Going to the Wall

My family used to be employed in Jerusalem. Unfortunately our family business was disrupted for a time by conflict and conflagration. In what appeared to be arson, on the ninth day of the month of Av in the year 70 of the Current Era, our office was burned down. 
The office I refer to was the Holy Temple where my forebears would officiate in rituals of sacrifice, in mediating and arbitrating disputes, in quarantining suspected carriers of contagious disease and in blessing the people. As the reader will realise we worked as lawyers and doctors and priests. After the burning my family was unable to go to our office for nineteen centuries. Then in 1967 we returned. The other day I went back to the office where I resumed working in the family business. 
It happened like this.
My two eldest grandchildren, both aged thirteen, accompanied my wife and me on our current visit to Israel.
The boy, a pretty secular fellow whom we’ll call Jesse, walked down to the Wall with me. He understood the antiquity of the Wall and something of its sanctity. Praying is not his specialty. ‘What will I do, Saba?’
‘I pray there, Jesse. Some people write their prayer on a slip of paper and insert it into a crack between stones.‘
‘What should I pray for, Saba?’
‘Think of the thing that you most want in the world, Jesse. Ask for that. It could be some deep and secret thing, something you wish for yourself or for someone else.’
Jesse has seen suffering. Earlier he saw a man begging. Well made, about the age of Jesse’s father, the man requested small change, blessing anyone who donated. The man walked on a distance from Jesse, turned away and covered his face with his hands. His shoulders shook.
At the Wall, Jesse pressed his lips against the glowing stone. He leaned his forehead against the Wall for some time, his lips moving. Then he posted his slip of paper into a tiny eye socket in the stone.
As we walked away backwards, Jesse stopped me and threw his arms around me. He said, ‘That was a really important experience, Saba. Thank you for taking me here…I love you, Saba.’
We rejoined my wife and Jesse’s cousin, whom we’ll call Ellie. They too had prayed at the Wall. Ellie’s fair features glowed: ‘Saba and Savta, that was wonderful.’ My hands twitched, a spasm in unemployed muscles. I recalled I was a Cohen, a lineal priest: I was in the blessing trade. I rested my palms on Ellie’s head. My fingers splayed and I searched for some voice. The voice shook as I recited the ancient words: ‘May God bless you and keep you…’ Here I was back at the old workplace, here was Ellie, flesh of my flesh.
I had waited 2000 years to get back to work. I annointed her fair head with my salt tears. 

We are all John


My friend Bernard arrived a few minutes before I did. He asked a woman who seemed official if it would be alright for his doctor to come as his support. Driving to the Meeting I was wondering the same. ‘Yes, of course’, the woman said. Bernard and I found each other outside. Smokers, most of them men, stood around chatting and working hard at their smoking. We walked inside and found ourselves in a small room, quite narrow and deep, and dimly lit. 


‘First Meeting?’, asked a skinny bloke at Bernard’s shoulder. 

‘Yes. My name’s Bernard.’

‘John.’ A laugh. He stretched out his hand: ‘Well, we’re all John here.’



‘John’ extended a hand and shook mine. His slim face looked healthy, his smile a gift unexpected in the gloom. 

He clutched a big mug. Others wandered in, prepared tea or coffee and held their mugs. I didn’t see anyone drink.



Quietly Bernard started to talk to me about belief. ‘Do you believe, Howard?’ I fashioned a reply. Bernard told me of a friend whom he met for lunch that day: ‘This fellow has had a stellar career. He retired just today, signed the documents, finished off. We met for lunch. The thing is, this man, so rational, so analytical, a complete realist, is truly religious. I mean church, prayers, the whole package. I asked him, “How do you believe? I mean all that mumbo jumbo… no offense…” He said: “I choose to believe.”’



Bernard had told me his psychiatrist suggested he attend Meetings. ‘The doctor said, “I think you start with one substance, develop a habit, withdraw, then start a new one. You seem to lack meaning in your life. Perhaps you need a spiritual focus.”’ Bernard, musing, saw the reality of that lack, but wondered if it were not his weakness but his strength.

Hanging on the front wall was a list of points, numbered from One to Twelve, a sort of manifesto. It looked like the Twelve Commandments, a creed. It was these that started Bernard’s train of thought.


At eight o’clock the smokers came in from the cold and joined the dozen or so of us seated inside. Last in closed the door. A thin woman of fifty or so stood up at the front, welcomed us all briefly. She added, ‘and a special welcome to the first timers.’


She sat down. The official woman at the table invited an older person seated behind us to speak. ‘John’ shuffled forward, took his position and composed himself. He carried no notes. His script was his life. A quietness fell. He spoke: ’I’ve been coming to Meetings – at first on the coast, then out west, later here – for 43 years. The Meetings have saved my life.’


Abruptly the door swung open. A young person wearing running shorts and a polo shirt strode inside and sat down. She looked about fifteen. I wondered if she too was ‘John.’



The speaker resumed. ’I’m an alcoholic. I’ve been dry for forty-three years. I go to a Meeting wherever I am. I never miss out. I know I HAVE to go. No excuses, every day. Otherwise I’d be dead in the gutter.’

The speaker would be about sixty, sixty-five. Full faced, woolly, black-grey beard, clothed in shapeless grey, his speech quiet, his pear-shaped body a looming mass in the dim light, only his fleshy features enacting his experiences: ‘I was the great intellect. I knew I didn’t need Meetings. I went along to humour a friend. The friend would find me passed out wherever I’d been drinking, wherever I happened to fall. But I was the great intellect.’ A sniff, a shrug:’ A great intellect who was deaf. Nothing worse than a deaf drunk. I KNEW. No-one could tell ME. I went away from the Meeting. Not for me. I went away and I had a drink. That’s what I’d always do, I’d have a drink. I never ever had a drink without drinking until I passed out. It was a while before I came back. I came back and I keep coming back. No-one judged me, no-one told me what to do. From the first I was accepted, supported. So long as there was a Meeting I was safe. I could depend on the Meeting, the people I’d find there. I didn’t need grog while I went to meetings. That was then. I lost my job, my license, my home and my marriage, my daughters. That was then; this is now – and my life has filled with brighter things, some things have been repaired – but I still need the Meetings, they still keep me safe.’ 



John continued at considerable length, the words flowing from him without haste or hesitation or repetition. It was not performance, or if it was, he wore no costume. He was naked before us and he was unashamed.



John stopped, thanked us, shambled back to his seat. People clapped quietly. There was no whooping, no congratulation. The sober percussion of palms spoke of quietude: ‘We hear you, we know you, we understand and recognise you. You are not alone.’



The presiding person invited ‘John Two’ to share. Younger than the first John, he approached the front cradling his mug. He opened his mouth and told his life: ‘I had good parents. They both drank, but they loved me as much as they could. I could sense the magic in them when they were drinking, how alcohol changed them, the lift, the ease, the flight that the drink gave them. I couldn’t wait to have the same. And I didn’t have to wait long. I was fourteen when a mate of my elder brother took me and another fourteen year-old to the pub in his car. We sat and waited in the back seat. When it arrived it was a schooner of fifty-fifty. I drank it and I felt the lift. I had another and a third and a fourth. I was flying. I wasn’t a shy kid, I could speak to anyone, I felt I could be anything. I had no worries. We went home and I couldn’t wait until next time. And next time came soon and often. After a while older mates would smuggle me into the bar. Eventually the publican recognised me as a regular. He said, I don’t want to know how old you are but the coppers will. You drink out in the beer garden. If the cops come, you’ll get warning and you can nip off through the hedge.’
‘I never drank without getting drunk. I never got into trouble in my life unless there was grog in me. And there was grog in me whenever I could get it. I lost jobs, I crashed cars, I smashed faces and friendships. I forgot to eat, I got sick. Whenever anything bad happened I’d say to myself, better have a drink. Whenever anything good happened I’d say, better have a drink. One very good thing that happened was my wife. She’d shake her head and say, “There’s always two things together when trouble happens; the two things are you and grog.” I decided I’d better go easy. I told my mates, I wouldn’t be drinking for a while. They said, “Come on, just one.” I couldn’t see the harm in that. I told the wife I wouldn’t be out long. I went along with the mates and I had a drink. Then it was no limit. It was me and the grog and it was like always. That particular night we drank until closing time, then I kicked on at the Club where members had a key. You’d let yourself in at any time, take as much as you liked from the fridge, and pay on the Honour System. Some time in the morning I must have run out of money. I got into the car, drove into two other cars and a fence and into someone’s house. Or so they told me. I woke up in hospital. The wife came in and she said, “Always the same two, you and the drink.” ‘
‘I agreed to go to a Meeting. I knew I didn’t need it. I was another great intellect. The Meeting wasn’t like anything I’d ever known. I didn’t mind it. Still the Great Intellect, I didn’t need it, but I could feel something there. I suppose it was respect. I came back. That was thirty-one years ago and I’m still coming back. When I go to Meetings I don’t need to drink. And there’s always a Meeting near you and it’s always there when you need it. You could wake up at six in the morning and feel like a drink, but you knew there was a six o’clock meeting for shift workers coming off shift and you could go along. No questions, you’d be welcome.’
The words poured out of John Two. Unrehearsed, coming with his breathing, never hurried, never late, coming from deep in the storehouse of experience and self knowledge. John Two stood before us, neither humble nor proud, just himself, accepting himself. He held his neglected mug, a metaphor for the drink that was always available but no longer needed.
John Three spoke. She was very thin, looking older than her fifty-two years. We heard of her liver failure, her cirrhosis, her doctor’s predictions. We heard of her passion for alcohol, her phenomenal appetite for it. ‘It would take a bottle of vodka to get to sleep. I’d sleep three hours and wake up and I’d know I’d get no more sleep, so I’d knock off a bottle of wine – there in bed – to get a couple more hours. Early in the morning I’d start again. I’d walk along a street and I’d look at the gutter and I’d know that’s where they’d find me. It wouldn’t be long. And then I thought of the grandchildren and they’d know their Gran died in the gutter. So I came to a Meeting. I didn’t want the grandkids to have to live with that knowing. So that’s what I do, I come to Meetings. And I have a second chance.’

John Four said: ‘I’ve got four kids. I don’t know how much they used to understand, but they know I’m different since I’ve been coming to Meetings. They’re still little, but they’re happier now their mum doesn’t fall over anymore, that I come to their school events, concerts and such like. I can read to them and they can make out the words and I don’t fall asleep and drop the book on the floor. It’s been three years now I’m dry and they know I go to Meetings and they can tell it’s good.’

An hour had passed and I had to leave. The Twelve Commandments hung silent on the wall. I wondered about that. A couple of days later Bernard visited me. He’d stayed to the end. He said, ‘I felt humbled: those people are heroes. They wouldn’t know it but they are inspiring. I’m going to go again next Monday. And there’s another Meeting a lot closer to my home, on Wednesdays. They told me that’s a good Meeting too.’ I wondered aloud about the Commandments. Bernard said, ‘I am quite open to hear anything about anyones belief, but there was hardly any of that. I don’t think I heard the word God or Jesus mentioned once. Just people sharing and accepting. I felt comfortable there.’
I read aloud my notes about the night. Bernard encouraged me to post it. he added, ‘I think I’ll talk to my partner about coming along too. I think we both understand that drinking together keeps us close but stops us getting too close. I’m ready now to try to get closer.’


Jim is Dead

December 18, 1969. A large moon rises before me in the geriatric wing of the Royal Hobart Hospital. This is unexpected as we are indoors and it is noon. The moon shines across the room in my direction. Beneath the bright disc sits a white clerical collar. Just below the disc’s equator a set of white teeth smiles widely. The smile advances, a pink fleshy hand extends and a voice says, ‘Hello. I’m Father Jim. I’m a chaplain here. Call me Jim.’ The hand is warm and kind. I am a new doctor. Today is my first day in my first job. All around me old people drool and gibber in a manner to overwhelm a new doctor.

The moonfaced Friar Tuck is delighted to meet Howard Goldenberg. He says, ‘You’re new here Howard? Welcome to the Royal. I hope you’ll be very happy here.’

Fifty metres distant stands the weatherboard shack which houses the new doctor and his new wife. The new doctor says, ‘Jim, will you join my wife and me for lunch? We’re going to eat soon. Fish…it’s an Indonesian recipe.’ Jim would love to. Thirty minutes later Jim and his new friends Annette and Howard are seated in the shack eating a luncheon of fish bones and curry. Jim fossicks for flesh among the fine bones, eats up and does not complain. And Annette and I have made the first new friend of our married lives.

April 6, 2016. My Facebook-facing daughter forwards the following:

Dear Howard, I am sorry to have to post a message like this via Facebook but I am sad to say that your good friend Jim Smith has died this week, here in London. My name is John and I am his partner, Jim & I met you in North London when you were visiting your family, I think in 2014. Jim had a stroke last year and I was caring for him at home, he had to go into hospital with a pulmonary embolus and then had complications which led to his death on Sunday. I know he always enjoyed his conversations with you, if you have any special memories you would like to send me I can include them in a JimMemory book I intend to put together. I will let you know when the funeral is, if you would like to light a candle and say a prayer for him.

PS RIP Jim! He was quite comfortable and free of pain (he had some back trouble) at the last. John

Jim is dead. Faster than tears an image flashes before me. I see a black and white photo in a family album of a moon-faced man seated outside our rustic house in a village outside Melbourne. The large face is crowned with a white handkerchief knotted at its corners. Upon the lap of the large man sits a small child, our angel Raphael, aged not many months. A perfectly ordinary image: no collar, no ecclesiasticals, no pretence; just a man nurturing a child. The image says enough. A man, a child. Poignant as a Pieta the image drives me from my screen to Annette. My voice disintegrates as I tell her the news. I ring my daughter who is tearful too.

Father Jim Smith married hundreds of heathen nurses to hundreds of pagan doctors in his days at the Royal. All those unbelievers flocked to this man who seemed to personify something missing from the lives of those science-infested people. But around 1990 Jim quit marrying. He said, ‘I marry them, they make vows, then they divorce.’ He felt the losses, each by each, personally. ‘It’s as if their marriage meant more to me than to them’, he said.

Father Jim introduced us to his partner in goodness, Jim Turley. Now we had two Father Jim friends. The two – together with a non-priest – created what might have been Australia’s first refuge. They called it St Michael’s Priory and to it flocked beaten wives, beaten children, lonely people, people mad and broken. All were taken in, housed and fed, and where possible, repaired.

The Priory rested upon the slender incomes of the three and upon donations from parishioners, who brought laying hens, a milch cow, produce – and a pair of Nubian goats. The Jims took us down to shed and showed us two sleekly beautiful creatures. Their coats of Nugget Dark Tan shone on the backs of their aristocratic bodies. Shy, their slender faces darting, their small ears rising and turning to sound, they looked like deer. ‘Meet the Goldenbergs’, said Jim Smith. He was addressing Annette and me, not the goats: ‘This one is Ruth and this is Naomi. They’re pedigreed. We were told we should register them. You could register them by name, so we chose from the Bible. Then Jim and I said, “Ruth and Naomi are Jewish names. Let’s give them Jewish surnames”. So we called them Goldenberg, after our Jewish friends.’

Years later Annette and I gave our third child a Biblical name. She became Naomi Goldenberg, named after a relative at St Michael’s Priory in Hobart.

The Jims used to come to our shack in Gore Street, for Shabbat dinner on Friday nights. They’d stand silently in their yarmulkes while I’d recite Kiddush. Afterwards they’d make a fair fist of translating odd phrases from the Hebrew, to which they’d been introduced during their studies in Divinity. One Shabbat eve one of the Jims – I don’t remember who – challenged the second: ‘Jim, I don’t sense you are making any effort at all to convert the Goldenbergs.’ The other Jim confessed: ‘That’s true.’ And the second Jim nodded and admitted he too was remiss. And one said: ‘I don’t feel any call to change the Goldenbergs.’ That moment love shimmered before us at our Shabbat table: two men of God had each found grace sufficient to deny abstract vocation in favour of human feeling.

Eventually Jim Smith left the Royal, left Hobart, said goodbye to the Priory and to his celibate brethren. It might, for all we knew, have felt like dereliction. Today I picture it as burnout, as an escape from accumulating vicarious trauma.

Jim took a job in Melbourne as chaplain at Pentridge. There his parishioners were prisoners and warders. He sat and he listened to their confessions and to their unconfessions, their lies and their rationalisations. One godless murderer habitually visited Jim on the pretext of spiritual need where he simply craved intelligent conversation. That man had forced his way into a hairdressing salon where he splashed lighter fluid over his rejecting girlfriend before igniting it. The woman survived her horrible burns. Her hairdresser did not.

An equally godless, notoriously brutal warder used to seek Jim out in the Officers’ Mess. He’d ask Jim, ‘Do you mind if I join you?’ Jim decidedly did mind but avowed the reverse. The man, loathsome and unctuous, habitually chose Jim as his companion. Jim couldn’t say which of the two – the murderer or the officer – he liked less.

On one occasion the murderer made a singular confession: boastfully he declared, ‘When we want to punish a warder, we do. We have our ways.’ Jim, genuinely curious, asked –‘How?’ He regretted the question instantly. The prisoner said, ‘We piss in their tea.’

Some time later Jim went to the Officers’ Mess for lunch, took his seat at an isolated table and said, ‘Yes, of course’ when the warder asked to join him. Shortly a prisoner arrived to take their meal orders. Jim ordered his lunch, the warder ordered, the prisoner noted their requests, then asked, ‘Beverages, gentlemen?’ Jim requested tea, the warder said, ‘Same for me.’

Jim sat and enjoyed the warder’s conversation until a second prisoner arrived bearing their food and drink. This prisoner was none other than the murderer. He handed Jim his food, passed the officer his, then said, ‘Here’s your tea, Father.’ He walked around the table and, standing a little to the side and behind the warder, passed him a second mug. Winking hugely at Jim he said, ‘And this is yours, sir.’ Jim sat and watched and kept his peace.

Once again Jim and we were living in the same city. Often he’d would join us at our Shabbat table and at Passover Seder and he’d report on what he called, ‘my time in gaol.’

Later, with his usual genius for vocation among the desperate, among those who were losing and those who were lost, Jim became chaplain to Intensive Care at a major Melbourne hospital. In ICU something like one patient dies of every four who enter. The rates of loss are higher than in a theatre of war.

Eventually Jim retired. Amazing us all, since he’d been resolutely republican and a pronounced proletarian, Jim settled in Britain. Here he found love, a partner in John, and diabetes – the lot of many Friar Tucks.

Every Passover and every Jewish New Year a letter would arrive addressed and written in the child’s block lettering that was the Jim Smith calligraphy. The letters told us of the Jewish roots of Jim’s belief. They’d include clippings from the newspaper columns of ‘my favourite religious writer, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’, soon to become Chief Rabbi of the British Commonwealth. In his long London epoch Jim read widely and deepened his sense of following a Jewish Jesus. His pleasure in our friendship grew deeper and eventually he crossed the world to attend our eldest daughter’s wedding in Melbourne.

Jim lived with John, sharing travel with him as well as musical theatre, which he loved. A man great in his levity, Jim radiated a softness that healed, attaching him to old friend and to new. When I visited my daughter Naomi (the goat’s child) and her husband and children during their domicile in London, Jim, frailer now, crossed the great city with John for a visit. It was Shabbat and space and time had shrunk. Here was Jim, here were his old friends, here were our tender little ones. Jim was still Jim. The spark of joy still shone. But I wondered if we’d meet again. The moments passed.

And now Jim is dead.


A Downtown Medical Professional

 As I walked past the couturier’s shop in Collins Street, peering in as a beggar at a feast, I sighted a chic young lady within. She looked at me and beckoned. I looked at myself. I saw myself, dressed for my work, in all the formality and  

the finery of a downtown medical professional. And I bethought myself: I do not look chic. I will not look right within those bright halls. I shook my head, but the chic one persisted. She nodded emphatically. I approached the crystal doors and the chic one emerged. ‘How good to see you, Howard! Come in! Come in!’
I came in. A large man dressed in tails stood on the threshold. He bowed and smiled a welcome. He finished his smiling and remained where he stood, large and decorative and solid.


My friend looked really happy to see me. I looked about me. I was the only person present who was not a member of staff. Perhaps I should be a customer. I looked at the goods on display. I sighted handbags. In a discreet undertone I remarked to my friend: ‘I am glad I am not wealthy enough to buy this one’ – indicating an overdecorated number in a shade of steatorrhoea. My friend looked at me searchingly: ‘What do you mean?’

‘I mean this probably costs the earth and it’s grotesque.’

My friend gasped. I must be joking.
We crossed to the sunglasses. I wear sunglasses about as often as I wear a handbag. I asked: ‘Can you show me your most expensive pair?’

Good naturedly my friend indicated a pair of sunglasses resting in a box labelled ‘First Edition.’ I asked, ‘How much?’

‘One thousand, nine hundred.’

I thought of my First Editions at home. Patrick White’s first novel was published in a limited print run. He came to judge the novel, ‘Happy Valley’, an embarrassing failure. He forbade reprint. As a result, copies of that First Edition are extremely rare and quite costly. The purchase price of my copy was less than the price of the couturier’s sunglasses. 

I decided I would not buy that pair. I sighted another pair whose convex lenses shone golden in those halls of light. I tried them on and admired myself in a mirror. ‘How much?’ ‘Seven hundred.’ I put the glasses down carefully. 
My friend and I surveyed the shop. ‘Nice shop’, I said. My friend smiled, ‘Yes, we like our boutique.’

Before us, seven young ladies and one nearly young, gazed at us, smiling warmly. I find it pleasant when young ladies smile at me. I smiled back, revealing the broken paling fence of my front teeth. ‘This is my friend Howard,’ said my friend. The smiles shone, still warm. ‘He’s a doctor,’ said my friend. 

‘What sort of doctor?’, asked the nearly young one. She looked truly interested. She rested a friendly hand upon my forearm.

‘A GP’, said my friend.

I looked around. Seven young ladies, one nearly young, one old friend and one large man keeping station at the threshold. My eyes feasted on their finery. ‘I think I’m the only customer, ‘ I said. My friend gasped. ‘Shhhh’, she said. I shushed. I made my farewells and I stepped out into the autumn.