Dressing up to Undress

Patients who attend a doctor in emergency come dressed in their ordinary rags and tatters. Their outer clothes vary and their undies are sundry. Those who attend, foreknowing, for their piles or their pap, wear their best undies. We all do it; we prefer to dress up to undress.
 

That’s why I’m hurrying out to purchase a toothbrush. When my regular dentist enquires I assure him I my teeth regularly – and I do – every birthday as well as at Passover and Yom Kippur. Regularly. Never fail. (I suspect my dentist’s true question goes not to regularity but to frequency. But I answered truthfully.)

 

So I do already own a tooth brush. It has served me, three times a year, for twenty years. It’s an old comrade, faithful and ragged. Today, however, I’m investing in a toothbrush of twenty-first century manufacture. I’m going to brush my teeth today. I’ve googled ‘how to brush your teeth’ and I’ll imitate the you-tube that shows how it’s done.

 

I’m preparing to visit a special dental practitioner, a periodontist. I’ve never seen a periodontist before but I am reliably advised that this professional will be a torturer with higher degrees and advanced training. So I will come prepared – with a brand-new overdraft facility from the bank and my gums sparkling after the attention of the new toothbrush.

 

Why has my faithful old dentist sent me to his colleague? Apparently my long gums are going to get longer, my wobbling teeth will all fall out, my destined dentures will never chew adequately and a gummy grin will decorate my mouth in senescence. In short my days of mastication, like life on this planet, are numbered. There’s just time to enrich a professional before it all comes to pass.

 
 

Like everyone else I’m dressing up for my own funeral.

 

 
 

Teaching an Old Dog Old Tricks

 

“Good morning, Doctor.’ The good-looking man is new to my practice. He offers a hand, shakes manfully, breaks no bones but leaves none unfirmed. His smile launches a promising relationship. ‘I’m new to Melbourne, doctor. Just moved here – for my studies.’

 

The man looks a young forty. I check his date of birth; he’s forty-nine.

‘What are you studying?’ – I ask.

‘Philosophy. Classic Philosophy, the greats, you know, Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Maimonides…’

He’s won me.

 

‘I used to be a lawyer. Made some money, made a family, four kids. Now it’s time for me. Time to pursue wisdom.’

‘Share it with me when you find it,’ I say.

He smiles.

 

‘Doctor, I wonder if you can help me out. Awkward situation. I’ve left my tablets in Sydney. They’ll arrive Monday next with the family. My doctor prescribed a short course of Temazepam for sleep. Exams next week and I can’t sleep. If I don’t sleep, I’ll fail. If I fail I’ll never find wisdom.’ The winning smile again.

 

 ‘What are the tablets?’

‘Temazepam, the weaker ones, the tens. I’m scared of anything stronger.’

‘Very wise. They’re habit-forming.’

The man looks shocked: ‘Habit-forming? Really? My doctor never mentioned that. I just want enough to get me through these exams. I finish in three weeks.’

 

 

The man and I spend a little time discussing Temazepam, natural remedies, his own preference for a long hard run (‘Wouldn’t you know, Doctor, my running shoes are still in Sydney?’) The man looks up at the marathon photos that cover my walls where other doctors show their degrees.

‘Are you still running, Doctor? Marathons? Really? Amazing!’

 

 

The man leaves my room with his limited prescription, leaving behind his protestations of delight, his vows he’ll be back, how lucky our paths crossed, he’s found a disciple of Maimonides, he wants me to be his new doctor.

 

 

A couple of patients later the receptionist buzzes me and pricks my balloon: ‘That new patient, do you know what he said about you, Howard?’

‘No.’

‘”What an amazing doctor! Still running marathons!” Says you are a scholar, an expert in Greek Physiology.’

 

‘You know what else he said?”

‘What?”

‘He said he left his wallet in his car. He said he’d be back in five minutes to pay. I asked him for his Medicare card, but that was in the car too. But he knew his number, he said, and I took it down. Thirty minutes and he’s not back. I rang Medicare: there’s no such number and they have no record of that name at the Sydney address he gave. I rang his mobile. “Optus advises the number you have called is incorrect or has been disconnected.”

 

 

Three years pass. Three years are not sufficient to heal a wound in trust.

Last week a new patient registers with Reception. He presents his Medicare Card, asking a series of questions:

‘What doctors are consulting today?

‘Who will I be seeing?’

‘How long has he been at this practice?’

‘I just need a prescription. I’ve lost my tablets and my wallet too. Can I pay with my credit card?’

 

 

The relatively new receptionist was not with us three years ago. She calls me: ‘Are you with a patient, Howard?

‘No.’

‘May I come in and talk with you?’

‘Certainly.’

The young woman is shaking: ’I think your next patient is lying. I think he might be the man who came here a few years ago and lied to you to get tablets.’

 

 

A phone call to the Doctor Shopping Line at Medicare. I give the Medicare number of the new patient. ‘We suspect he’s a doctor shopper’, I say. I give the new patient’s stated name. The Medicare person confirms the validity of the card and the truth of the name given. ‘We have records of that patient’s recent prescriptions. He’s had eighteen prescriptions since March first, every one of them for twenty Temazepam tablets, each prescription from a different doctor in your area. You might like to inform the patient of these facts, Doctor.’

 

 

A Guest of the Emir

Recently I enjoyed the hospitality of the Emir of Dubai. Overnight Qantas flew me from Australia to the Emir’s desert airport where I boarded one of his aircraft, bound for Malta via Larnaca. At 0720 I found my seat in the very front row of Economy. As we were not due to take off until 0750 there was sufficient time for me to recite shacharith, (literally, the dawn prayer).

 

I looked around. I saw no other yarmulkes. On the other hand, there were no hijabs either, nor keffiyehs. I pulled out of my backpack all the elaborate paraphernalia of my morning prayer – tallith, tefilin, siddur and stood for a moment, irresolute. I recalled the prayers of my family on the eve of a previous Emirates flight: ‘Dad, you can’t do all those rituals on Emirates. It’s provocative. It’s not safe. Please, Dad, don’t do it!’

 

I unfolded my tallith. Not just any old prayer shawl, this was the final gift to me of my father. Very late in Dad’s life I took him to Gold’s where he bought this tallith for me and I bought one for him. An absurd exchange? Possibly so. It was one we had ritualised over a couple of decades: at the kosher grog shop, I’d shout Dad to arak or slivovitz for Passover and he’d buy me a brace of claret and Kiddush wine. Happy to enhance the other’s observances we’d grin and embrace and bless each other.

I looked at the tallith and felt the fall of many curious eyes. I thought of Dad and I wrapped it around my head and stood, enfolded, for a few moments of remembrance. Then I showed my face.

 

Standing in my seat in Economy I realised I was providing a live show for the roughly 160 gentile persons filing slowly past my seat at the front, en-route to their own. I had more colourful display in store for them. I pulled out the small bag of royal blue velvet that holds my tefilin. These small black leather boxes, fashioned after an ancient craft, contain Torah verses meticulously inscribed on vellum. Tefilin symbolise key rememberings that are mandatory every day upon every Jew. Attached to the little boxes are long black leather thongs by which I bind one box high on my left arm and another to the centre of my forehead. The verses thus are bound to my heart and my mind.

 

 

The unfolding of tefilin, the minute and precise steps of the placing and binding, punctuated at prescribed intervals by the reciting of rabbinic and prophetic words, constitute a dance no less exacting than the mating of brolgas. Three hundred and twenty eyes took in the old choreography. 

 

Upon completing my devotions I removed one leather box, kissed it perhaps a little more reverently than usual and coiled its straps. I did the same with the second. Finally I folded my tallith. The ceremony of prayer at an end, I took in my fellow passengers. We were Filipinas, Chinese, Occidentals, and a fair smattering of persons of Middle Eastern appearance. No-one had raised the alarm, no-one objected to my sectarian display.

 

 

When at last I sat down, the man next to me asked: ‘Where do you come from?’

‘Australia. And you’re from Korea?’

 

A large smile. Surprised, happy to be recognised, he nodded. He and his wife and his volleyballer-tall daughter were heading for Malta, as I was. ‘For our holidays’, he said. And what was it that drew me to Malta? The Conference of Arts and Sciences, certainly. And yes, the marathon. But before all that I was coming to listen for the voices and hear the stories of dead Jews.

 

The Night Away from my Wife

At breakfast yesterday morning I said to my wife: ‘I won’t be coming home tonight.’

My wife was reading the paper. She said, ‘Le Pen looks ominous.’

I said: ‘I won’t be coming home tonight. I’ll be sleeping out.’

‘That’s nice, darling.’

I said, ‘I’ll be sleeping with a stranger. For money.’

‘That’s nice darling.’

I kissed my wife goodbye. She said, ‘Have a good one.’

I went to work.

 

After work I went to the place that offers the services I desired. Discreet premises, modest, not flamboyant at all. I knocked on the door. The person who opened the door was a man. He asked my name. I said, ‘Howard.’

‘Goldenberg?’ – he smiled. A nice smile. ‘I’ll be looking after you first’, he said. ‘Then my colleague will take over. I’ll just measure you now – as a preliminary. So my colleague will have an idea of your…dimensions.’

The pleasant man measured me here and there and wrote in a file. ‘Come this way, ‘he said, you can take your clothes off and shower first. Then you can change into something, ah, a little less formal.’

He showed me down the corridor past a series of doorways to a small room in which I found a small table and a chair, a TV and a bed. The bed was larger than a single, cosy for two. Three, I reckoned, would be a crowd.

 

The pleasant man turned to go. ‘What about payment?’ – I asked. ‘I don’t deal with the money. You pay your particular worker for their services.’

I felt unhappy about this – not the matter of emolument but the grammar. ‘Their services’ sat poorly with me for one worker. Or – a late thought – would I be spending the night with more workers than one? This might be expensive.

 

I took a shower. It was not until the hot water was running over my grateful shoulders that I realised I’d brought no soap. I looked around and saw a liquid soap dispenser above the sink at the opposite side of the bathroom. I turned off the shower, emerged, dried myself, pumped a palmful of semen-coloured liquid, (which, upon sniffing, I found to be some innocent hydrocarbon derivative) and returned to the shower recess, where I employed a busy free hand to turn on the water, to adjust the temperature and to dip into the reservoir-palm for moieties of soap, which I then deployed to those portions of my body I judged strategic for the encounter ahead. 

I dried myself and wrapped my glowing body in something a little more comfortable. The time was seven fifty. The room was booked to me until seven the next morning. When I booked no-one actually told me when my worker/s would commence work. I sat on the bed and crossed my legs. I moved to the chair and sat. And waited. Nothing happened, no-one arrived at my door. I listened and I heard voices, other doors than mine opening, doors closing, then silence.

What to do? Perhaps I should read. I went to my daypack and found a book. Edited by the former Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the book was my siddur, the book of Jewish Prayer. I opened the book and I prayed for strength and guidance. There came a knock at the door. Engaged in my devotions, I did not answer. Another knock. More silent prayer. Another knock, and a voice that said, ‘Knock, knock. Anyone there?’ That, I reflected, is precisely what the worshipper is asking at prayerful moments. The door opened behind me. A voice, a pleasant voice, said, ‘Good evening, I’m your…’ – then choked: ‘Oh! I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.’ I heard the door close behind me.

 

 After a time I finished, replaced my siddur in my pack and went in search of my visitor. I found the owner of the pleasant voice, a woman, younger than I, perhaps half my age. She looked Samoan. Her voice spoke a volley of apologies, my voice answered with assurances and then she said, ‘My name is Hortense. And you’re…’ she was studying my folder in which her male colleague had recorded my dimensions… ‘You’re Howard. Let’s go to your room Howard.’ I did as I was bid.

 

‘Would you like to sit on the bed, Howard?’ It didn’t seem like Hortense expected any verbal reply. I sat. She stood facing me, looking down at the top of my head. ‘How do you keep those on? Do you wear it everywhere? I mean, all the time? Like in bed?’ I explained. Then I had questions of my own: ’Hortense, will anyone else be joining us tonight?’ ‘No, just me, Howard. I think I’ll manage alright. I’ve done this before. You’re not nervous are you? You don’t need to feel nervous.’ I reassured Hortense I was not nervous. I too had done it before. 

 

‘First I’m going to tie you up,’ said Hortense, indicating the forest of leather straps and wires festooning a rail on the far wall. As Hortense leaned generously forward, ‘tying me up’, her crucifix dangled just above my nose, pendulating and tickling me as she moved. It was a not-unpleasant preliminary.

Hortense returned to her folder. ‘Oh, you’re a doctor!’ There was delight in her voice. She looked again at my yarmulke. ‘Well Doctor, I suppose you do circumcisions?’

‘I used to. Hundreds of them, not anymore.’

‘It’s so much better, isn’t it.’

‘Isn’t what?’

‘Much nicer. Don’t you think?’

I could not fashion a suitable response.

‘Well, look at me’, said my companion for the night, ‘I’ve been dating for a long time now, quite a number of partners. It does look much nicer, doesn’t it. Cleaner too, you know, once they’re done?’ I couldn’t really say, so I didn’t say anything. Hortense took my silence as affirmation.

 

I had a pleasant enough night with Hortense. She said, ‘I suggest you take a shower before you go home to your wife.’ I did so, paid my money, jumped onto my bike and rode home through the rain, accumulating grit and road grime as I rode. As her drowned rat of a husband came sweating through the door, my wife was breakfasting: ‘Le Pen did badly,’ she said.

 

Sadie

The baby slid into our lives one day earlier this month. I can’t recall exactly which particular day, but the day was particular for the sliding.

Doctors inspect, find all parts present and correct, a girl. Parents check: not simply present and correct, but perfect, their girl child. 

Grandparents arrive, enter the dimmed room, quieting exultation. They sight the child, suppressing gasps of joy. 

They behold, astonished by smallness, their newest beloved. Already, immediately beloved.  

Lips a circlet of pink, the baby in stillness. Parents drained – but for now – electric with joy, unaware of their deepening sleep deficit, aware only of baby, baby, baby, miracle, fact, miracle.  

What is this love that bursts into being? This finer, purer love, this love that seeks nothing of the child, this love that demands nothing beyond that she be? This love, this agape? The grandparents are certainly agape. At this child, this miracle, fact, miracle.

In the quiet and stillness, in this room, tenderness has her domain. This room contains a new human person who sleeps, whose lips flicker and semaphore mystically. She sleeps and she teaches love.

 

 
 

 

The Blood-Dimmed Tide

We have seen the great times. We who lived in the second half of the twentieth century have seen many of the great scourges of history defeated. We saw the eclipse of contagion.

 

 

Enter Penicillin, bacteria retreat. Viruses, still invisible, suddenly become preventable. Smallpox, killer of more Australian Aborigines than massacre, disappears from the planet. The Spanish Flu of 2018-2019, which killed more humans than the war to end all wars, was the last pandemic of influenza.

Louis Pasteur

Alexander Fleming

In 1946 my father, a country GP, administered what was possibly Australia’s first non-military dose of penicillin. The patient, an eight-year old boy in pneumonia crisis, was likely to die within a day. Six hours after the penicillin injection, my father found the boy’s bed empty. The child had left the ward and was found in the hospital’s kitchen scoffing down scones.

 

 

After the Shoah a world in shock vowed ‘never again’. Civilised humanity turned its back on antisemitism. A Jew living in the post-war decades walked the streets of the West free from the violence and contumely that stalked us for two thousand years.
 
We have seen the great times. Bacteria have fought back against antibiotics; they are in fact, winning. The anti-vaccination movement threatens the safety of all the world’s children. In the world of alternative facts, fear defeats trust, hate emerges from its cave. In Poland, in Hungary, a Jew knows better than to walk the streets wearing a kippah. Visiting Paris or London, and even in my home country, Australia, there are suburbs and streets where I will not wear the kippah that I wore during the decades of sunshine.

I have lived and prospered in a lacuna of time when History paused. Now it rises once again and bares its teeth. I tremble for our grandchildren.



Reds Under the Bed

This coming Thursday evening, April 6, I plan to attend a meeting to listen to a researcher report on the history of his family in Australia. Following the death of that family’s breadwinner in Russia, his children of twelve years and younger tried to work their father’s small farm. Where their father struggled to feed the family, the children failed. Following a pattern familiar to many in this immigrant country, family members trickled here, arriving as serial migrants through the 1910’s and 1920’s. 

Australian immigration officials looked upon citizens of Russia, a Communist country, with deep suspicion. Very few Russians were admitted during this period. The family in question were accepted on the basis of Letters of Recommendation of the first arrival, who had shown himself an exemplary citizen, winning written and lobbying support from leaders on both sides of Australian politics.

So the family came. Within a generation their children became graduates, rising to positions of distinction in the Law and Medicine. Others started small businesses and prospered. The clan was preponderantly leftist – one at least became a member of the Communist Party of Australia – but all lived the life of the petit bourgeois. 

I haven’t mentioned the family name for one curious reason – the family has never agreed on what they are to be called. Thursday night’s speaker, Michael Komesaroff, has cousins called Komesarook, others are Komisaruk, yet others are Kaye. Komesaroff, the speaker, will present a paper titled ‘Reds Under the Bed’, drawing on the files that ASIO kept on these good citizens. It must be disturbing to discover that the authorities in the country you have come to love (and in some cases, to serve in the forces) mistrusts you sufficiently to spy on you. In the case of the Komesaroff/Komersarook/Komisaruk/Kaye clan there was no sedition but reasonable grounds for suspicion. As is often the case the files show Australia’s spooks to be heavy handed and occasionally laughable.

If the McCarthy era was one of paranoia ours is also a time of anxiety and too-ready accusation. Because mistrust is once again the mood of the day in this country Komesaroff’s scholarship is highly topical. 

The meeting is open to the public.

7.30 PM, Thursday 6 April

Temple Beth Israel, Alma Road, St Kilda

The talk is under the auspices of the Australian Jewish Historical Society