his legs and is enjoying starting to exercise again.

Artwork by him, Dottie, Janece, and their good friends, the late Erni and Rose Cabat, adorns Erman’s house. He still enjoys making art; his latest creations include digital paintings made on a computer.

Back in 1978, Erman had also spent a month as a cruise ship doctor in Hawaii. After he retired in 1992, he and Dottie increased their time on cruise ship service, traveling all over the world: the Baltic, Japan, the Mediterranean, many times to Alaska, and to Tahiti on a 144-passenger sailing vessel. They continued until Dottie became ill in 2002; she died in 2005.

In their many trips to Hawaii, Erman and his wife spent all their time circling the islands; today he is eagerly looking forward to his first land and sea cruise there with his daughter.

Deborah Mayaan is a writer and artist in Tucson. She is also a certified health coach with the Gupta Programme. Contact her at deborahmayaan.com.