A High Churchman in Hobart

It is my first day at work in the Royal Hobart Hospital. Apart from my bride, I know no-one in this town. From the far side of the ward I become aware of a wide smile upon a moon face. The face sits above a clerical collar and a generous body and it is moving relentlessly closer to me. The nearer it comes, the wider the smile, until it is upon me and I am a bit wary.

I don’t know this bloke and he doesn’t know me. Why is he so happy to see me? It can only be the yarmulka on my head that attracts him.

I sense the imminence of uninvited salvation.

Friar Tuck sticks out his hand. The hand is soft and warm and firm. Hello, he says, welcome to the Royal. I’m Father Jim.

This bloke is irresistibly charming. I say – I’m about to go home to eat. How do you like Indonesian cooking, Father Jim? My wife is making fish, it’s a new recipe – would you like to join us?

Jim accepts and is delighted to meet Annette. He makes no comment about the fine garfish bones which are inextricable from Annette’s delectable Indonesian sauce.

It turns out that Jim is the Anglican chaplain at the hospital. That is his day job. By night and at weekends, he is one of the founders of a tiny Order of celibate Christian men who provide refuge for people who are lost or homeless or in crisis. They call their Community St. Michael’s Priory.

Every needy person, every demanding, manipulative and lost person in Hobart comes to the community and is greeted by wide smile Jim.

Celibate himself, Jim marries everyone else at the Royal. Nurses, doctors, morticians and clerks – Jim ushers them all into matrimony. But Jim’s best efforts are not proof against the rising tide of divorce that washes away his marriages. So he stops marrying people.

Father Jim joins us for Shabbat meals on Friday night. He reads the Haggadah with us at Passover, recounting our exodus from Egypt.

We leave Hobart but whenever he can, Jim visits us in Melbourne for Shabbat or Passover.

Years later, he leaves the Royal and the Priory and becomes a prison chaplain, then a chaplain to the dying in Melbourne. He welds himself to our children with the warmth of his smile. He comes to Synagogue with us, collarless, wearing one of my yarmulkas, and soon is taken for an Israeli.

He retires and goes to live in England, writing to us, posting us cuttings from texts by his favourite religious leader, Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi.

Over 35 years Father Jim is our friend. He celebrates the religious differences between us.

The Preacher of Princes Bridge

You see him on the bridge when you pass among the midday crowds. Alone among the moving multitude, he stands stationary, his voice raised as he addresses us. In his hands is a slim black volume with cheap plastic covers. He reads, rather, he declaims from this book words of prophecy and of admonition.

The preacher’s voice is thin and high pitched, too feeble an instrument to serve his purposes without help. He augments the thin piping of his voice with a little microphone which emerges like the head of a small serpent from somewhere near his collar. The serpent’s head stays firmly in place within cooee of the preacher’s mouth, a mere kiss away, without visible support.

Assisted by this miracle, the preacher delivers his text. His voice starts high and ascends higher. The higher it rises, the softer it becomes. Eventually, the voice reaches its zenith where all sound ceases, then it falls again to shoulder height to begin the ascent of the next phrase.

Alone among all the movers at noonday, I stop to listen and to learn. Continue reading

Star of the Sea

Yvonne and Doreen are among the very few Jewish girls at Firbank. Some unpleasantness occurs and Yvonne pretends it isn’t happening, but Doreen, the younger sister, is not so submissive. (At the age of four she had objected to the dentist hurting her. When he hurt her again Doreen bit his finger.)

When her classmates tease her for her Jewishness, Doreen fights back. After a few of these fights, their mother recalls how happy had been her own schooldays with the Presentation nuns in Perth. The family withdraws the girls from Firbank and sends them to the Presentation nuns at Star of the Sea.

Yvonne and Doreen arrive at Star to find they are the only Jewish girls. On the eve of the Depression their father falls ill and the whole school assembles to offer prayers for his recovery. He dies and the school prays for his soul.

Their father’s investments crash and the family is hard up. Compared to Firbank, the nuns are cheap, but Star reduces its fees so the girls can stay.

A new Jewish girl arrives. Her father has died, and she is to be a boarder. The nuns discover she has no prayer book. They are greatly concerned. They have lots of Catholic prayer books but they ask Yvonne and Doreen’s mother to find a Jewish prayer book for the new girl.

A couple of years after their father’s death, their mother’s heart fails. The school prays, she dies – of a broken heart, as the girls recall it – one day following the third anniversary of their father’s death. The whole school comes to a stop to pray for her soul and for the two orphan girls.

Neither of the girls is particularly studious, but Yvonne rewards the nuns with a perfect score in Catechism.

Years pass, the girls grow up, leave school and marry. Yvonne moves to a small town in the remote Riverina, where she raises a bunch of children without a family to support her. She misses her parents, her sister and grandmother. She bears and feeds these babies, deficient first in family, then in iron, later in red blood cells. Finally, she is confounded: fulfilled in motherhood, she is nevertheless tearful and faint. In crisis, Yvonne returns to the nuns and finds comfort. Will you pray for me, she asks.

Doreen too, turns to the nuns whenever she needs surgery. She too asks them to pray for her: You girls are the professionals, she says, I think you are better at it than I am.

As the years pass, Doreen has cancer surgery, bowel surgery, heart surgery, the list of operations grows longer, and always she goes back to the nuns. She speaks to her old school principal, now retired: Would you light a candle for me Sister?

I’d burn the whole bloody Church down for you if it would help you, Doreen.

Yvonne and Doreen go the nuns again and again. It only ends, after sixty years, when their old principal, the last of their nuns, dies at the age of 103.

Lost in the Garden of Sweden

The family sends me to the big Swedish store to buy a wall unit. I’ve seen the brochure; it’s a handsome thing, tidy, somehow compact while commodious. Elegant actually. It has a first name, something like Edmund. The e-savvy ones (my family) who despatch me to the big shop have checked, and yes, they have Edmund in stock

It’s a big place. You should ask for directions when you arrive.

This should worry me. I am willing but stupid. I was born with one organ missing – a sense of direction.

They have parking there.

This is intended to reassure but it simply reminds me that I have to get this Edmund bastard into the vehicle. I have seen the dimensions: Edmund is large, Howard is not.

They’ll help you load up.

Well, that’s good. But they won’t be at the other end when I need to unload the monster.

I find the parking lot. I park my son’s vehicle, a sort of truck pretending to be a car. They call it an SUV.

Emerging from the parking lot I walk to the street and look for the Swedish shop. I can see it clearly from the street – only about 2 kilometres distant.

Wrong car park.

I drive to Sweden and park again. This car park is a multi-storey affair, like the one at the airport, only bigger. It turns out that I have arrived at a mall, a place where shops metastasise, where the air is a thick substance imported from the natural world and treated to a muzak consistency. If you have never visited a mall, allow me to congratulate you. A mall is a maze designed to amaze – meaning to lock you into a mental state and a physical state. COSTCO is such a state. It is one of the states of the American Union. You need your passport to get out.

But I digress.

In this particular mall-state the Swedish shop is a city. Designed by Dante: give up all hope, ye who enter here.

I look for the Information Desk. There isn’t one. Instead a route map advises me: You are here. Edmund lives at 19. Follow the numbers.

I follow numbers all the way to 4, a dead end.

I need directions. There are no shopkeeper people in sight, but there are plenty of shoppers, gathering coat hangers, light fittings, pillows. All of them push trolleys. Where did they get those? I suppose I’ll need one if they do. Who told them about the trolley phenomenon?

Whom to approach? All the shoppers are young women, all somehow pregnant yet skinny. Slim catlike creatures, they wear black leggings and tops. Leopards in leotards.

They walk quietly in the altered mental state, the amazed state that is the mall phenomenon. How to ask directions from a person in a trance?

Hello, here is a shopkeeper person. Fair of skin and hair, healthy and unmalled looking, she wears a shirt that is a Swedish flag. She speaks in a Swedish accent. Charming. She smiles and points the way to 19 and utters the fatal words: You can’t miss it.

I follow pregnant trolley-pushing women through 4 to 12.

No more numbers. A Swedish person – male – listens courteously to my problem. He looks at me kindly; he has helped the mentally infirm before. The numbers resume “down the stairs, one level, maybe two.” Of course. Stupid of me. Mister Sweden doesn’t actually know the whereabouts of the staircase: “Should be there, somewhere.” Vasco de Garma setting out on oceans unknown, I find the stairs.

Now in a basement in the Underworld I follow numbers to 18. Here, at the end of the counting, is a cafeteria. “Foods from Sweden”, reads the notice. No sign of Edmund.

A third Swede directs me to 19. Nineteen exists in its own suburb, an unpeopled wilderness like Docklands. It has no connection to 18. Nineteen is a unique destination at the end of the world, a cavernous space traversed only by nomadic tribes of pregnant women.

Someone tells me there is a blue desk where someone will help me. The blue desk is sighted in the distance. One kilometre further on I approach the desk with racing heart and altered breathing: this is either a panic attack or orgasm.

There is indeed someone at the blue desk. A good bloke. Yes, he knows Edmund. Yep, Edmund comes in white and a desert sand colour. Yep, we should get supplies again soon – possibly in four weeks. World shortage. None in this store, none in any store in Australia. None in Japan or China or Malaysia either. Those well-known offshore provinces of Sweden.

“But we checked on the net. Your website says it’s in stock.”

“When did you check?”

“Last night.”

The good bloke shakes his head. “You don’t want to look at our website, not at night. Better to check on the morning- before you come in.”

So no Edmund. “Would anything else do? Since you’re here, look around…”

I do. Billy is available. I call my son who lives in the outside world, on the surface. He checks the net. Yes, Billy will do.

Billy is a bookcase two metres in height and three metric tonnes in weight. Howard is 1.7 metres high and 72 kilograms. We will need two Billies. One Howard: an unequal proposition.

The good bloke directs me to the suburb, kilometres back, where the wise have collected their trolleys. When I return he helps me lug the two long flat boxes that are Billy Incognito onto my trolley. “How do I pay you?”

He smiles, shakes his head, directs me towards Payment: I know, I know, I can’t miss it.

I pay with plastic. Naturally.

Ms Payment sings me “have a nice day’ in Swedish singsong.

There is a way to get out. I go there.

No escape. I haven’t validated my parking ticket.

Of course.

Back to the payment-accepting Swede who is my validator. Once valid I head for Loading Help. The helper is a tall, bulky bloke, built like a centre half back. He’d match up ok on Dermott Brereton or Wayne Carey. He’ll guard my trolley and my two Billies until I return with my SUV.

Back to the car park. I know where my vehicle is parked – close to the entrance. I can’t find the Entrance. I don’t know my son’s rego number. There are columns with helpful letters of the alphabet that register your vehicle’s whereabouts. But my particular column letter did not register with me. Keep calm.

There are three hectares of car park. Mine is not the only SUV. In fact every vehicle is an SUV. I walk the three hectares in a cunning grid devised by myself as I go. Whenever a dark SUV looms before me in the underworld dark I click the electronic gadget that unlocks an SUV without touching it. A lot of vehicles have these remote gadgets; you click and your car lights up, sometimes farting a short musical beep to cheer you. I click but nothing lights light up. No music either.

Keep calm.

I keep calm, keep walking, keep breathing exhaust fumes that cheer me; they remind me of real life. Outside.

Calmly, I ascend one level, walk the alphabetic columns, walk the clever grid. Nothing.

There remain two more levels. More calm ambulation, more gridding.

Here is a vehicle that looks just like my son’s. (Down here they all do.) I click like mad – no light. I peer inside and sight my red striped jumper. I click again. No lights, but the door opens to my touch. I examine the remote controller. I have been pressing the wrong button, the button you press when you want nothing to happen.

I drive out. Well, no I don’t, actually. Instead I find myself driving in circles – wrong level. The same happens on the next two levels. The circling offers a comforting familiarity.

On the fourth level I find the Centre Half Back who will help with the Billies. He bends, hoists, grunts, herniates a disc and retires, allowing me to complete the job alone. I do so.

It is time to say farewell to Sweden. Travel broadens one. A better and a broader being, I drive carefully, calmly, out into the sunlight.

Missionary Positions 1

A STRANGER ON A TRAIN

A ten year old boy is riding the red rattler across the suburbs of Melbourne. Plastic in his being, not yet firm in himself, quite unconsciously he absorbs the personas around him. One by one and all at once, he takes them in, trying to drink their apparent confidence, their certitude.

An older man enters the crowded carriage, looks around and selects the seat directly opposite the boy. He sits down, his knees only inches away. He carries a newspaper which is rolled into a cylinder. As he sits down, the train starts to move again, and quite quickly the movement makes the man sleepy and he nods off.

Every so often the boy senses the older man’s gaze upon him, but whenever he looks up to check, the man’s eyes are closed.

The ride is a long one. The deeper they go into the suburbs, the fewer the remaining passengers. Eventually, there are only the two of them in that whole cavernous compartment – the older one asleep and the younger one all too conscious.

He is uncomfortably aware of the man’s closeness in all that space: they haven’t even spoken. And the boy feels anxious, not knowing whether he even exists to this long distance sleeper.

He’d like to move, but he thinks he might offend.

The boy wonders whether the man will know when to get off. Perhaps he has already missed his stop. Soon the boy feels anxious about this too.

The train pulls into Hughesdale Station. The boy feels the stirrings of relief – his is the next stop. It will be okay then to move away.

But the sleeper has risen to his feet. He turns for the door, then pauses. The boy feels a light tapping upon the top of his head. It is the sleeper, using his furled newspaper to gain his attention.

He speaks: Good on yer, son. It’s a credit to you.

He taps the boy’s head again, this time touching the yarmulka that sits on his crown: You keep wearing that, son – it won’t let yer down.

The stranger alights and is gone.

The boy touches the top of his head. He feels somehow annointed.

“I lived in the era of Nelson Mandela”

English: Young Nelson Mandela. This photo date...

Nelson Mandela. 1937. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“I lived in the era of Nelson Mandela”.

That statement is something I can tell my grandchildren; and they in turn will say to their grandchildren, “My grandfather was alive in the days of Nelson Mandela”.

A person of that calibre does not pass this way every century.

I’d like to share the following article written by Roger Cohen that appeared in the

New York Times 8 July 2013.

Dreaming of Mandela

By ROGER COHEN

LONDON — The South African living for my family was easy. The staff changed the nappies. The houseboys brought the braziers to the right glow for the braai. Two gardeners were employed, one for the roses and one for the rest. When dinner ended the bell was rung, either by hand or by pressure of the foot on a buzzer beneath the carpet. A black servant would appear dressed in a white outfit.

My grandfather, Laurie Adler, and his friends donned their whites for Sunday lunch, preceded by a cocktail of “gin and two” (one third gin, one third Cinzano Bianco, one third Cinzano Rosso and “and full to the brim with ice”), before ambling off to play bowls.

At picnics on Table Mountain, a beret on his head, socks pulled up almost to his knee, Laurie would plunge a knife into the pale green watermelons, making a series of incisions before, with a flourish, allowing the succulent fruit to fall open in oozing red bloom. We feasted and left a trail of eggshells and bitten-out watermelon rind.

And on Robben Island, without watch or clock, Mandela maps time on the wall of his cell.

A particularity of the apartheid system was that blacks were kept at a distance except in the most intimate of settings, the home. They cooked and cleared away; they washed and darned and dusted; and they coddled white children. After the Shabbat meal on Friday night guests might leave some small token of appreciation on the kitchen counter (“Shame, I don’t have much change”) or slip a few rand into a calloused black hand.

Elsewhere lay the Africa of the Africans — the natives as they were often called — the distant townships of dust and dirt where water was drawn from a communal spigot, and homes consisted of a single room, and clothes were patched together from scraps of passed-down fabric, and the alleys were full of the stale stench of urine. I could smell the hardship in the sweat of the houseboys and see it in the yellowish tint of their eyes.

And on Robben Island, Mandela records on a South African Tourism desk calendar the humiliations inflicted by white prison warders.

A relative told me his first political memory from the early 1950s was of a great tide of black walkers streaming from Alexandra township — “like the Jews leaving Egypt,” he said, but of course no liberation awaited. The blacks were protesting against a one-penny hike in bus fares. Moenie worry nie, Laurie always insisted — don’t worry. He had been born in South Africa in 1899, my grandmother Flossie in 1900. They should know.

South Africa was as good a place as any for a Jew to live in the 20th century. A friend of the family let slip a sentiment widely felt but seldom articulated: “Thank God for the blacks. If not for them it would be us.” Jews on the whole kept their heads down; better just to keep stumm. Flossie voted for Helen Suzman’s anti-apartheid Progressive Party and then prayed the National Party remained in power. She was not alone in such genteel hypocrisy.

And on Robben Island, Mandela cultivates not hatred — that would be too easy for the whites — but the power of patience and perseverance.

The blacks were a form of protection. If you are busy persecuting tens of millions of blacks you do not have much time left over for tens of thousands of Jews. For South African Jews, aware of the corpse-filled ditches of the Europe they had fled, the knowledge of the 69 blacks cut down at Sharpeville in 1960 was discomfiting. But this was not genocide, after all. Most, with conspicuous exceptions (more proportionately among Jews than any other white South Africans), looked away.

Why think of a black man in a cell for his just beliefs when you could gaze at the canopy of purple-blue jacaranda blossom over the avenues of Johannesburg? Everything seemed untroubled, unless you caught a glimpse of ragged black men being herded into police vans. Then a cousin might say, “I suppose they don’t have their passes. Enjoy the swimming pools, next year they will be red with blood.”

And on Robben Island, Mandela learns that not even a life sentence can condemn a man to abandon the mastery of his soul.

I have been dreaming of Mandela. An old idea: He who touches one human being touches all humanity. I have been murmuring his name: He broke the cycle of conflict by placing the future above the past, humanity above vengeance.

He reminded us of what is most precious in Jewish ethics: What is hateful to yourself, do not do to your fellow man — or, as the Mosaic book says many times, you are to treat the stranger well for “you were a stranger in a strange land.” Repair the world. Be a light unto nations.

The truth is we did not deserve him. We could not even imagine him. But, as I learned young in South Africa, the human spirit can avert even inevitable catastrophe.

A version of this op-ed appeared in print on July 9, 2013, in The International Herald Tribune.

When Charlie Met Johnny

Charlie was a prince

A prince to the palace born

When they called him a quince

It made him quite forlorn

Johnny was a teacher

To the pulpit drawn

Became the Jews’ chief preacher

A boon, a goad, a thorn.

“Charlie” is the heir apparent to the British Throne. Unlike other princes and princelings, Charles ventured to speak publicly on a variety of matters that were either contentious or odd, thereby putting the contents of his highly individual mind out onto the nature strip for vultures, scavengers and predators to feast on. And they have. Charles might not have been the first royal to be odd or suggestible or randy (wooing Camilla with, “I want to be your tampon”) but he had the misfortune to belong to the first generation of his family that faced unbridled mass media. Continue reading