A walking history lesson looks back

Many veterinarians trace their love of animals to a childhood pet. Retired vet Gideon Sorokin is no different. As a boy in pre-war Vienna, he loved his cat Minka.

But Minka died when a sadistic German officer hurled her out of the train Sorokin and his mother rode while fleeing Nazi-occupied Austria. It was a lesson in brutality he never forgot. Today, at 75, Sorokin looks back on a life of action fighting for animals and for the Jewish people.

If there was a Zelig Award for the person who most often popped up at key moments of Jewish history, Sorokin would be a contender. And he has written an autobiography to hammer home the point.

As a boy, Sorokin witnessed the Nazi invasion of Austria. He later served in Israel’s War of Independence. He spied for Shin Bet while studying veterinary medicine in Italy. He’s also a rabbi, a husband, a father and philanthropist.

These days, Sorokin enjoys being a patron of the arts, bringing visiting musicians to the area and hosting concerts. He recently sponsored a visit from Croation conductor Dariana Blace, who staged a performance at the Jewish Home.

He also has a steady gig serving as a rabbi on a cruise ship, and has made two short documentaries about his life.

It’s a busy retirement, but Sorokin would be the first to admit his younger years would be hard to top.

His father was a cofounder of the Haganah, Israel’s pre-state army, but his revolutionary tendencies formed at an early age. “He lived in Odessa at the time of Rasputin,” says Sorokin. “In 1904, my father bought 10 cases of explosives and one night went up to the steeple of the church. The next day, a crowd gathered on the steps while the priest said ‘Go and redeem the misery of our Lord,’ meaning go and kill Jews. Then my father threw down the cases and killed over 100 people. He escaped by boat to Vienna.”

It was in the Austrian capital that Sorokin was born in 1930. His early years were happy, but with the Nazi incursion of 1938, everything changed. His father fled to Palestine, as did his older brother. Before the rest of the family escaped, a Nazi thug forced Sorokin’s mother to clean the streets with lye, causing serious burns to her arms (she never recovered and died three years later).

After the horror of witnessing his cat thrown to her death, Sorokin vowed never again to endure such abuse.

When he was 11 living in Palestine, an Arab neighbor gleefully told him the Jews would soon be dead, and that she would seize his family’s land. Enraged, Sorokin attacked the woman with a tree branch. Her dog then bit a chunk out of his leg.

One of Sorokin’s good friends was a boy named Ariel Sharon. Soon enough, Sharon and Sorokin’s brother went off to fight for Israel’s independence. Sorokin had a job, too: guarding a cache of weapons for the Haganah.

After the war, Sorokin married an opera singer, with whom he toured Israel as her manager. Around that time, he began his veterinary studies at a school in Pisa, Italy.

Not only did he learn his profession there, he also took over as town rabbi and, at the request of his government, spied for Shin Bet, prowling the docks to see if gunrunners were shipping arms to Egypt.

Once licensed, Sorokin visited every kibbutz and moshav in Israel to treat farm animals. “There was a terrible shortage of vets then,” he recalls. “I would travel 5,000 kilometers a month.”

In the early 1960s, Sorokin immigrated to the United States to further his veterinary research. Before moving to the Bay Area, he spent time in Alabama working for the USDA. That didn’t last long because the entrenched Southern racism of the time sickened him.

Once he had relocated to Marin, Sorokin launched a highly successful small animal practice that lasted until his retirement a few years ago. But retirement has never meant inactivity.

Sorokin has three grown children, and he loves playing grandpa. He lives with his second wife in Novato, and between their shared interests in the local arts community, there’s rarely a day off.

Life isn’t purely idyllic for Sorokin. The state of the world today depresses him. “Despite having everything a man can dream of,” he says, “when I look around in Iraq and Israel and this country, it’s all going to hell.”

Still, with a past as momentous as his, it’s not surprising Sorokin has fashioned a philosophy of life that works for him.

“My life can be condensed and understood on three principles,” he says. “One, my heart is in Israel. Two, my head is always in the clouds but my feet are on the ground. Third, the most fun I ever had is to do and achieve what other people deem impossible.”

“Tales of an Unorthodox Veterinarian” by Gideon Sorokin ($13.95, The Judah L. Magnes Museum, 204 pages).

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.