Sexual Misconduct

A first grader I know confided in me recently. He said, I’ve got a problem. You know my girlfriend, Tori? She kisses me and she wants me to kiss her. At school!
I didn’t see his problem: Is that bad?
Yes! What if the teachers find out?
What would happen if they did find out?
They would send me to the principal.
Why?
The child looked at me as at a simpleton. Because you can’t kiss people at school! It’s against the rules!
Really? I never saw any rule like that? Especially if the girl wants you to kiss her. And if you do.
Exasperated now: Look, if we kiss and other kids know about it, soon the whole school would be kissing…
That’s better than fighting, isn’t it?
A deep breath. He tries a different tack: What if Tori’s parents found out?
What if they did? If your parents wouldn’t mind – why should her parents feel differently?
You don’t understand. Tori’s parents aren’t like mine. They… they live in a great big house…They would go crazy if they knew I kissed Tori.

Not Immune

I remember a boy, Cain. I delivered him at four one morning. He was Jennifer’s third son. Cain was perfect. The year was 1976. We didn’t have a meningitis vaccine in 1976.

***

2013. A young mother sits before me. Lucy (that’s her name) leans forward in her chair, anxious, her newborn baby in a capsule at her feet. Lucy’s love for her baby ties her in knots that she can’t undo. She needs to protect her babe from all harm, from the harm of illness and from the harms of vaccines. Lucy asks me her questions, she needs me to affirm her dread – of the vaccines:

Vaccines are unsafe, aren’t they?

Vaccines are inadequately tested, aren’t they?

Aren’t they contaminated with foreign viruses?

Don’t they contain toxic additives?

Isn’t it true they weaken the immune system?

Aren’t homeopathic preparations just as effective?

Vaccines worsen asthma, don’t they?

I am unable to answer ‘yes’ to any of these questions. I am unable to meet her need. Lucy swallows unhappily. She has been seeing me since she was a young girl. I remember vaccinating her thirty years ago.  Through all sorts of troubles in her teens and in her adult relationships Lucy has come to expect comfort in my advice. But I have no comfort for her today.

Lucy tries again, appealing to me to relieve her dilemma: Infectious diseases aren’t serious anymore, are they?…Aren’t they virtually eliminated?

No, Lucy I wish they were. The truth is germs are becoming stronger, our antibiotics weaker. The germ honeymoon of your childhood and your parents’ is over. Treatments are failing, germs recovering. Only vaccination can prevent the harm that is frightening you. Only vaccines.

 

***

1977. Twelve months after his perfect arrival, Cain was feverish and crying. I could not diagnose his illness. After 48 hours he was no better, in fact he was worse. I sent him to the Children’s Hospital where they performed a lumbar puncture and diagnosed meningitis. Cain survived but was profoundly deaf ever after.

***

1985. Cain has a younger brother, Courtney. There are four boys now, all thriving. Cain attends a normal school where he gets by because his teacher and classmates have learned to sign. Jennifer taught them.

On the morning of May16 – it is school holidays – Jennifer packs her firstborn into the car and drives her husband Chris to where he left his car the previous night. Jennifer recalls Chris had been drinking and wasn’t fit to drive. She drops him at his car and returns home where she finds an ambulance in her street. Her brother-in-law is there and breaks the news.

That same morning in the school term holidays my wife and I take our kids to the movies. During the film my beeper goes off. I call my practice and they tell me the news.

I arrive at Jennifer’s place and knock. She comes out, throws shock-driven arms around her doctor and holds hard. Neither of us speaks. After a time, Jennifer says something I don’t understand: This will make or break our marriage.

She tells me what happened: While I was out, Christian went for a walk out the back and across the tracks. He heard the train and looked behind him. Cain was following, walking into the path of the train. Christian yelled but Cain didn’t hear. Couldn’t hear. Christian ran towards his younger brother, waving, yelling, desperate.

It was no good. The train couldn’t stop. Cain was on the tracks. Christian saw it all.

***

Continue reading

Back in Print

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

 

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

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

 

Now I am back.

 

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

The man turned and left the synagogue.

 

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

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

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

“I read it all, Daddy.”

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

When Charlie Met Johnny

Charlie was a prince

A prince to the palace born

When they called him a quince

It made him quite forlorn

Johnny was a teacher

To the pulpit drawn

Became the Jews’ chief preacher

A boon, a goad, a thorn.

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

What I Have Been Doing With Your Donated (and Undonated) Monies

Late Training Notes from the Bristol Downs.

I promised to report on your Unusual Investment. (If, as you read this, you don’t know about that Investment, please visit these links http://hopkintonrespite.com or
http://www.youtube.com/user/HopkintonRespiteTV
It is not too late for your dollars to join the nearly-four thousand dollars that preceded yours, whose donor investors will never see them again.)
Since I first wrote to you the grass has not grown beneath my feet. A certain amount of tinea has, but this is inevitable: I have been training hard. The Boston Marathon will be run on Monday 15 April and investors in my little Scheme are helping the Michael Lisson Memorial Respite Centre.
Michael’s mother, who created the Centre, wrote one week ago, reminding me that Michael died on the day of the 100th running. I ran that day, unknowing. Now I know and marathon running feels like a small matter.

They ought to call the Downs the Ups, these vast, everlasting, uptwisting hills. Or the Steeps. From one end of the Downs you can’t see the other for distance. And even if you could, you couldn’t – because of the mists. In spring, season of mists and frosts.

My father, not a lewd man nor crude, told few risqué jokes. However this semi-liquid air brings to mind one of Dad’s one-liners: Did you hear about the man who took his girlfriend out into the night air and mist?

Enough complaining. Hilly Bristol, like coastal Israel, is terrific training ground for Monday’s Boston Marathon. We’ll run up the Newton Hills between miles 18 and 21, hills famous for breaking hearts, but the Bristol Ups, like the long, high dunes of Herzliyah, have toughened mine.

This is my race preview. I have trained long and hard, six days a week, resting only on the Sabbath. Each run feels easier than the last. Gone is the sense of labour in a run of a mere hour’s duration. My legs feel wonderful, muscular and light. There is the little matter of the creaking discomfort in the left knee – my good knee – a new sensation. The knee hurts only when it bears weight. Best ignored.

With the exception of a 3.5 hour run in the Jerusalem Forest all my training runs have been solitary. This is not of my choosing: running with a friend is four times easier than running alone. This is true for all runs, over all distances. I know: I have done the maths. However all my friends have stopped running; they have heard the call and they have gone inside for dinner or for breakfast or to their homework or to dull duty. So I run alone.

In Bristol Alfred Lord Tennyson has kept me company. Some fluke or inadvertence has selected the poems of Tennyson on my i-phone. Useless here in the UK for telephony, my i-phone has become the perfect companion. Deaf and mute to the world outside my earbuds, my Apple sings the songs of my choosing, or in this case, the poems of my non-choosing.

He was keen on death, was Lord Alfred. From ‘Ulysses’, where he found romantic allure in Death, the Adventure; to the dying of King Arthur; to the demise of the Lady of Shallott; through lyric after lyric, the Laureate spoke to me, morning after morning, of death. Last Sunday he spoke to me at great length of the loss of his friend Arthur Hallam.
Endless his grieving, dark his spirits, Tennyson’s mood finds its echoes on these misty Downs.

That day found me running near the railing that kept me from stepping out into air and falling hundreds of feet in near-dark to the river, tirra lira, below. A blaze of red in the gloom, patches of white at shoulder height; what are these? A brief breather is permitted. The patches of white turn out to be cards, handwritten by members of a local junior cricket team and a junior football team, in memoriam to a teammate. The blaze of red is a football club scarf inscribed in black marking pen: Russell Simmons # 14.
Fresh posies of daffodil and another, paler flower, bloom from the railings.

No-one else in sight. No-one to ask or tell. No-one else to lament. My head bends, defeated. A sudden roar, a cry of raw sorrow bursts from my throat. My voice thickens, my eyes are wet.

Running is an easy thing, marathon training now trivial.

Shaking my head, shaking it to shed reality, I look up once more. There are more words to be read on that blood-red scarf: You’ll never walk alone.

Postscript: Afterwards I Googled Russell Simmons, deceased Bristol sportsman, and felt still sadder.

Copyright, Howard Goldenberg, 10 April, 2013

20130411-184933.jpg

Resting on a Hillside Near Jerusalem

A serious reader advised me today that he had decided to subscribe to this blog. Flattered, honoured, I dedicate this post to Jesse.

Our car flies down the highway, down the great hills from Jerusalem. Jerusalem, she is builded upon hills.
Beautiful city, too greatly beloved. O, beauteous vista, joy of all the earth.
The hills swoop down, around, down. Forests of green rise above us on our left, falling away beneath us on our right. These treetops are lower than we! Our car is an aeroplane.

Abruptly, we land. This is Beth Shemesh, House of the Sun, a town that might have tumbled off the edge of Jerusalem, falling halfway down, coming to rest on a hillside. For me, for my family, this is a town without shops, without noise or busyness, without time. We come here to visit the cemetery at Beth Shemesh.

This cemetery does not speak of sadness. Not a place of wrenching grief. A place of quiet, a place to feel the peace, to think and remember. In this place the dead lie beneath their uniform headstones, of cream – Jerusalem stone. No pretentious texts, no display: modest memorials only in the democracy of the dead.

Graves cluster on small levelled paved areas, discrete suburbs, each one looking over forest into the green and the blue. There are many of these minute suburbs, each out of sight of all the others. When you stand on one of these secreted spots, you cannot see or hear the world. The cemetery is called Beth Olamim, the house of eternity. A good place to spend eternity, especially if you like the countryside.

The narrow roadway within the cemetery climbs and twists. Spiralling up, up, our car stops above the small semi-circle of stone where Helen and Henry lie.

Helena emerged from Auschwitz, a great spirit within a pixie body, a witness to the worst, a stranger to hatred. Like an ancient mariner fired to teach us all, she lived to teach, to champion the forgotten and to fight racism.
Helena – to the end – formidable for the good.

Henry, previously a tall athlete and distinguished international jurist, weighed just six stone after Auschwitz. He never noised his role in the camps where his fellows elected him as their judge. He heard cases where the currency in dispute might be a crust of bread, quite literally death or life to the parties.

Engraved on the tables of stone in Hebrew text are brief epitomes of these people whom we knew and revered.
Helena Mann – “a branch plucked from the fire”, she revived the oppressed.
Henry Mann – “Justice, only Justice, shall you seek, that you may live.”

Their only son, a man now in his sixties, prays quietly at their gravesides. His wife lays a pebble of each of the graves. No haste, no noise as they honour two of the great, townspeople of eternity. Not lost, not forgotten.
Their son completes his unhurried praying.
He has not finished here. He spends patient minutes wiping away the dust that the wind has deposited on the graves. Every unwelcome speck removed, the son polishes with his sleeve the stones that guard his beloved ones.

By the River Derwent, there we sat down.

The Hobart Synagogue is Australia’s oldest. It was not always thus:  Australia’s first Jews arrived in Sydney – involuntarily – on the First Fleet and built a synagogue well before the Hobart structure arose in Argyle Street. Fortunately (for Hobart) the Sydney Synagogue burned down.

For one year, my wife and I worshipped regularly at the Hobart Synagogue. Ten males over the age of thirteen are needed for a quorum for public prayer in Judaism. Such a group is a minyan, from the Hebrew word for counting. In 1970 we were a small minyan – we counted just four – my bride Annette, Mr. Fixel, Mr. Lewis and Mister me.

In its heyday in the 1890’s the Hobart Jewish Community numbered fifteen hundred souls. They were as numerous as the community in Melbourne. By 1970 no Jew of my generation had married Jewish and remained in Hobart: if a person had married a Jew they had left Hobart and moved elsewhere to do so. Annette and I arrived to join the last Jews in Hobart. Or so we thought. But  Russian Jews and South African Jews arrived after left and the community has never quite completed its dying.

I conducted the services. Mister Fixel was Viennese. He arrived punctually and sat erect, his polished brown scalp  and his wide brown face shining in attention. His pronunciation of Hebrew was like my own, a relic of the Germanic, which was distinctive, archaic, and until then  -for me – an embarrassing secret. Mr Fixel himself was a relic, elderly, childless, a survivor. His manner was indelibly courteous and sweet and grave. His sister Heide had survived and lived together with him and Mrs Fixel, whose first name was never pronounced in our hearing. Mrs. Fixel was petite and had fine features and singing Viennese-accented speech. Heide, round faced, brown faced like her brother, moved in her orbit around him, ostensibly serene, a silent satellite.

Annette believed the Fixels had lost children in the Shoah. They lived in Macquarie Street, just over the fence from us, near the lower slopes of Mount Wellington.

Mr Lewis interrupted his Sabbath rest in order to join us and resumed it promptly on arrival. Small, stocky, older than the Fixels (who must have been in their late fifties), Mr Lewis wore a large hearing aid. He’d arrive, sit down and get back to business. He’d snore while I sang. I recall my singing never disturbed his audible rest.

There existed a scattering of Jews, totaling about thirty, who had other business to attend to on a Saturday morning. One of these was the president, Clive Epstein, a bookmaker. Clive was old too, a pillar of the congregation, one of those pillars that function at a remove. He was tall, broad, vigorous and ancient. Whatever Clive said was law and whatever he said, he said in a loud ocker-accented voice. His nose was large, curved and red and he bore his vivid Australianness like a badge of office. His was the authentic voice of Australian Jewishness, the voice of legitimate authority. Lesser Jews, European Jews, quivered and subsided before the Traditional Owner.

We left Hobart after one happy year, left the Fixels quietly lamenting in their dignified way. Mr. Fixel’s face shone with a smile of grief, the smile he wore always, the smile that faced a world in which his future had been taken away.

Copyright, Howard Goldenberg, 10 March, 2013