Last year, having temporarily relocated to be near my mother who was ill, I found work for 10 months on the night shift as an Emergency Medical Technician in the back of ambulances. Our base was in a slum near Pittsburgh, located between two crack houses with prostitutes lingering nearby at any given hour. Former businesses were boarded up, and many former homes stood empty with broken windows.

A half-minute drive down the road was a steel mill with a bright flame, causing the smoke-filled night sky to have an orange glow. In the middle of the night, the soft lonely chugging of a freight train and its whistle could be heard as it passed by only a block away, by the Monongahela River, giving the area an even more forsaken feeling.

The main topics of conversation among our staff of EMTs, paramedics, and dispatchers were the latest model automobiles, what the waitress said at Eat N' Park last night, and which bar to check out.

But it seemed by far that the favorite topic centered on whoever was not present in the room, such as who was an idiot or why so-and-so was incompetent. It was like watching wolves gnawing the bones of a caribou.

Ray of Sunshine

A ray of sunshine in this scene was Tony. I got to be Tony's partner each Sunday night. He is an EMT supervisor exuding intense energy, with an open face reflecting pure enthusiasm. He readily lets people know that he has Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, which is partly expressed with his extreme cleanliness and orderliness. His is the only ambulance that smells of Fabreeze. He is also a firefighter and a police officer -- your all-around public-safety man.

Most of our calls were to nursing homes to bring elderly patients to hospitals. When we would enter a nursing home, Tony's charisma would fill the building, as he heartily greeted each dejected patient, calling them "Sweetie," "Dear," "Pumpkin," and reminding them that, "You'll be in my prayers tonight."

Tony had been a Catholic priest for four years, and it was an eye-opener for him to hear bits and pieces of what was involved in being Jewish.

On occasion, Tony would boast to our patients that I was an observant Jew. Tony had been a Catholic priest for four years, and it was an eye-opener for him to hear bits and pieces of what was involved in being Jewish. For instance, when we once stopped for a snack at a BP station, he noticed how I began turning over a package of Hostess Cupcakes. He thought I was looking at the calorie count or some other health-related reason. I told him I was searching for a "kosher symbol" like "OU" and explained more about what it means to keep kosher. The following Sunday (the only days I saw Tony), he told me that each time he'd gone into a supermarket that week, he couldn't tear himself away from searching for "kosher symbols" on all the products!

Early on as ambulance partners, the issue arose of gossiping about others. Tony participated in this popular pastime as much as the others. However, in the ambulance together, I let him know that according to Jewish law, I was forbidden to participate in these kinds of conversations. The Torah says: "You shall not spread gossip among the people" (Leviticus 19:16). This is called loshon hara, negative speech about others.

This seemed to become an endless source of intrigue to Tony, and almost every week, he brought up the subject. At first, he would protest and say about a particularly tasty (even delectable) morsel, "But -- it's true! It's true!" I'd respond, "Okay, so it's not libel. But it still counts as forbidden gossip."

Before long, when I'd arrive at work on Sundays, Tony would be polishing the nookiest crannies of "22" (our ambulance). "Tova, I have such incredible gossip to tell you, and I CAN'T! he'd say gleefully. Sometimes, I would demurely smile, and he'd proceed to tell me his news about so-and-so. I would give the person he discussed the benefit of the doubt, and express sympathy for them, trying to shed some light on why they might be acting in a particular, obnoxious way. He would then say, "Oh, you're pulling a 'Tova' on me!"

Over the months, these conversations virtually disappeared. The only exception was when he learned that you can discuss a very disturbing situation, for the purpose of being able to better deal with the problem emotionally or practically. Upon my arrival to work, and he'd sometimes say, "Tova, I've waited all week for Sunday, so I can vent to you, because I know you won't say anything to anybody!" Then he would proceed to discuss a serious ongoing problem that someone was causing him and the ambulance company, knowing that I wouldn't breathe a word to anyone.

Rule #34

Toward the end of my time at the ambulance company, all staff was required to attend a meeting to discuss a long list of about 40 rules that everyone had to abide by. These rules ranged in importance from not being allowed to wear white socks, to when we could go on a call with lights and sirens.

Several days before the meeting, as we were driving along, Tony excitedly told me, "There are going to be BIG changes after this meeting! No more gossip is going to be allowed! I got the boss to include this in the rules!" I thought I didn't hear correctly, and would believe it when I saw it. And yet, there, at the meeting, in black and white in the handouts everyone received, was rule #34: "No employee is permitted to speak maliciously about any other employee."

The Talmud says that one of the reasons the Jewish people went into exile was to populate the world with Jewish ideals. And so it is. Somewhere, in an ambulance base in a lonely slum near Pittsburgh, gossip, loshon hara to be exact, is now forbidden by official company policy.