Hope

The Unexpected Uses of Yeats

 

 

Annette and I set out on our travels in the northern spring of the year 2019 without any thought of deep time. This was to be a pleasure trip, to celebrate an event that took place in 1949. Annette was to have a big birthday and for some time I had pressed her to name a place she’d never been and which she’d dreamed of visiting. Greek Islands was her eventual answer.

 

 

 

 

We found a cruise that would begin and end in Rome, visiting Greek Isles and numerous Italian ports. So we signed up. Before the cruise we celebrated Passover, the Festival of Spring, in Israel. After the festival we set out on our cruise full of thoughts of geography and its delights, not the moral swamps of history. But History jumped out and ambushed us. History chooses often to show a face that’s beautiful or graceful. But behind the handsome face History is no more moral than the humans who make it.

 

 

 

So much, so general. To understand my particular timorousness, my constitutional alertness to risk, to possible harm, I need to insert a lengthy parenthesis: I’ve spent a lifetime in health; I grew up in a doctor’s house. In childhood I’d open to a knocking at our front door and before me I’d find the milkman holding his bleeding fingers (his horse had bit him!) or the man with his forearm in a tourniquet (a snake had bit him). From earliest days I knew the reality of savage misadventure. From earliest days I feared harm coming to me or to my loved ones. In time I went into Medicine in my own right and ever since I’ve walked those fearful paths of human hazard. All that has changed over the decades has been the measure of breadth and depth. I care more broadly and I care more deeply.

 

 

 

 

In the late seventies when my children were still small I knocked on the door of an old farmhouse that stood distinctive among the modern houses surrounding it. The area had been covered in orchards only a generation earlier. I asked the owner if he’d sell me his house.

It’s not for sale, he said, smiling in surprise. But as you’re here I’ll show you around.

The house was everything I imagined – high ceilings, large rooms, shady verandahs, grounds overgrown with fruit trees and vines. And there, lying beneath a cast iron trapdoor the owner showed me a cavernous cellar, its walls lined with bottles of wine.

Would you consider selling it? – I persisted.

Not likely. Why do you want it?

I like everything. Most of all, the cellar.

Are you a wine enthusiast?

Not really. Thanks for showing me around.

 

 

 

I left him my phone number against the day he might change his mind and we parted. I drove past that house every morning on my way to work and again every evening when I returned. And every time I passed I thought of that wine cellar and how it might keep my children safe in the event of a nuclear war.

 

 

 

 

Forty years on I still search for a shelter, but now it must be large enough to protect not just my children, but their children and their spouses, as well as our extended families, and everyone I know. And everyone I don’t know. All, I find, are my children.

 

 

 

So it is I find myself vulnerable when I contemplate History’s reality. T S Eliot suggests I’m not alone: Humankind cannot bear very much reality.

As the years pass, as my loved little ones enter a world that can be hard, as I see them multiply and grow, as I see them stumble; as I look upon those suffering adults (who in reality are still children), who come to doctors who cannot cure their loneliness, their confusion, their fears; as our planet heats up and I see how fellow species perish; at all these trembling times I look about me for salve. I listen for the still, small voice, I watch, I search for acts of kindness or courage.

 

 

 

 

I need to preserve belief. I look for signs that we humans are good. In the course of refereeing the endless, internal moral wrestling match conducted in my mind between human goodness and badness, I’ve been surprised by the use I’ve found in the Irish poet William Butler Yeats. The poet had struggles of his own. In much of his poetry the older Yeats struggles with the arbitrary hardness of experience. He yearns for life’s lovely fullness, he’s baffled by disappointing reality: 


Some think it a matter of course that chance
Should starve good men and bad advance

 

 

Yeats concludes that old men are alive to this reality and it can drive them mad:

 

Observant old men know it well;
And when they know what old books tell,
And that no better can be had,
Know why an old man should be mad.

 

 

 

 

And so it came to pass that Annette and I stopped at Santorini and at Mykonos, then in Athens. In all these places we kept a fraternal eye open for Jews, alive or dead. The dead predominated. The Lonely Planet mentioned an ancient synagogue in Santorini but gave no details.  We never found it.

In Mykonos, no sign, but no matter: the beauty, the sunblissed radiance was all, and it sufficed.

 

 

 

 

We phoned the synagogue in Athens. No you can’t just visit, said the voice on the telephone. You need to send us an image of your passport and your email and we’ll let you know. We did all that and the voice said we could come. Be here at eleven, said the voice. Time was short, the bus line we needed ran both ways and we had no idea which was the correct one. Passers by offered confident, clear and contradictory directions, so we took a cab.

 

 

 

 

 

Sinagoga? – said the driver. I take you close, but to Sinagoga I cannot arrive. It is closed.

The driver dropped us and pointed somewhere indistinct. We looked around, sighted a narrow street whose entry was obstructed by barriers and bollards, and we made our way. Standing in the cobbled roadway we could make out two sinagoga. On our left a contemporary-looking structure declared itself Beth Shalom, the House of Peace. On our right stood a modest, older structure, seeming to shrink from our gaze. This was EtzChaim, the Tree of Life. The Tree of Life would remain closed to us. The House of Peace would open to us, carefully, ever so carefully, under armed guard.

 

 

 

 

From a booth stepped a fit-looking, youngish man wearing a handgun at his hip. A colleague, also young, also armed, eyed us closely from the booth. We stated our names and business, showed passports and won a smile. Yes, we expect you. But do not go in now. After thirty minutes you enter. Please now walk to the gardens at the end of the street, the Holocaust memorial gardens.

 

 

 

We walked fifty metres and found ourselves in a small area of scrubby shrubbery. High on a skinny pole a notice read, The Holocaust Memorial in Athens. Low to the ground a piece of creamy rock said nothing, but next to it burned a Yahrzeit (memorial) Candle. Close by, on a bronze panel were lines in Hebrew I recognised from Lamentations:

 

Righteous is He, our Lord:

Hear, now, all peoples

And see my pain –

My maidens, my young men

Have gone into captivity

 

 

 

Tucked behind another shrub, closer to the footpaths and plainer to the sight of passing Athenians, we found a steel plaque attached to a block of marble. It read:

 

Pause a while as you pass by,

Close your eyes and remember.

Remember the time when here or near here,

Men, women, children – our own fellow creatures –

Congregated in peace and trust, only to be arrested, humiliated, deported and murdered in Camps that shall forever shame our civilization.

Because they were Jewish, six million people

were denied the right to be free, happy, to hope,

to smile, to pray and finally, the right to live.

Remember them, their anguish and their death.

Do not recoil at such horror; do not descend into despair at man’s inhumanity to man.

Just remember. For by remembering we honourtheir deaths, and we save them from dying again – in oblivion.

 

 

Elie Wiesel

 

For the Holocaust Memorial in Athens, May 2016.

 

 

 

(2016! – was Wiesel still living? We checked; he died two months after the stone was set. Were these words the dying testimony of Elie Wiesel – he who embodied for my generation the anguish, the loss, the surviving remnant?) Standing in this broader street, bathed in Mediterranean sunshine, with heads bowed, we sighed and sighed again.

 

 

 

 

The guards said we could go in now. Entering Beth Shalom we found we were not the only visitors. A rabbi addressed a group of thirty young people. He showed them the Ark, the Torah scrolls, the various ritual implements. These were university students, enrolled in a subject of a vaguely cultural nature. This would be a surface encounter only, a fleeting crossing of intersecting orbits. Unless the students were, whether by chance or by design, to follow the cobbled path and to pause in the shrubbery and to absorb the words of Ecclesiastes and Wiesel. Or will the students gravitate perhaps to a neofascist group named Golden Dawn which already commands seven percent of the popular vote in Greece?

 

 

 

 

Hidden away in a narrow street elsewhere in Athens we found the Jewish Museum of Greece. Behind gates of steel, guarded by cameras and electronics, up a narrow flight of steps, a watchful person examined our passports and our faces before admitting us. Inside, poignant relics told their stories of Jews who found shelter from vengeful Christendom in these formerly Ottoman places. In time the tides of history turned, and turned again; the Turk retreated, independent Greece arose, Italian Fascists invaded, succeeded by genocidal Nazis. The War against the Allies might well be lost, but the War against the Jews must still be prosecuted. With feverish haste, even as the Nazis retreated from the Allies, they hunted out local Jews for deportation. Communities of great antiquity, some of them older than Christianity, faced their end. Before the War Greece’s Jews numbered around 80,000, with the greatest population in Thessaloniki. By the end of the War about 10,000 remained alive. Why did these thousands survive, how did they survive? The Museum held answers to these questions, answers that surprised and cheered us.

 

 

 

 

Well before the War, Greek Orthodox clergy and orthodox Jewish Rabbis were befriending each other. When the Nazis arrived, late in 1943, the cross-faith ties held strong. Across the Greek Church, priests, known as Metropolitans, acted to protect and save entire Jewish communities. Upon the eve of deportations from Thessaloniki, the supreme cleric Archbishop Damaskinos was about to undergo throat surgery. Putting off his operation, he wrote to the German commanders, begging clemency for the Jews in the name of Christian mercy. He rushed to the puppet Prime Minister of Greece bearing open letters from priests, from the Bar Association, from the Academy and the University of Athens, and from the Actors’ Guild, all in support of Greece’s Jews. 

 

 

 

 

In all, twenty-eight institutions of civil society in  Greece pressed the PM to act. In the face of this pressure he did intercede, albeit without success.

 

 

 

 

All over Greece Nazi commanders ordered local priests and mayors immediately to create lists of all local Jews in preparation for imminent deportation. In town after town, in island after island, priests resisted, delayed and deceived the Nazis, while urging Jews to hide or flee, to change their names, to affect Christianity, or to join the partisans.  Delay by even a single day saved many. Priests urged their parishioners to hide Jews, to keep safe their treasures, to pass Jews on to the Free Greek Army.

 

 

 

 

In this way the Resistance spirited Chief Rabbi Barzilai into a succession of mountain villages of increasing remoteness and inaccessibility. The Nazis were desperate to find Barzilai, but he was kept safe.

 

 

 

 

On the island of Zakynthos the Germans arrived and demanded of the Mayor and the Priest the usual complete list of all the three hundred or so Jews, all their possessions, all their addresses. The list was to be handed in, complete, within twenty-four hours. The two officials handed in a list with but two names – those of the priest and the mayor. All of Zakynthos’ Jews were saved. And what of Luth, the German Commander? He never pursued the matter. For his pains Luth was replaced by the Nazis, arrested and detained.

 

 

 

 

I read all these testimonies, affirmed by rescuers and confirmed by the rescued, and a great swelling of thankfulness rose within me. I felt grateful to the brave Metropolitans of Athens, of Volos, of Zakynthos, of Arta, of Dimitriada, of Didimoteicho, of Thessaloniki, of Thiva and Livadia. Also of Ioannina, of Corfu and Paxi, of Corinth and of Halkida, Xirohori and the Northern Sporades.

 

 

 

 

Were all Jews saved? Clearly ninety percent perished. But he who saves but a single life, saves a whole world. In the case of this tearful visitor to a tiny museum, those Christians had saved my whole world.

 

 

 

 

Some days later our ship stopped briefly at Chania, a pretty port city on the island of Crete. We had read how the Nazis had captured the entire Cretan Jewish population of nearly 2000, and herded them aboard a ship bound for the mainland. A British warship, recognizing the vessel as German, torpedoed and sank it, with the loss of all who were aboard. After two thousand years of stubborn survival had Jewish life on Crete been snuffed out? Almost, but not entirely: we had read of a small synagogue that had been found in Chania and restored by American Jewish donors. Trip Advisor spoke of poignant services conducted by the tiny numbers of local Jews (returning descendants of Cretan Jews who’d been absent from the island at the precise time of the deportation) as well as the odd Shabbat visitor.

 

 

 

 

Annette and I resolved to find the synagogue. Once again the taxi driver said: To the sinagoga I cannot arrive. I drive and then you walk. It is close. It is down there – an airy wave – and then more down, leftwards. We went down there, and more down, we turned leftwards, and we followed a winding little cobbled street of shops and cafes and B and B’s. Time flew, embarkation hour neared and our faint hopes flickered.

 

 

 

 

 

Abruptly Hebrew lettering among the stones announced our arrival at the Etz Chaim Synagogue.

Since its restoration Etz Chaim has suffered two separate terrorist attacks. Expecting high securitywe fished for our passports and crossed the threshold hesitantly. Seated in a sunny little garden courtyard a cheerful man with a cheerful rubicund face waved away our documents and waved us in. Welcome, come in, please look around – through there is the synagogue, beyond it the mikve, and in the rooms, many documents and records.  

 

 

 

 

We had twenty minutes for twenty centuries. Unforgettable minutes they were. Unforgotten the two thousand who drowned, unforgotten the two thousand years. As we left we bought a cookery book of old Jewish Greek recipes from the young woman attendant. Her English was precise, her accent not Greek. We asked her, Where do you come from?

Austria.

You are Jewish?

Christian. A smile.

Why are you here?

Because my nation, my people have never acknowledged, never repented. Austria today chooses to be a victim of the Nazis.

What are you doing here?

I research, I document the Jewish life here. From our small church young graduates travel to many small communities, where each of us spends one year.

 

 

 

 

One whole year! One year of the twenty or so of a bright young life. Humbling, inspiring, a salve.

 

 

 

I must have arrived in ‘the Ancient World’ with a nasty case of Weltenschmerz. I had not realized its severity. I had not anticipated relief.

 

 

 

 

I have been writing these recollections in the remote northern town of Broome where my grandfather and his three brothers came to dive for pearls. Here, unexpectedly, they found other Jews who came together at Festivals to express their remnant Jewishness.

 

 

 

 

When I am free of work duties at the hospital I run along the endless miles of Cable Beach. In my ears recorded poetry plays. Yeats reminds me I am not alone, not the only old man that the world might make mad.

 

 

 

 

Back at the hospital a young nurse asks me where I’m from. Where am I from? I’m from Melbourne, I’m from Leeton, I’m from Broome, from England and France – and before that from Poland and Russia. And in the end, which is the beginning, I’m from Israel. In return the young woman says, my family comes from Holland. My grandmother was five when the Germans came. Her parents took in a Jewish family and hid them. Oma was only five but she never said a word. Nazis moved in and out while the Jewish guests stayed safe in the attic.  

 

 

 

 

“Nature, bad, base and blind,

Dearly thou canst be kind,

There, dearly then, dearly

I’ll cry thou canst be kind.”

 

(Gerard Manley Hopkins)

 

Ancient Worlds

 

 

 

 

 

I: “The” Ancient World

 

 

 

My wife and I have just made a visit to Jerusalem, Athens and Rome, a modest form of the Grand Tour. In times past I might have referred to those places collectively as “The Ancient World”. Now I see “the” as narrow and inadequate. Other worlds exist which are just as ancient, while yet others persist that are far more ancient. All those old worlds carry the authority of origins. They too precede, and give rise to stories and cultures that inform humans to this day. 

 

 

 

What I now see is how these particular places we’ve visited are sites of ancient event and story that locate me within a particular strand of the human story. That strand formed in the Near East, before fructifying and spreading widely; it informs what might be called the Western Mind. So this present visit helps me to locate my understanding of myself within its first sources.

 

 

 

 

What do I find within this section of Antiquity? I find  ruins, remains, fragments. I find beauty, elegance, imagination. I find creation and destruction. In short I find History, more of it than I can morally bear, more than I can contemplate with any comfort. To give but one example: just today, on the road from Messina to Taormina, I encountered a towering landscape rising high above the sea. On precarious hilltops perch picturesque villages, linked originally by ancient roads. Rome built those roads – Ancient Rome. In Taormina itself Annette and I labored up to a ridge to view a splendid Greco-Roman theatre, constructed in the three centuries that straddled the start of the Current Era. 

 

 

 

Even today the roads that trace that coast are a feat of engineering. Even a contemporary theatre built into those hills would amaze the eye. But these are ancient; they were built before machinery and mechanization. Those glories were built by slaves. The slaves were captured or they were bought. They worked until they could work no further. No Occupational Health and Safety regime protected them, no Worker’s Compensation recognised injury and loss. The slaves worked and they died. Those roads, that theatre, all are soaked in human blood.

 

 

 

 

Rome, Athens, Jerusalem, all, we might say, chockers with history, all truly splendid in their legacies to the western mind, are all actually weighted with their stories of suffering. It is hard for me to look upon the glories untroubled by tremors, echoes. Every petty Ozymandias came, saw, and built his self-memorial. All came, killing, killing. Here died the Canaanite and Amalek, there the Jebusite, here those slaughtered by Rome, those killed by Crusader, those by Goth, those others by the Inquisitor, those by pogrom, and those – my particular people –untermenschen, sacrificed to the glory of the Third Reich.   

 

 

 

History made me. I mean my mind was built on old stories. Travelling to historic sites, I find, can unmake me. My spirit cries out to History to stop. But History does not stop. In heavy boots it trudges on, trampling, trampling. I look about, seeking some relief.     

 

 

 

 

II: Country

 

 

 

 

I live in Australia. Australia made me. Here I grew in freedom and equality, here I absorbed those values as norms. Instinctively I assumed these to be universal entitlements of all humans. It was easy to love life and to love being Australian.

 

 

 

While my body and spirit grew here, my mind was drinking from exotic wells of thought and belief. Those were the ancient wells of Israel and of the broader Western World. I came to middle age believing myself to be Western. Over the last decades of my life in Australia I’ve come to know how radically incomplete is an Australian self that draws solely on those western influences, and on that chunk of antiquity. I was late to earn how life in Australia offers me older stories, stories of this land that formed me. These are stories of country. Does country not invite me to learn and to claim – where I can – some patrimony in this far more ancient Ancient World?

 

 

 

 

Only a freak of time and place combining could provide a life that would begin in this land at the hinge of the middle of the last century. That life has been a freak of privilege, a life untorn by war on our own shores, a life of secure food and shelter, of free education, of civic freedoms. (To be sure, such a life of privilege would be enjoyed only by the whitefeller child, the unstolen.)

 

 

 

 

Such a life might blind one to the reality of human experience elsewhere and in elsetime. I am a child of that generation, blinded by blessings.

 

 

 

III: A New World

 

 

 

In a companion essay I have described the Land of Israel as a locus of struggle, a place of vigorous, often violent religious contest, a strategic crossroads between continents, in many senses a land located in a valley of rift. Contest has visited the land since the earliest record. Contest persists to the present; and always the land exacts a toll of blood. Its children are heirs to story, to glory and to pain. In short one can hold that land, I might say, only by memory 

 

 

 

In Australia my generation is learning how we held our land by the extinction of memory. The old joke went, the problem with Europe is it has too much history; the problem with Australia is it has too little.

The point was we were too young, historically, to know ourselves. But “too little history” was both callous and a canard. Of course Australia had plenty of history, more in fact than Europe, too much to contemplate. So we refused to remember. Instead we created an Australian Genesis, dated 1788. We saw no story of prior order, we looked back only to that hinge in time when Governor Phillip raised a flag. We built an image of Oz, of God’s Own Country, colloquially, Godzone. But Godzone won’t work any more. God knows Oz is cracked in its foundation and needs a rebuild. The crack is there to see, it’s not subtle, it’s white and black.

 

 

 

Our visits to the ancient lands of Israel, Greece and Italy have helped me to see Australia’s true history as normal. This turning of my mind might be termed eucalyptic. Everywhere I went I was struck by the sight of gumtrees, heartwarming, domestic, defiantly assymmetric. Not for the first time these trees brought me comfort. Time and again they deepened thought. These far-away lands grew normal trees! My musing mind leaped sideways: perhaps Australia too might be a ‘normal’ country, a country like others, a place of painfully complicated stories, of glory and gore admixed. 

 

 

 

Normal histories tell of struggle, of contest conducted in blood and pain, of possession and dispossession, of enslavement, of massacre, and not rarely, of genocide. Normal history is made of microbes and their epidemics, of good intentions, of moral blindness, of women stolen and raped, of stolen children, of slavery and its commercial manifestation in human trafficking. Normal history, too, tells a story (often hidden) of the planet striking back at its occupants. Where now is Herculaneum, where Pompei, where indeed, is Gondawanaland?

 

 

 

 

Travel, they say, broadens one. Sometimes, I’ve found, it deepens one uncomfortably. So tempting, to recoil, to contemplate the darkness with historic fatalism: history is just like nature, bloody in tooth and claw. What can we do? It’s always been like that, it won’t change. Sorry, but it’s normal. Scorpion talk.

 

 

 

Against the clamour of expediency it’s hard to hear the call of honour, decency, morality. In Australia even the cry of the climate, which grows ever more desperate, and which appeals to self-interest, is ignored. You have to really listen to catch a still, soft voice.

 

 

 

 

While in Israel

As my fingers hit the keys to write this, I imagine a reader shifting in her seat, adjusting, resuming a familiar position. If you squirmed a little on reading the title of this post, I guess the reason to be the word, the noun, the divisive name, Israel. When it comes to Israel everyone has a position. The position has been preformed, (too often prepackaged, bought cheaply off one shelf or another, marked respectively, ‘’Approve of Everything” and “Disapprove”.) ‘Israel’, the word itself, is derived from ‘struggle.’ The geography of the place, situated at the very crossroads of the ancient world, determines contest. The land sits plonked in a Valley that has seen every kind of Rift.

In my own way, I’m with you, squirmer; I too have opinions and sentiments. What follows is a list of happenings, little events. The reader can weave with these threads, as I do, the pattern of her choosing. I expect I might affront readers of every stripe.

While in Israel, travelling in the family caravanserai, a thirteen-year old grandson visited Yad Va’shem, the Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem, an emotionally hazardous experience for anyone. This is especially true for a child equipped with limitless empathy and less resilience. At the exit the child noticed a black book into which a visitor might register a reaction to the experience: Saba, wait! I want to write something. ‘Writing something’ took some time. A head of dark curls bent over the page, the pencil moved slowly, words were crossed out and replaced as a person of action and quick movement, slowed, stilled and searched within. At last he was done. Saba, you can read it now, he said. I read the following:

On December 15 last year I celebrated my barmitzvah. But here, today, I became a man.

I dedicate this to the person who prepared me for my Barmitzvah.

While in Israel we ate at a beachfront meat restaurant. In Israel ‘Meat’ and ‘beachfront’ both signal ‘expensive’. I decided to choose something affordable; on the menu, Turkey Testicles caught my eye. Do turkeys actually have testes? – I wondered.

No reason why not, I realised. They’d be very small, surely, if all were to be in proportion. More likely than true gonads, the ‘testicles’ would be some oblate spheroid of other flesh, colourfully named. I ordered them.

The family chose the safe and familiar, all the time speculating colourfully on my choice. Grilled meats arrived at table, chicken portions, sausages, kebabs. No surprises, nothing scrotal. Finally, five spheroids of dun flesh arrived on a plate. These would be mine. Breaths were held as I raised my fork, cameras sought, found and aimed as I impaled the first and smallest. It tasted meaty, turkeyish. My teeth struggled for purchase as the nimble little nugget slipped to one side or another. Finally trapped between a couple of molars, the testis yielded and collapsed, releasing a thin fluid (ejaculate, perhaps?) which was not entirely repulsive. The texture? I couldn’t decide. So I ventured a second of the near-spheres. This was unambiguously unpleasant – not the taste but the texture, which was of offal and quite awful. My mouth grappled for gristle, or fibre, for something chewable, but tongue, teeth and gums found only a slippery Gollum of near-solid goop. I cannot really commend turkey testicle. But don’t let me put you off.

While in Israel we went down to the Dead Sea. (Here some exposition of terminology is helpful: from abroad, one goes up to the Holy Land; within the land one goes up to Jerusalem. A spiritual ascent is intended.) But from anywhere on the surface of the planet you go down; the Dead Sea is the lowest point on Earth. We went down.

Nature too goes down to this sea. The Jordan flows from the snows of Lebanon (the name means ‘whiteness’) southward, ever downward, passing through Earth’s many trauma sites – Sodom, Gomorrah, the Cities of the Plain, where fire fell and brimstone rained – down, down to a sunlit sea. The sea is mineral-rich, life-poor. It kills all. All excepting the credulous, who bring their diseases to its waters for the Cure.

With the Negev Desert hulking above you on the right, you follow a road that winds down and down: you have entered and you now descend that storied Rift Valley. Arid Geography from schooldays comes alive in the dramatic silence of that descent. Huge tumbled sandstone cliff-faces on your right fling the gazing eye ever upward. Rugged, broken, appearing ever ready to break open afresh, to swallow you up like the biblical Korach, those Negev steeps keep their menacing silence. In colour the stones of the Negev resemble turkey testes (vide supra), while in sound they resemble nothing at all, so annihilating their silence.

And all the time we whizz and plunge car-bound, so many frantic ants, as if retreating from some dull terror that has no name. All about, on every side, the heat presses down, time pushes down, the brief moment of human history is swamped utterly.

And then the Dead Sea appears below you on your left, its silvery waters silent too, but this the silence of the ineffable serene. You look and you sigh. There on the far side loom the hills of Jordan. Before you on the water, an image of those hills lies reflected. All is still. You, the watcher, feel yourself stilled, your being subsides, the world of cares recedes, quiet rapture consumes you.

Later, as the day begins to die, the waters begin to colour. Pale blue opal appears, giving way slowly, slowly to deepening pinks as the unrippling waters darken and turn metallic. Night falls and your sated soul fills with contentment. Now the moon rises, near-full, and the sea shimmers once more.

Up betimes while the hotel slept, I wandered down to the beach, seeking more glimmer and shimmer. But cloud had settled upon the Rift overnight. I sought sight of the sun that should have been rising above Jordan. The merest glow in the grey was all I saw. The world lay beneath a muted light, lovely beyond words. I wished for a camera and the skill to capture a captured sun. I wished for words I would never find for this moment of deep peace. Alone on the beach I recited the dawn prayers and gave thanks for peace and for beauty.

Had I prayed for a camera and a photographer to operate it I might have found what then materialised, a man and a woman, Nordic blond upon the sand. They too had drunk deep of peacefulness. We greeted each other. I said the sea and the sky and the quiet were beyond capture by word or camera. The man, Johann, produced a telephone and captured these images. Johann and his wife, Gro (pronounced ‘Grew’, Norwegian for ‘Grow!’) were old enough to know we three had stumbled into unwonted moments of gift. The gift bound us in a web of memory. Weeks later, with few words shed, I feel those enduring bonds. The man had photographed shanti.

While in Israel we visited the Western Wall of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. The Kotel, as it is known, is Jewry’s holiest site. You go up to the Kotel. Going up with me were our two recent barmitzvah graduates, a pair of happy philistines who seldom have troubled their Creator with prayer. (They don’t like to impose.) But on visiting this location the sense of occasion, of significance, falls upon all. Would the boys feel lost? I made a suggestion: There’s no fixed prayer. There’s nothing you have to say. Some say the she’ma, which is the first prayer you boys learned. Or you could think of your dearest, secret wish or feeling. You could say that at the Kotel.

We stood before the Wall, its huge stones creamy in the morning sun. There was room to stand a nose-length from the stones. Antiquity, the weather, and a million kisses have all opened small cracks between the stones. Here worshippers have written down personal prayers and squeezed them in, little letters to God. My eyes closed and I whispered to God what He must already know. The boys were not heard, not sensed. At length I opened my eyes. One boy stood close, bending, posting something in a minute gap. The other was nowhere.

In due course we came together and we blessed each other, the three of us. Later I found written in my notebook, the following fragment, prepared for posting in a crack:

Hey God.

Please try to manage hate, discrimination and sad…

‘Try to manage’ – a modest enough way to couch a heartfelt plea – but my heart lurched to think of ‘hate, discrimination and sad’ hurting one of my tender ones. Did he find a crack?

There is a crack/a crack in everything/that’s how the light gets in.

While in Israel, we visited the pavilion that honours the Anzacs at the charge of Beersheba. Here, British, Australian and New Zealand soldiers defeated the Turkish defenders of the strategic wells dug by my biblical ancestors the Patriarchs. The respective allied forces took distinct roles in the battle; it fell to Australian horsemen to attack Turkish gun emplacements on horseback in what is described as the last cavalry charge in history.

At the pavilion we bumped into an ocker individual called Colin, a volunteer guide to the place. Colin grew up in Melbourne and came up to Israel forty-five years ago. He’s older than I, taller than Goliath, rounder than Falstaff, utterly devoted to the place and its Australian heroes. He’s also rigorously honest and quite unwilling to gild any historic lilies in his narrative. He doesn’t need to. If you are Jewish or Australian, or if you’ve ever thrilled to the power of horseflesh at the gallop, I defy you to hear Colin’s account of the charge and to watch footage of the re-enactment and to emerge with dry eyes.

While in Israel my thirteen-year old twin grandsons and I accomplished in 45 minutes at Masada what took besieging Roman armies three years: we reached the top of this mesa on foot. The Snake Path takes its name from its serpentine coiling route up the rugged steeps from Dead Sea level. Only Ancient Romans and boys at puberty choose to make the climb on foot in that blazing desert. Others take the cable car.

While in Israel we visited a cousin whose incurable medical condition is so extremely rare most doctors have never heard of it. (I hadn’t.) Of the details of my cousin’s plight I have nothing to say here. Rather, it is of a community that so elevates the care of its disabled that I feel moved to write. I witnessed among Israelis a broad embrace. No-one is hidden away. In the synagogue, in the streets, at tourist sites, in all manner of public places, the ill-formed, the mentally ill, the amputee, the palsied, the intellectually deficient, alongside those extremely aged, ride their electric conveyances and live among their people. Tough Israelis, old and young, include their disabled with tenderness. I saw it on all sides and always I felt thankful and oddly humbled.

While in Israel, at the precise moment of our landing at Ben Gurion airport, the people learned of the results of their elections to the national parliament. We lugged and sweated our way through Immigration and emerged into the dazzle of Israel light. Our cab driver had no words for us; he was listening to the election news.

Mi nitzach (who won)? – I asked.

Bibi.

Our driver discharged himself of those two syllables – that were to comprise his entire conversation – without emphasis or feeling. It was a fact.

In Tel Aviv, on the beaches, in the streets and cafes, on the buses, neither excitement, nor surprise, nor exultation. I sensed a numbness, a resignation: Bibi had gained victory, but respect? Irrelevant question, it appeared.

(An aside, a quiz:

1. Who won five of the last six elections in Israel?

2. Who won five of the last six free, clean elections in the Middle East ?

Answers to 1 and 2: the same person)

While in Israel the New York Times cartoon appeared: Trump in a black yarmulke, led by dachshund–Netanyahu, wearing a Star of David. Oops, sorry, a mistake, said ‘The Times.’ Some readers were surprised, some shocked. I was one who felt both, personally, and deeply disturbed. A violence had occurred in my immediate vicinity; a newspaper like the ‘The Times’ is that territory of thought occupied by people of moderation, of contemplation, of liberal values.

The cartoonist pleads the absolute, inviolable sanctity of free speech. A week or so after ‘The Times’ published the cartoon, someone decided to attack a Jewish house of prayer and study in Poway, California. Only one fatality.

Barely seventy years have passed since the unspeakable. Few remember, fewer know. Memory does not prevent repetition. Where today does the Jew feel secure? As I write this news arrives of four hundred rockets fired from Gaza onto civilian targets in Israel. Illogically, in precisely that place where most attacks occur, a Jew feels safest. Ultimately there exists but one land where the Jew is not the stranger, not dispensible.

On an isolated beach south of Haifa I went running with a friend and colleague, an Israeli Paediatric Emergency Physician. Picking out a ragged path between clumps of ground cover I kept a sharp eye out for snakes. ‘Do you treat much snakebite in Israel? – I asked. ‘Not so much in the cities, but down south, around Beersheba, plenty.’

‘What species?’

‘Viper.’

‘What about scorpion bite?’

‘Plenty.’

I thought about our countries’ respective biters. Scorpion bite in the Australian outback is not common. I’ve not heard of any fatalities.

An old story came to mind; my friend had never heard it, so I told him: A frog was swimming in the Nile when a scorpion called to him from the bank.

My Friend the Policeman

Working here in this large regional hospital in the Kimberley not a day passes without a call to the care of drunken patients.

More often than not the patient arrives in the company of a pair of police officers. More often than not the patient is abusive. Frequently she swears at her captors, often roaring at the them. The custodians stand calmly, quietly watchful, gentle, as I do my work and the patient does her worst. The police officer is here as a guardian, my guardian, the hospital’s, the patient’s. I wonder at this patience.

 

 

 

***

 

 

 

When I was very small my parents brought me to the city for the High Holydays.

Mum took me to Collins Street, a river different from those I knew in our small riverine town.

Collins Street flowed, a fast human current that would sweep up a small boy, sweep him away, never again to see his loving kin. I looked up and about, legs everywhere, legs striding fast, eddies, rips, king tides. 

I gripped Mum’s hand tighter. “Mum said, don’t be afraid, Howard. The Police will look after you. If you ever get lost find a policeman. The Police are your friends.”

 

 

Back in my hometown I knew this to be true. A man pulled my pants down in the park. A couple of days later I told my parents about the man’s strange behaviour. Mum looked at Dad and Dad looked at Mum and a few hours later Sergeant Stewart arrived at our house. 

We walked together into the park. I led him to the place and answered his questions. “Look around the park, Howard. Can you see the man?”

I couldn’t but I didn’t want to disappoint the officer. I pointed out a man dozing on his picnic rug: “That’s him”, I said. Sergeant Stewart said, ‘It’s a very serious thing to make false accusations, Howard.” I learned a new word that day. 

 

 

Another time I found a ten shilling banknote in the street. Briefly I was rich. Mum said, “‘It’s lost property, darling.”

“No it’s not Mum. It’s found.”

“You report lost property to the Police and they look for the owner.”

I walked to the top of Wade Avenue, past the courthouse and around the corner to the Police Station. Sergeant Stewart opened a book dipped a pen into an inkwell and asked, “What’s your name Howard?”

“Howard.”

“Do you have any other names, Howard?”

“Jonathan. Goldenberg”

Sergeant Stewart’s thirsty nib drank again and again at the inkwell as he recorded my address and my parents’ telephone number. “Leeton two eight, isn’t it, Howard?”

Six months passed, an age. Our telephone rang and Constable Bulley said something to Mum. Mum thanked him and hanged up. “Go to the Police Station, Howard. No-one has claimed the ten shillings.”

I went and said I’d come for the money. I signed the policemen’s book and I left, a rich man.

 

 

 

On one occasion I tested Police probity. Leeton sat in the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area, fruit bowl for the nation. Fruitfly was the feared enemy that could wipe out the industry, it might destroy livelihoods and the local economy. You weren’t allowed to bring exotic fruits into the MIA. If you wanted bananas or pineapples you had leave the Irrigation Area and drive to Narranderra, nineteen miles distant. One Sunday we did just that and gorged on those tropical fruits. To my surprise, my law-abiding parents embarked on a criminal career and brought the surplus home.

After lunch the next day I was loitering outside our house in Wade Avenue when Sergeant Stewart strolled past. The Sergeant is my friend; I should offer him the pleasure of conversation:” Hello Sergeant.

“Hello Howard.”

“We’ve got bananas at home.”

The officer smiled.

“And a pineapple.”

“Good afternoon, Howard.”

 

 

 

***

 

 

Ten years ago I met Detective Inspector John Bailey (retired) in Albury. He spoke of his father, the police officer who, unarmed, braved an armed murderer, who shot him. Bleeding from his wounds Bailey Senior grappled with his assailant, pinning him beneath him. Bailey died, the only police officer known to have arrested his own murderer. Bailey – the son – showed me the George Cross, awarded posthumously to his father. I hefted the weighty silver medal in my palm, while the old officer looked down at me between ptotic eyelids: “It’s a great thing, a George Cross, but it’s not a substitute for a father.” The orphaned son followed his father into the force, entering in his teens, retiring a much-decorated and admired servant of the community.

 

 

 

***

 

Every night in the Kimberley police officers bring in their freight of broken and bleeding humanity. Their charges reel with the effects of alcohol, their heads, faces, limbs bloodied. Many are handcuffed. Invariably the officers tower over the injured prisoner. Sometimes the prisoner-who-is-patient shouts in a crazed manner, offering abuse to nurses and coppers alike. The officers remain calm, their manner respectful, even, I should say, kindly. Gently they lead the injured miscreant to care. I see this, time and again. I see it and I marvel.

 

 

 

 

***

 

 

 

I never became separated from Mum in Collins Street River. I never needed police succour until the day came when an arsonist set fire to my motor cars parked in the street outside my home. The policeman, Commander Kim West said, “When someone sets fire to your car they’re saying they can burn your house. They’re saying they can burn you.” The Commander asked me about my children. He gave me a significant look. He wrote some digits on the back of his card and handed it to me: “That number will get me night or day, Howard.” 

 

 

 

Twenty years have passed since the Commander gave me his card. A few months ago Kim returned from Europe where he’d visited with his wife. He buttonholed me: “We went to Auschwitz.” A shake of the massive West head: “Shocking. Shocking. When I tell people that, they say,Who’d want to go to Auschwitz?  I tell them, Everyone should go to Auschwitz!  Soon after our chat, Kim became unwell. Tests showed cancer, advanced and widespread. Very quickly he died. At the close of his funeral the minister said to the congregation: “The last prayer Kim recited was at the former concentration camp at Auschwitz. There he and his wife read the Jewish Prayer for the Dead. Rise please and read this with me: Yitgadal ve’yitkadash shmei rabah…” 

 

 

Portrait of Kim West by Dr Harry Unglik for the Archibald Prize

Summer Stories: Big Fat Tree

I think they’re properly called baobab trees. That’s the shape of word I seem to recall from Exupery’s The Little Prince, but out here they’ve been cut back. Here they are boabs. They don’t look at home here in the Kimberley. Like all us pink people, like all the Indians here and the Philippinos, like the Chinese, the Koepangers, the Japanese, like all their hybrid descendants, the boabs are newcomers. Baobab trees came here from their homes in Africa, and like so many immigrants they changed their name upon arrival. How did they come? We don’t know and the bird that carried the seed across the seas isn’t telling.

 

 

 

They have an odd look, these strange fat-arsed trees, with bark elephant-fawn, leviathan thick, they are exotics. But the land, the generous land took them in. Traditional owners hold the boab ancient, original. Venerated in creation myth, the boab has insinuated itself into culture. Treacherously the Prison Tree outside Derby that impounded slaves blackbirded for the pearl diving is a boab. But for all that Aboriginal people love the boab. 

 

 

 

I met a boab lover today in the main street of Broome.  Hello he said, his face round and fleshy his spherical head crowned with abundant waves of hair. 

Hello, I’m Wayne. 

Hello Wayne, I’m Howard.

Howard.

A large smile emerged from the face of flesh. A soft hand extended itself towards me. I took it my smaller hand, which sank within its cushions. Soft and dry, Wayne’s hand held mine. Wayne did not shake. My hand briefly enveloped, at home in the palm of the countryman.

Howard, I’ll sell you this. Forty dollars.

Wayne held a boab gourd, intricately worked with boab, boab ferns, kangaroo (joey not seen but marsupium visibly bulging), emu and emu chick. A spheroid worked in pointillism by Wayne’s fine kitchen knife.

I don’t have forty, Wayne. Will fifty be alright.

Yeah. Fifty alright.

 

Wayne and I posed for my self-photography. The boab and Wayne posed for my photography. Howard with camera is no match for the artist that is Wayne with kitchen knife.

 

 

 

Jogblog, 1

Around 1980 I came across a supposed distinction between a runner and a jogger. A runner, I was pleased to learn, was one who could beat one kilometre every five minutes. At that stage I could run the 42.2 kilometres of the marathon at a rate just quicker than 5-minutes a kilometre, finishing in three-and-a half hours or less. To be classed as a fast runner, you had to beat forty minutes for the 10K. Over the next fifteen years I raced a dozen 10K’s, finishing always in 42 minutes and 23 seconds, precisely. I was consistently not fast.

 

 

Running not fast, I’ve barely outpaced packs of semi-wild dogs on hot dusty outback tracks; I’ve chased my childhood along the perimeters of Leeton, where I lived my halcyon seed time; I’ve outpaced skinny dogs in Old Havana and reproachful cats in Israel; I’ve skidded on the black ice in New York City and plodded through the silence of snow falling heavily about me in Mount Kisco and Pittsburgh; I’ve run past the legendary spud farmer Cliff Young, and side by side with the heroic Manny Karageorgiou, who never stopped for Death until Death stopped for him. I’ve trained at Olympic Park as Cathy Freeman whizzed past me. I’ve run in the Rockies with Rob DeCastella, in Alice Springs with Steve Monaghetti, and in NYC behind the gracious Juma Ikaanga. I know I’ve dogged the heels of greatness.

 

 

Running alone on the scorched desert floor beneath The Breakaways out of Coober Pedy, on the abrupt slope of The Gap at Balgo, climbing the Snake Track at Masada, in the darkness before dawn at Uluru, I’ve encountered my sole self, arriving – it seemed – but moments after the Creator completed the work.

 

 

In the dark of a starless night in midwinter, following a road in the hills of the Diamond Valley, my feet traced the sole marker of my way, the luminous white median line on the bitumen. No sound save for my footfalls and my breathing. No hum of motor, no bark of guard dog, no lowing of cattle; just me, the sharp intake of breath, the slap of my foot. In that world of black I shivered not for the cold but for desolation. Then – a sound? – impossible. But heard again, approaching me, low, rhythmic, utterly unaccountable, utterly real sounds. Hairs stood rigidly erect. Then a collision! My legs registered some mammalian presence as I leaped into the air. A thoroughly startled wombat, a speechless runner, silence restored.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 

 

 

The mother of my brother-in-law was a midget dynamo who’d survived Belsen. When I entered her orbit in the mid-70’s she reproved me for my waste of a life: “Marathon running is somehow disordered”, she said. She spoke with the moral authority of one who knew too much. I listened but I kept running. I considered her words as I ran marathons, some of them alongside my brother-in-law, her only child. I recalled the legend of Pheidipides of Marathon. I came to see my life as the marathon, a passage through time and space, blessed and made rich by encounters with those who make the passage with me, and before me, and who will jog on after I have passed. 

 

 

Rejoice my brethren. Ours is the victory.  

SUMMER STORIES, III   The Fruit of the Vine

Here I am, alone among the thirty thousand-odd residents of Broome, the sole shomer shabbat*. For this evening’s sabbath meal I have challah, (the delicious plaited loaves of brioche), I have candles, I have cooked a delicious meal for four, (which I’ll eat unaided). But something’s lacking, the kosher grape juice for kiddush. I left it in the city and here in Broome neither Woollies nor Coles stocks kosher supplies. But they do sell grapes.  

 

 

No problem. Buy grapes, squeeze grapes, chant the kiddush, drink juice! I purchase green grapes, sweet and tasty; and purple grapes, great bursting spheres, less sweet but full of character. I’ll include both and create a rose. My technique will be the ancient one: crush the grapes underfoot in the old-fashioned way, with but a single variation: to create a tinea-free beverage, enclose grapes in a sealable bag, zip it locked, drop bag into a steel bowl and trample. Simple, yes? No. These grapes are tough. They’re putting up a fight. After a good deal of trampling I haven’t burst a single one. There they lie, those green pearls, gleaming insolently up at me. I tramp harder, engaging my heels now. No good. Intact still, my green foe lies unjuiced, defiant, at my feet.

 

 

It’s personal now. 

 

 

I try my luck with the purple. Those spheres, their skins looking stretched to breaking, should be easily persuaded. But no, stubborn atheists these, like their cousins in green. I clench a fist and regard its hard, cruel bones. I hoist the footbowl, place it on a bench top, rest my knuckles on the plastic bag and lean down hard. Something gives. Encouraged, I push down harder. More movement, a slipping. Anticipating free fluid, I look down. No juice, just grapes in a bag of plastic…and air! That’s the problem, I’ve been bouncing these demons inside their cushions of air! I unzip the ziplock, deflate it and apply my shoulder, my steeled upper limb, my fist, and I push down and rotate as I push. Now, now is my foe giving way. But the fight remains dour. Grape by grape they split, and grape by squeezed grape they yield their life’s juice.

 

 

 

Fifteen minutes pass. Both grape and grapist are sweating now.  After thirty minutes I have collected half a small glass of pale silvery juice and a similar volume of pinkish nectar. The two combined become a translucent rose. Violence grudgingly rewarded, a victor feeling strangely compromised. How did grape-squashing become a moral test? How did I fail it?  

 

 

 

Absent-mindedly I pop a green grape into my mouth. My tongue pushes the little balloon up against my bony palate. A little further pressure and the skin gives way. Sweet juice flows and my molars engage and grind the pulp. In midgrape my mouth stops its motion. Now I have it: this grape, like all the grapes of my life, had to be forced. Ostensibly a mild soul, have I hidden my innate violence in silent acts of mastication? Certainly a cruncher, an audible biter down, one whose apples snap loudly as I sunder them, who is it who bites thus? And what is it that bites me?

 

 

 

Might there be another way? There is another way, I know it, I’ve seen it. My mother, God rest her gentle soul, never burst a grape. Mum enjoyed grapes but brutality never occurred to her. Instead she’d peel a grape, slide it into her mouth and suck it to sweet oblivion. 

 

 

 

 

*Shomer Shabbat, one who honours the Sabbath, one who guards it and makes it holy.