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The walls of Dr. Bernard Lewinsky’s office resemble the pages of a National Geographic calendar: sweeping lake vistas and verdant forests brush up against sculptured rock formations and sun-mottled Yosemite hills. Looking at his photographs, patients remember vacations, times when they felt relaxed and at peace. It takes their minds off their cancer.
Lewinsky, medical director of Vantage Oncology’s West Hills Radiation Therapy Center, found that serene landscape portraits tend to calm patients’ fears as they face the harrowing realities of living with cancer. So the avid nature photographer created a Healing Art Gallery at the center featuring 80 of his images to put patients at ease when they come in for treatment.
“Nature tends to soothe your mind,” Lewinsky said. “The treatment room is often full of hustle and bustle. Patients are scared and upset — they have been given a diagnosis that means life or death. To walk into an environment that’s full of chaos is not what they need.”
The soft-spoken doctor, 66, began taking pictures at age 8. Born in San Salvador, El Salvador, and raised Jewish by his German émigré parents, Lewinsky grew up near the coffee plantation his father owned. He would often go out to photograph the coffee trees and flowers.
The idea that a radiation therapy center could have a calming effect on patients had been with Lewinsky for decades, ever since his 1974-76 stint as chief of radiotherapy at Letterman Army Hospital.
“We had one of the old radiotherapy machines that was a monstrosity,” he recalled. “It looked very much like the early atomic weapons that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.”
The generator was an intimidating two stories high. Lewinsky didn’t want his patients to feel any more frightened than they already were, so he obtained funding to redecorate the radiotherapy department. He had the interior painted the same color as the machine and placed large, majestic images of Yosemite landscapes around the treatment room.
In recent years, Lewinsky’s concept has taken off — his art now adorns the walls of 20 medical centers across Southern California, including Vantage Oncology’s five regional locations and the company’s corporate office in Manhattan Beach, the Breast Center in Van Nuys and the Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center at USC.
Lewinsky shoots landscapes mostly in the American West — Utah, Mexico, Arizona — traveling with 20 to 30 pounds of equipment, including 4×5 film and a large-format field camera. His favorite places are Yosemite National Park and Zion National Park, which “puts humanity in place, it’s so big.”
People derive a sense of tranquility from natural settings, he said, which stems from similarities we perceive between the natural world and our own bodies.
“A normal person wouldn’t look at a photograph and see the shape of his thyroid, for example. But I think there is a subliminal connection,” Lewinsky said.
That connection shows up time and again in conversations with patients, he said.
“I spend more time talking about photography to some patients than I do about their disease,” Lewinsky said with a laugh. “They talk about how much relaxation they feel.”
For Lewinsky, photography has also been a form of personal therapy. The doctor was thrust into the spotlight in 1998 after news broke of the sex scandal involving his daughter, former White House intern Monica Lewinsky, and then-President Bill Clinton. “My salvation through that was photography,” Lewinsky said, adding that the time he spent in the darkroom that year produced images that were “very black and white.”
In his West Hills office, however, Lewinsky points out richly hued images on the walls and explains their back-stories with obvious fondness for the locales in which he took them. He greets patients waiting for treatment with a smile and shakes their hands as they leave.
His methods, he said, are expressions of a simple and intuitive philosophy: “You have to treat the tumor and also the soul.”
Somewhere in America, a few high school students made a porno video, "by accident" they said, starring themselves. Whatever it was, a couple of kids were fooling around, and someone else had a camera. They showed the tape in the locker room and what followed was, of course, a big scandal. Somewhere else in America, there was an eighth-grade party, mom or dad took pictures, and when the photos came back from the lab, you could see two partygoers having oral sex near the shrubbery in the background of one of the shots. What upset the parents most was that the students weren’t even trying to hide.
Let’s blame someone. OK, it’s our commercial culture, the one that pays our bills. No, too close, it’s MTV (unless you work for it) or lascivious billboards or the movies. Let us stand for the declaration of our faith, "Our children are bombarded with overstimulating images, we are powerless to save them from casual, numb, sex."
We try to solve the problem by offering absurdly cold and clinical sex education classes in school, using scare tactics and statistics: just one careless drunken act at a party and "You’ll die from AIDS! Dead, dead, dead!" At home, when our children ask us about our own histories, we stand tall and tell the truth: "Times have changed … the pot wasn’t as strong then … sex wasn’t as dangerous … and I never did anything, anyway. There are other ways of having fun."
And then we direct our trophy children to the approved list of acceptable leisure activities. For example, we make them play difficult, bleating musical instruments. In my part of town it’s difficult to rent anything with a double reed because parents push bassoons and oboes on their middle-schoolers since offering yourself as first chair oboe is the ticket to Cornell.
Ooh, but catch your kid spending her allotted time on the frivolous — a crush, going to the Santa Monica Pier when she said she was staying at her friend’s, getting into the mildest trouble instead of conjugating French — we see all of this as a personal betrayal.
In a discussion about the fallout from the video scandal, I asked the parents about their own sex lives. One mother said, "Sex life? Are you kidding? We’re too tired. We cart the scholar-princes around all afternoon — from practices, to SAT prep, to band rehearsals. Then we come home and fall asleep catatonic by 9 p.m."
We are creating our own asceticism and abstinence through exhaustion and anxiety. And this goes against Jewish law, which has the wisdom to know that to have pleasure, you have to learn and practice pleasure, and if we don’t teach this to our children, how will they learn?
Here we find Kahana in the Talmud hiding under the bed of Rav, his teacher, because he wanted to learn the right way to make love. Rav and his wife went to bed, and as the 2,000-Year-Old Man said about the couple who discovered sex "During the night, they were thrilled and delighted." Except that they were watched.
Kahana was so shocked by what he saw, that he poked his head out and scolded Rav, saying, "You appear to me to be like a hungry man who has never had sex before. You act with such frivolity in your lust." Rav looked down at him and said, "Kahana, get out of here!" Kahana replied, "This, too, is Torah, and I must study!" We don’t know what the rebbetzin said.
I’m not suggesting you leave the bedroom door open, but the air of pleasure has its own energy in a house. In the Mishnah Torah, Maimonides describes the mitzvah of onah, a husband must not deny his wife pleasure. In the first year of marriage it’s his responsibility to learn what she likes. The wife has her own obligations to provide pleasure to her husband. She is forbidden to "delay immersing in the mikvah in order to afflict her husband."
As Rabbi Avraham Friedman writes in his beautiful and profound book, "Marital Intimacy: A Traditional Jewish Approach," a full sex life is so important that a husband cannot change careers without his wife’s consent because the change might hurt them in bed. So a camel driver (a low-paying job) can’t become a donkey driver (higher status, better money) without approval. The higher income is no justification if it damages the couple. "A woman prefers one measure of prosperity, as long as it is accompanied by intimate lightheartedness, to nine measures of material wealth and abstinence," we read in the Talmud.
In the fallout from our hyperparenting, we have failed to make adult life alluring. To many children, adulthood looks like no more than an opportunity to resolve complex scheduling conflicts, lose seven days a year standing entirely still in freeway traffic, periodically unfreeze the computer and fall asleep catatonic by 9 p.m. In a high school survey, one student recently wrote, "I don’t know what I want to be when I grow up, but I know what I don’t want to be. I don’t want to be like my mom and dad. They seem so sad and scared and stressed."
Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, in his book "Jewish Wisdom," tells a story about a rabbi who informed his congregation that he was planning a trip to Switzerland. "Why Switzerland?" they asked him. "What reason could you have for traveling so far?" The rabbi replied, "I don’t want to meet my maker and have Him say to me, ‘What? You never saw My Alps?’"
So for the sake of your children and their future, set an example. If you want them to play a double reed, play the damn oboe yourself. You need music. And then take your partner, go to your bedroom, shut the door and light some candles. Perform a mitzvah. Just remember to turn off the video camera.