How High is Mount Sinai?

Around 1942, Myer Goldenberg asked Yvonne Coleman, ‘Will you marry me?’ 

Yvonne asked herself, ‘How high is Mount Sinai?’

Yvonne’s question was rhetorical. What she understood by Myer’s question was, ‘Do you reckon you can observe six hundred and thirteen commandments?’

In truth whatever the precise height of the mountain (2,285 metres), the answer would not influence Yvonne’s decision: Moses climbed up that mountain to receive the Torah.  If old Moses could do it, she would. The Children of Israel, standing at the foot of the mountain, declared to Moses they’d embrace the Law, sight unseen: We will do it and we’ll hear it! – they shouted. Yvonne said to Myer, ‘I’ll do it.’

Yvonne’s response was wholehearted. On that understanding the two married.

****

Yvonne Coleman was born in 1917, in Perth, Western Australia, the daughter of a pearling captain (a son of the tribe of Levi), who sailed south from Broome to marry his bride, the daughter of French Jewish settlers who landed in Australia around 1852. In 1917, Perth was a long way from Mt. Sinai. According to family legend Yvonne’s grandfather and the Anglican Bishop of Perth were close friends. There is no legend that links Grandfather with the Rabbi in Perth. We do know the family attended synagogue. Strangers to the word, shule, they attended Synagogue regularly – on the three days of the High Holydays.

Yvonne liked synagogue. After the family removed to Melbourne, Yvonne joined the Melbourne Synagogue where her father’s family had been members since 1882. Although unschooled in Hebrew reading, Yvonne enjoyed the choral service and judged her punctuality by the particular choral items she recognised. Famously unpunctual her whole life through, Yvonne judged her arrival ‘early’ if before before the closing hymn, Adon Olam; and ‘late’ if after that hymn.

At the Toorak Road Synagogue the presiding Minister, Rabbi Brodie, (later to become Chief Rabbi of the British Empire), introduced Yvonne to the young Doctor Goldenberg. The doctor asked his question and Yvonne gave her question in reply. And Yvonne began her ascent of the mountain.

By the time I learned stories of Yvonne Coleman-that-was, she was a Shabbat keeping, Hebrew reading, kosher cooking, succah decorating, challah baking housewife in the small country town of Leeton in New South Wales. Yvonne was the sole Jewish ba’alath bayit (home-maker) inthe town, the mother of four observant and knowledgeable children.

Mum said she would do and she would hear; she never said she’d love the restrictions; but she observed them. Travelling on a bus with Mum one night, I asked her, ‘How do you like your life, with all the rules and restrictions, and the ‘thou shalt’ and the ‘thou shalt not?’’

‘I do like it, Darling. But if I were granted an interview with God, I’d say, ‘Look, Almighty God, if, after a meaty meal (Mum never came to terms with fleishig), you’ll allow me just a dash of milk in my coffee, I’ll swear on a stack of Bibles I’ll never seethe a kid in its mother’s milk.’

One precept in particular showed Mum to me in a distinctively devout light. This was lighting the candles before Shabbos and Yomtov. Mum would light, recite the bracha in the unfashionable Anglo-German ashkenazith pronunciation that Dad taught her, then stand in silence, with her eyes covered, for a long time. During these long minutes, we kids would wait while Mum stood, a fixture, unmoving like Hannah, mother of Samuel; only her lips moved. The silence felt sacred. Mum was praying for her loved ones, praying for every one of us, praying in detail, in secret, listing our individual needs, telling the Creator what she needed Him to know, and what she wanted Him to do.

After more than sixty years of marriage, Myer Goldenberg died, full of years, and was gathered to his people. Yvonne held his hand, still warm, in hers, and said in a voice wrenched with feeling, ‘He was a lovely man…’

Mum was now a widow. In 1942 she’d given her word – she would do and she would hear – and for sixty years she had kept her word. Now she was free.  One son, looking perhaps to enjoying with Mum a more liberal future, asked, ‘Are you going to keep all those rules and restrictions now, Mum?’ Mum answered, gently, in her soft voice, ‘Why would I change now, darling?’

***Mum lived a further six years, keeping Shabbat, keeping kosher, keeping faith. She died just before her 92nd birthday, the day following Shavuoth, the Festival of the Giving of the Law at Sinai. Next Sundayher children will observe her yahrzeit. I might even find a congregation where I can recite kaddish. And a candle will burn in my house in her memory.

Letter to an Old Friend

Friend,

I write to you from quarantine. My wife and I have been ordered to isolate ourselves. 

Old friend, you and I are old. We have passed the threescore and ten years of the Psalmist. A short time ago we were heading confidently full steam ahead for one hundred. So we proposed. So life seemed to promise. But now, this virus.  

Man proposes, Virus disposes. The virus has disposed of thousands. In Spain overnight, three hundred. Overnight in Italy, 800. I’ll write that more plainly. Three hundred persons. Eight hundred persons.At the start of the year all eleven hundred would have been steaming ahead. I imagine them looking confidently to the future as recently as the start of the month of March. By the close of the equinox all were dead. Few will be those who follow their caskets to their burial.

While going about my work in the past weeks I’ve found the most worried people have been those with the least to fear. Young parents have been terrified for their young children. Truly that suffering has been unnecessary. For most people younger than forty, COVID-19 is a milder illness than the ‘flu. I have heard of no deaths of children anywhere in the world. That should bring blessed relief, but although those facts are widely known, the fear for their young extinguishes parents’ peace of mind.

Curiously, we old ones need fear not so much for our young, as from them. The theory runs that children are unhygienic creatures that act as vectors for this novel virus (they certainly do that service for the influenza viruses), and they endanger and infect us older, more vulnerable subjects. That is why I am writing.

If you are over seventy, go inside now, close the door. Shun your children, ban the grandchildren. Ours is the age group in which most of those hundred of persons died. Ours is the sector at greatest risk of the pneumonia that fulminates and kills. Ours is the group who will not receive respirator treatment and Intensive Care when those services are rationed.

This is cautious advice that might later be seen to be over-cautious. As the W.H.O. Chief of the Ebola response advises, ‘Go early, go hard’ when it comes to responding to pandemic. There will be no second chances for us once we catch this catchiest of germs.

My wife and I passed a weekend of grotesque denial of the love between us and our grandchildren. Encounters were fleeting, spatial remoteness was enforced, no-one kissed, no-one cuddled. Time and again, puzzled children approached instinctively, loud voices repulsed them. Astonished, the children felt every instinct of love denied; and the deniers were precisely those wrinkled figures who ever doted and dandled. Suddenly loving behaviour was wrong.

My resolve wavered. My wife, the softest being in our family constellation, commanded austerity. One of my children has a newborn; we cannot visit, cannot cuddle, cannot relieve exhausted parents at 2.00 in any morning. Our daughters, both recovering from surgery, wait on us, rather than the reverse. The fibres of parenthood are warped and strained by fear of a new virus. And it is precisely those deprived adult children who direct us: go inside, stay inside, keep the world away. ‘‘We’d sooner miss out on you both for weeks or months than miss you forever.”

Old friend, I won’t be with you this Friday for lunch. We won’t see each other at the coffee shop in the mornings. Our house of worship is forbidden to us. Seeing each other as faces on a screen is a cold change after years, after decades of warm touch. I don’t know when we’ll be together in those old ways again. I reckon our best chance of those old pleasures again, some day on the far side of this fear and horror, is cold resolve today.

Until then, old friend, until then,

Yours at a distance,  

Howard

Moments of Reprieve

In times far, far darker than ours, Primo Levi called these, ‘moments of reprieve’. The Nazis set up the death camps as places where morality would be inverted. It was dangerous to be good. Every man for herself. We saw that here in the all-in toilet-paper wrestling.

But there’s a softening abroad, a gentling of human intercourse. We wash our hands today, not of each other, but for each other. Commerce has slowed, people have time, give each other time. Working here in the central business district of a great city, I find us breathing our minutes and our days as folk do in a country town.

In the foyer of a giant apartment building, in a far distant town, this notice appeared:

Its author is seven-year old Dash Unglik, of New York City.

An Inlet, a Lagoon


In a tsunami of reports about health, that arrive in an age of anxiety,

in a rising ocean of uncertainty

that’s inundating our islands of calm, while families driven from Idlib watch their babies freezing to death for want of shelter,

as oil becomes cheap,

as savings are savaged,

as panic feeds on panic,

as the old lack all words to comfort,

as the young tremble for the future,

as the future overtakes the moment –
some thing good,

some moment of balm, some relief, an inlet, a lagoon of quiet joy:
this baby this entire new person this changer of lives
three kilograms and a handful of grams – of life

make her great-grandmother squeal

and squeal again, and again

with astonishment

Nana, surely you know by now, babies are born!

Nana, you had two of your own,

They each had three of their own, The day came when those six

Brought forth babies of their own.

Nana, why do you squeal,

what’s to astonish an old lady of ninety-three?

A baby, that’s to astonish

That’s to amaze, to heal, to comfort, to inspire,to thank God –

and to love.

The Cruelty of Children


 

My elder brother is six. He goes to school and I stay at home. I stand inside the front gate and wait for him at lunchtime. Our front gate is a loose mesh of plaited green wire. It’s not so much a barrier as a hint of private property. I stand inside the gate and wait.

 

 

Some merry schoolgirls approach, big kids of six or seven.

Hello little boy, says one. What’s your name.

Howard.

Poke out your finger, little boy.

I poke my finger out through a gap in the gate..

Suddenly my fingertip hurts.

Ow! – I yell.

I catch a glimpse of a pin in the hand of the girl who told me to poke out my finger. The girls all laugh loudly.

The speaker finishes laughing and says again, Put out your finger, little boy.

No. You’ll hurt it again.

No I won’t. Put out your finger. Nothing bad will happen.

I poke out my finger.

It hurts again.

I start to cry as the girls laugh loudly again, and run down the street, past the Catholic Church, in the direction of the Courthouse.

 

 

 

Every afternoon we swim in the town pool which is filled with water from the irrigation channel in the street outside. The water is warm and brown but it tastes okay. There are lots of leeches in the canal, and plenty of them dine on our blood while we swim in the pool. We learn to catch them; there’s a simple technique which we master quickly.

 

What to do with a captured leech?

 

You find a bobby pin on the ground near the Girls’ Changerooms and you thread the leech onto the pin, inserting it in the leech’s back end. This turns the leech inside out.

 

What to do with an inside-out leech?

 

 

The walls of the change rooms are built of galvanized iron. Those tin sheds heat up considerably in the summer sun. You press the the everted body of the leech against the hot metal and its mucoid flesh quickly adheres and fries in the afternoon sun.

 

 

 

I don’t remember this, but Mum told me the story often enough:

When she brought her second son into the household, the firstborn, Dennis, loved his baby brother so much he piled all of his toys into the pram on top of the new baby.

 

I’ve seen a photo of that pram, a sizable conveyance constructed of wood panels and wheels as big as those you see on adult’s bike. The pram dwarfs my elder brother captured in the picture, standing next to it.

 

 

As Mum tells the story, Dennis would push the pram in the garden and it would overturn, spilling the baby brother Dennis so much loved onto the concrete path. I gather this happened more than once. 

 

 

 

We travel from Leeton to Melbourne to observe the High Holydays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. We stay at my grandparents’ house, which is big and dark. It’s scary at night. The house has a downstairs and an upstairs.

 

 

A lady comes to the house to clean before the festivals, She hoovers the carpets with her noisy machine. Dennis and I sit on the top stair and watch the lady as she hoovers. Her name, we learn, is Mrs Briggs. One of us discovers Briggs rhymes with pigs.

Dennis and I create a chant:

MISSUS BRIGGS IS A PIGS

MISSUS BRIGGS IS A PIGS

 

The Hoovers sings loudly and we sing too. Mrs Briggs Hoovers on. Now she turns the machine off. She hears us as we sing:

 

MISSUS BRIGGS IS A PIGS

MISSUS BRIGGS IS A PIGS

 

 

Mrs Briggs appears highly annoyed. She tells us to stop.

Dennis and I sing on.  Mrs Briggs grabs the straw broom and rushes up the stairs, waving the broom at us in a violent manner. We retreat and slam the door in her face.

 

 

We stand on the other side of the door, panting and palpitating. Soon we hear the sound of the Hoover.

 

Dennis and I emerge and resume our song.

 

 

 

 

A cat wanders into our garden. It’s a bit smaller than I am. I don’t know the cat. My hand reaches out and grasps the cat’s tail. My hand hoists the cat in the air.

The cat yowls.

I am not used to cat sounds. My hand now swings the cat and the yowling is a siren that follows the Doppler effect.

My mother emerges from the house. Seeing what her small son is doing, she says: Stop doing that, Howard. That’s cruel.

 

I stop doing that.

Mum goes inside.

 

 

My hand reaches out. It grasps the cat’s tail. The hand whirls the cat in a circle, round and around.

The cat yowls.

 

My Brother Calls me an Agnostic

Brother: Tell me Howard, does God exist?

HG: Why ask me? Why would I know better than you?

Brother: But I don’t know. It’s a mystery.

HG: It is.

Brother: No No No. Not for you it’s not.

HG: Why not?

Brother: Hang on, Howard. I’m asking the questions here. You’re the religious one. Do you believe in God?

HG: A classmate in grade six wrote an essay that offended me. He said there’s no such thing as believe. Either you know or you don’t. I wasn’t ready for his rigour. But I can’t fault his position. Either you know something or you don’t.

Brother: Exactly. I don’t know. That’s why I’m asking you: Do you know?

HG: Sometimes.

Brother: Answer me. Do you know or don’t you?

HG: Both.

Brother: Don’t dodge the question.

HG: I’m not. Sometimes I do know.

Brother: And the rest of the time?

HG: Look, I am the victim of a scientific education. Nothing in science is proven. My education in science taught me Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. Heisenberg was interested in knowability of the position of an electron, I seem to recall. I learned the difficulty in knowability of everything. You could say my position is uncertainty.

Brother: So you’re an agnostic.

HG: I don’t know.

Brother: I know why you’re dodging the question. As an observant Jew you’re embarrassed. I’ll ask you a different question, why do you pray?

HG: That’s easy. I need to.

Brother: Who do you pray to? When you don’t know if God exists?

HG: You mean whom.

Brother: Don’t dodge. Whom do you pray to?

HG: God.

Brother: That’s absurd, isn’t it? Talking to someone when you don’t know He’s there?

HG: I can tell you what I do believe in, all the time…

Brother: What?

HG: I believe in prayer.

Brother: That would be even more absurd, wouldn’t it? To pray to a being when you can’t say he exists; and to believe in prayer when you know prayers aren’t answered.

HG: What prayers aren’t answered?

Brother: When Dad was dying you prayed for him to be cured!

HG: Not exactly. I prayed for him to be healed. But I can explain what it is about prayer I believe in.

Brother: I don’t think I’m interested until you answer the big question.

HG: Humour me. I believe in prayer like I believe in breathing. I need to do it. I need to say thank You. I need to cry halleluya! I need to cry out in pain. I need to keep faith.

Brother: Keeping faith with a God whom – whom, notice – you don’t know exists!

HG: I do know sometimes.

Brother: That’s crazy. What happens to your other faith – I mean Science?

HG: Science actually means knowing. But it’s only one way of knowing.

Brother: Let me remind you, either you know or you don’t know. If you know, that must mean scientific knowing.

HG: Wrong! I know lots of things through my senses: I know hunger, thirst, pain. You certainly do too. You know when you’re randy.

Brother: That’s true.  But it’s not religious truth. That’s not absolute truth. God is absolute or He’s nothing.

HG: I do know an absolute. I know love.

Brother: What’s that got to do with it?

HG: Possibly everything. When I worked at a Catholic hospital a nun said to me, God is love. I didn’t get it. I asked her to explain. She repeated, God is love, and she left me to puzzle over it. I thought it sounded profound, but mysterious. That was nearly fifty years ago. It’s still a mystery to me. But I can tell you what you believe in.

Brother: What?

HG: Love. You love your children.

Brother: You’re twisting words. You and your nun. If you believed in love as God, you’d worship love. You’d pray to it. You’d personify it. But you’re actually an agnostic. Probably a Godfearing agnostic.

 

HG: Fair enough. There is another angle on love and God. It’s in Les Mis: To love another person is to see the face of God.  Too banal for you? Let me tell you how I do know God is real.

Brother: How?

HG: I visited The Breakaway at Coober Pedy.

Brother: So?

HG: I stood there in that desert immensity. Silence. Vast emptiness. And the still soft voice that spoke without sound.

Brother: And God?

HG: I stood in creation and I knew the Creator.

Brother: Very nice. But unconvincing.

HG: I’m not trying to convince you. I’m searching on my own behalf. But I know you’ve stood in immensity and been overwhelmed.

Brother: When? Where?

HG: In Yosemite. At the foot of El Capitan. We stood there together, with Dad. The universe spoke to us all, no words, no sound, but a state of inspiration.

Brother: I didn’t see God there. Feeling overwhelmed, feeling uplifted like that, that’s not knowing. That’s something distinct from knowing.

HG: It is knowing, you just don’t recognise it. Let me tell you of your knowing that you don’t know to be knowing. Deep knowing, incontrovertible knowing, beyond argument, beyond doubt.

Brother: I’m all ears.

HG: When you listen to music, when you know its beauty is truth, when that knowing clinches in your being. Sometimes I know God like that.

Brother: You’re twisting again. You don’t now whether God exists. You’re an agnostic.

HG: You think you know that. Hold on to it as an article of faith if it helps you. But would you like to know why I pray when I’m in a non-knowing state?

Brother: Tell me.     

HG: When faith eludes me, I pray to keep faith. I keep faith with Dad. I keep faith with his father, with all the fathers – and with the mothers – who’ve prayed.

Brother: Perhaps your prayers are a request to God to please be.

HG: If God exists, that is The Great Fact. I can’t think of anything more prudent than praying to cover that possibility. But that’s not why I do it. I do it because I love it. It’s the marriage of words to existence.

Brother: What?  

Helen from Danzig

Helen is ninety-three now. When she left Danzig in 1938, she was twelve. Every one of Helen’s grandchildren has quizzed her about Danzig for their roots projects and none of them has got much out of her. No happy memories, not a single friendship, nothing pleasant, Helen speaks of the place bleakly. Now adults, some of the grandchildren urge their grandmother to travel with them to visit her childhood places in Danzig. Helen rejects the idea categorically. No, she says dully, there’ll be nothing there. Nothing to see. No point.

Helen didn’t reach her present great age in such radiant good health by negativity. She’s creative and lively, she’s joyful company, fully engaged in her life and in the lives of all her generations here. It’s as if life began for Helen only on leaving Danzig. Australia embraced Helen and she embraced Australia. Helen’s Danzig was, it seems, a place of no life.

Sometimes Helen went to school in Danzig. Sometimes she didn’t go. She’d stay home where she wouldn’t be teased and frightened and humiliated. She’d stay home to feel safe. We asked her once, Didn’t you have any gentile friends?

I thought I did, she said. There was one girl. She was kind to us.

You need to understand. Mum helped Dad in the shop, every day. They needed someone to look after us girls, me and Mary. They found a family in the country who wanted their girl to move to the city, where she’d have greater opportunities. So she came. She learned to cook the kosher way. Mum taught her to sew and embroider. She became a daughter alongside us.

She worked in our house, helping Mum. Sometimes she took us to her own house in the village. We ate fresh bread there, with lard. We never had bread like that at home. When she married, we had the ceremony in our house. Mary and I were her flower girls. Then her husband joined the Nazi Party. Our friend left us. You couldn’t work for Jews…

I never learned anything in Danzig. School there was terrible. It wasn’t a place to learn.

***

Last night Helen put down the book she’d been reading, Her face was ashen. I looked and I saw ninety-three years of pain. She spoke: That’s a terrible story.

I asked what it was she’d been reading. She showed me the book:

‘Idiots First’, short stories by Bernard Malamud. The book belongs to me. I know some of the stories. I asked Helen, What story were you reading?

‘The German Refugee’. That’s a terrible story.

She spoke slowly: the word ‘terrible’ never had so many syllables before.

I waited but Helen added nothing. Her beautiful face slumped, her features collapsed. I searched her face for tears. Nothing. She looked down at nothing.

I held her for a while. The old lady grasped my arm, hard, as one might who is holding on. I asked her, What’s the story about?

It’s the story of a man from Danzig. He escapes, but he takes his life. Helen shook her head slowly. After what he loses in Danzig, he can’t live.

After a time she spoke again. I had an uncle in Danzig. He was very prosperous. We called him Uncle David. He had a mistress in Danzig. She wasn’t Jewish. When the Nazis came, she told Uncle she was breaking it off. It wasn’t safe. She ended it.

Uncle David hanged himself.

Helen stopped speaking. She looked at me, a child of twelve, wonderstruck by the evil of the world, remembering her uncle, remembering all the lost uncles. Out of her depth once more,

in her sea of sorrow.