Rod Moss and “One Thousand Cuts”

Rod Moss is a Ferntree Gully boy, a whitefella who found himself in Alice Springs thirty years ago and who stayed there.

In all the moral disorientation of the Centre, in its beauty, its grandeur, its squalor and its mystery; in the perplex of making and losing marriages, of fathering, of teaching, of reading deeply, of engagement with the dark cinema of darkest Europe, Rod Moss found friends in a clan of blackfellas living in Whitegate, one of the town camps.

Moss differed from most of us whitefellas who come to the Centre. He stayed. He painted (in a distinctive genre of his own creating) the lives of his friends. And through all the years of his staying and his painting and his friendships, Moss kept a journal. That journal gave birth to his first book, “The Hard Light of Day”. The book won the Prime Minister’s Prize for non-fiction. More significantly, the book won the praise of Ray Gaita, who described it as one of the best books he had ever read.

When I say Moss found himself in Alice Springs, I mean he found himself in ways most of us non-indigenous people never do: he found who he was, what he was doing here; he came to be in country.

When I say Moss found friends I also mean he lost them.

Those losses are recorded, drop by drop, blow following blow in Moss’ first book, and in the second, soberly titled, “One Thousand Cuts”.

I believe that in its swelling lament and its growing clarity, “One Thousand Cuts” surpasses even “The Hard Light of Day”.

In a remarkable sequence of events “One Thousand Cuts” will be launched at Readings in Carlton on Wednesday 9 October at 6.30pm. And a retrospective exhibition of Moss paintings will be opened at Anna Pappas Gallery two days later.

If Moss’ paintings are luminous, his writing a prolonged jazz riff,  the photographs are something else.

I invite readers of this blog to attend one or both of these events. I will be glad to see you.

Podcast of interview on Radio National with Waleed Aly, Howard Goldenberg and Rod Moss 8.10.13image

Reunion in Eden

We left school a long time ago. After a decade it already seemed a long time had passed. We had become parents. Ten years further on a score of years separated us from those embarrassing teenage selves and, perhaps as a result, from each other. Now, it is half a century. A few of us have been meeting every few weeks to plan the Reunion.

I entered the most recent meeting and found I was the only male. Not unhappily. There was Leah, the hot blooded fish who brought me to a quick boil on my first day, still gorgeous. There was Virginia, brown skinned Virginia, flashing that smile that subverted my every chaste thought. Not that I had many. That tanned skin, that exposure of teeth in that open mouth, how her name seemed an impossible lie, a taunt. There was Bee, an artist now, an artisan in precious metals, in lapis, buxom Bee smiling broadly, Bee whom I never approached, never touched, too shy. Shy? Shocking, unforgiveable callous neglect!

Carmel was there and Carol, whom I have seen oftener and often, whom the years have kept real, who developed beyond the hot fancies and shapes of my adolescent mind.

And one was there, smiling. I didn’t know her at first, couldn’t place her. But her smile – of greeting, of welcome, of recognition – Howard, it’s me. It’s us – such a smile, so pregnant of shared knowing, of secret pleasure, of more, of something never reached. The smile waited upon dawning but the sun rose slowly. Meanwhile, what to do? I kissed her, a nice, slight, chaste kiss, that social gesture so easy now, so charged then. She spoke, her gaze, her smile unwavering, “Hello, Howard.”

Carmel’s voice broke the mystery: “Lilith has brought photos.”

Lilith! More quickly than for all the others I would fall for Lilith. More rapidly and more often. And equally quick in dissolution. The sun never set on our love. Falling in on the school bus, falling out by morning recess, burned by the abrasion, by the intensity, of Lilith’s mercurial moods.

“We’re all fucked,” she would tell me half a century later, “All of us, our parents, ourselves, our generations…”

I sat down at table with the ladies to plan the Reunion. Seated on the sole vacant seat, which happened to be at Lilith’s side, I didn’t contribute much. Neither did Lilith. Instead we whispered like two Grade Five kids, just like the two who met and fell in 1956, the country boy from Leeton, the tiny blonde from Bratislava, fresh from the embers of the Shoah.




Back in Print

This blog wears a yarmulke. It observes the many and protracted Feasts and Appointed Times of the Jewish religious calendar. It reflects, repents, atones and fasts over the High Holydays and it prays and feasts and feasts over the endless Festival of Tabernacles. The blogger gets holier, purer and fatter but writes not, nor blogs.


I’ve brought a note to explain my absence. It reads:

I have been walking in the ways of my fathers. As a result I didn’t write blog posts. It wasn’t a case of ‘couldn’t be bloggered’, just that you aren’t allowed to write on the holy days: writing is working.


Now I am back.



I’ll tell you a story. It’s a true story: I saw it happen with my own eyes.


It was on Yom Kippur, around the year 1956, that a small girl stood in the row in front of mine in the great synagogue and read her prayers. Small, bony, freckle faced, auburn haired, she stood among the men, close to her father and her brothers, and read those endless prayers. In all the empty vastness, beneath the great vaulted roof, the girl stood and read the order of service, word by word, letter by painstaking letter, in the archaic Hebrew.   

At intervals her small bony fist beat her left breast as she read the Musaph prayer, the long additional service. 

After twenty minutes or so the few men standing either side of her completed their reading and sat down. The child did not notice. Head down, with her right forearm a horizontal pendulum, her fist rising and falling against her left breast in slow periodicity, she beat out her ‘sins’:

“For the sin we committed in thy sight without intent, (thump);

And for the sin we committed in thy sight by lustful behaviour (thump).”


The synagogue swiftly filled. The cantor began his sung repetition of the Musaph prayer. The child, nowhere near finished, read on, beat on:

“For the sin we committed in thy sight by oppressing a fellow man (thump);

And for the sin we committed in thy sight by lewd association (thump)…”


As the repetition continued the congregation lifted its voices in chanted responses to the Cantor. At intervals the choir burst into song. Red head bowed, slow sentence by audible thump, the dogged child continued her reading. She had commenced, with the field, thirty minutes earlier. At this rate I reckoned she’d still be standing there, reading and beating for another twenty minutes.


A latecomer, a man, arrived to take his usual seat in this all-male section of the synagogue. Shaking thrice-annual hands – Gut Yomtov, Gut Yomtov – he progressed along the row of seasonal faces towards his seat. Bonhomie, smiles,  handshakes distracted him from the problem I could see coming. The man would be unable to reach his seat, let alone sit in it. A small red-headed child, a girl, oblivious of this world, stood in front of his seat reciting the Musaph Amidah, literally ‘the additional standing prayer.’

During an Amidah the worshipper stands in place, feet unmoving, until the end. Further, during this prayer speech is forbidden. I feared for the red-headed trespasser who would well know she should not yield place nor respond in speech to request or greeting or command until the grim end. What would she do?


Latecomer, standing in mutual discomfort between the feet of the incumbent in the penultimate seat, took in the sight of the obdurate breastbeater. His face registered incomprehension, then frustration, finally defeat. He backed out, apologizing, embarrassed, bonhomie eclipsed, hands not clasping friendly hands, back to the empty end of the now fully occupied row.


The man turned and left the synagogue.


“For the sin we committed in thy sight by haughty airs (thump);

And for the sin we committed against thee by scornful defiance (thump)…”

The child, all unwitting continued her reading to the end.

“I read it all, Daddy.”

Proud of herself, she trod lightly the much put-upon feet of the row of men, making her father’s seat. She climbed onto her father’s lap and settled there, sucking her thumb.


After a good while the usurped man returned to the synagogue. As he made his progress to his seat, he looked around. I saw, in addition to the normal prayer book and Tallith bag, he carried a small package. Arrived at his seat, he searched the rows for something or someone. At length he saw her, his trespasser. His face of serious purpose fell open into a wide smile. He waved to the child, caught her gaze. Uncertain, she smiled back. The man beckoned her to come to him. She looked at her father, who nodded.

Trampling again she slipped and wove her way along the row to the place of her earlier devotions.  The man stood, waiting. He took her right hand and shook it. He said something to the girl and handed her the package. He pinched her cheek gently as his smile once again broke his face open. 


The girl hurried back to her father. She opened her package and took out a miniature ladies’ handbag, elegantly crafted in parti-coloured leathers, an exquisite piece.


Whenever she attended synagogue I saw the child carrying that handbag, until maturity claimed her and she disappeared upstairs to the Ladies’ Gallery.




The Messiah Dancers

I went to Hotham Street today to look for donkey droppings. There were none. Would the dancer/s be sad or discouraged?

There were two dancers this morning – Springheel Jack, closely shaven, waving his smiley face flag; and a shorter man, bearded, rounded, waving a Messiah flag. This man was aged perhaps fifty. I stopped and talked with them.

Blogberg: Good morning, gentlemen. Would you mind telling me about the older dancer who used to dance every day – the one with a white beard? I haven’t seen him for a while. Is he well?

Springheel – in ocker accents: Thank God, he’s very well. He’s staying home to look after his mother.

Blogberg: Golly, she must be old.

Springer: She’s older than he is.

Your blogger – Berg: Please excuse my curiosity – do you mind if I ask – why do you dance?

Springman: The Rebbe – you’ve heard of the Rebbe?

Berg: Certainly.

Dancer Jack: The Rebbe says it’s time to dance. The time of dancing is here. It’s time to be happy.

Berg: That’s why you have the smiley flag?

Jack, nodding: That’s why.

Berg: You do this for an hour a day, six days a week, you must be the fittest Lubavitcher in Melbourne.

Jack: Some days it’s only half an hour…

Berg, addressing the shorter, rounder, older man: Your flag reads ‘Moshiach.’ So you’re dancing to bring the Messiah?

Shortman, smiling benignly, speaking with a light Russian accent: Oh no, Moshiach arrived. We dance because of happiness.

Berg, diffidently, to Jack: You dance here in the mornings. How do you spend the rest of your time?

Jack: I care for my friend. Full time. Also my grandmother.

Berg, not short of chutzpah: What is your job? I mean does someone pay you? Do you eat?

Jack, unruffled: Thank God, I eat. No-one pays me. I dance and I care because it’s good.

Berg: You do it all, ‘lishma’ – for its own sake.

Jacko: Yes.

Berg, to Shortman: What about you? When you aren’t dancing?

Shortman: I am a dental prosthetist. I make dental appliances.

Berg: Well it’s been a pleasure to meet you. Thank you for talking to me. G’mar Tov (a seasonal benediction).

Both, cheerily: G’mar Tov.

Jogging home, chewing on food for thought, the image returned of the Messiah Man of Juneau, Alaska. A lean and straitened man, he stood in the grey of an autumn day in Alaska, unprotected from the thin rain, speaking aloud of Redemption. At his foot a placard advised: Jesus is Lord. Choose life eternal.

The man addressed the public at large bearing Good News in his thin voice. Actually it was a public at small: Your blogger was the entire public.

Blogger, Berg: Do you mind if I speak with you?

Messiah Man: Why?

Berg: I am interested. It looks like a hard thing, to stand in the rain and bring your message.

Silence from M Man.

Berg: I don’t want to disturb you. I mean no disrespect.

M Man: I am called.

Berg: How do you live? I mean, you aren’t soliciting funds…

Messiah Man: A few good people make contributions. And they don’t bother me as I do my work.

Berg: Please excuse me. I won’t trouble you further.

As the Rebbe of Bratislav said: Mitzvah ge’dolla li’h’yot be

simcha tamid. (It is a great and holy thing to be in joy perpetually.)

My impressions: it’s an easier gig working for the Messiah in a warm temperate clime than in Alaska: it’s easier to be happy in Melbourne.

Dancing for the Messiah

There’s a bloke in Hotham Street who dances to bring the Messiah. Tall, fair, the dancer elevates himself onto a pair of Pritorius springheel devices that boost him from his natural six foot four to about eight feet. That’s before he starts to dance. As he jigs his head bounces higher than the fence behind him. He bounces there for an hour or more at peak times, waving his large yellow Messiah flag, for the traffic to see and to know his good news. In advance of the coming.

In past times a Messiah Dancer here waved a flag that read: HONK FOR MOSHAICH. The honking brought an early start to the day of Hotham Street residents who preferred devoutly to sleep in.

The springheeled one dances alone nowadays. A year or two back he danced with two fellows, one a short guy with a brown beard, the second a wide man, not young, white of beard, his movements minimal of amplitude, his girth more than ample, waving his flagless hands at passing cars. Small children in cars called out “Merry Christmas Santa!”

Many were this dancer’s years upon the earth, but these past weeks he dances no more. With luck it will turn out to be a temporary disability like a sore ankle or a new great-grandchild that has taken him from the streets and from the bringing of the Messiah.

Equally possible is that Messiah arrived quietly – noted by the two retirers* but unknown still to Springheel Jack. Certainly it is noticeable that nation currently does not lift up sword against nation. But lions and lambs need checking before we should allow little children to lead them.

Over history Messiah followers have had their hopes raised in dark times only to see them dashed and the times darken. In Jewish tradition the Messiah will arrive on a donkey. So far no donkey sightings in peak traffic on Hotham Street.

Messiahs are of course sometimes secular: Melbourne supporters welcomed theirs last week in Paul Roos; Liberal stalwarts were redeemed a few days ago. Richmond and Collingwood supporters might as well gather around Springheel Jack and wave their own flags.



*’retirees’ is a term to be reserved for persons who retire against their will.

Whom* By Fire, Whom* by Knife and Fork

The High Holydays are almost upon us. Jewish people are reflecting on their ways, repenting, seeking forgiveness from those whom* we have wronged, resolving to do better in the coming year.

The seasonal liturgy lists an intimidating list of “who’s” – fire, water, hunger, thirst; who in his allotted span and who before his span; who will be at peace, who will wander; who will pass in quietude, who in agony.

It makes you think.

The liturgy does prescribe antidotes – prayer, sincerely remorseful penitence and charity.

On the eve of Rosh Hashanah Jewish families gather to overindulge. We will be fifteen at our table and we’ll consume one bottle of wine and three sheep, numerous hens and sundry kine. We eat too much and drink too little. Next day, following a synagogue service lasting about five hours we go home and gorge ourselves, thereby putting ourselves at risk of “whom by knife and fork.”

We eat apple dipped in honey and we take honey on our round loaves of challah (read brioche, the “ch” in challah being like the final throat-clearing sound in Bach; the ch in brioche the same as in douche). The honey suggests the wish for a year of blessing. In our case that sweetness resides in the grandchildren who will throng and riot around our table, ensuring our New Year commences not in quietude but in full throated life.

My wish for my reader/s is that you might find this blog rewarding in the year to come, that you might buy the books that I’ll flog to you (a novel – Carrots and Jaffas – in early 2014; and A Threefold Cord – a novel in 67 chapters for 8-10 year olds, also in 2014, if not before.)

More disinterestedly, I wish for peace in the Middle East, a Collingwood premiership – at the moment both appear equally likely – and a year of euglycaemic health for us all.

Expressed as Shana Tova u’metukah


Howard Goldenberg

*I realize that Leonard Cohen sings “Who by fire”. Likewise “Who” appears in the English translation of the Hebrew prayerbooks. However, I am persuaded on grammatical grounds that it is not what you know in this life that matters but whom you know.