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)

 

Death Visits

Death visited last week, snatching away a lady whom we’d expected would recover. She was 87 years of age, a little disorganised in her brain, not vigorous but not too ill. We admitted her to hospital in the morning for observation and nursing care. Her elder sister had dementia too. She visited in the afternoon, escorted by her carer, a slim Asian woman.
 
 
At 3.00pm our patient enjoyed her afternoon tea. At four she took a nap. While asleep she stopped breathing. Big sister called us. Her cardiogram showed a heart attack. Her end of life instructions read: NO CPR. NO RESUSCITATION. She died. I left the dead concealed behind curtains and approached the living. I leaned and spoke clearly: ‘Your sister has just died in her sleep.’ It was the carer who fell onto the shoulder of her client, crying. The elder sister comforted her: ‘Don’t be upset. You get used to that.’ The calm features of the Asian woman twisted in grief, her face suffused. What silent sorrow of her own had been roughly torn open?
 
 
 
Meanwhile death had been stalking another two of my patients for days. I could hear his tread closing on them, unhurried, inexorable. For the younger of the two, death – release from her cancer – could not come soon enough. She begged, 'Let me die. Help me to die.' We gave her all we had, our promises of kindness, the usual feeble half-answers. She lapsed into a dull quiet, defeated by our timorousness.
 
 
The elder patient was far from ready. She had lived through the Second War in Europe, had seen much. Late at night she grasped my hand, breathlessly contriving a voice that filtered feebly through her oxygen mask. She pulled me close: ‘What will happen to me?’
I looked at her aged face, searching her: ‘Are you afraid?’
‘Yes.’
‘What are you afraid of?’
’Dying.’ She looked hard into my face.
‘You don’t need to feel afraid. When the time comes you will fall sleep. You will not suffer. You will sleep and you will not wake up. We won’t let you suffer.’
The old lady brought my hand to her chest and gripped it hard, pulling me closer. We breathed together in the darkness. No voice. Her smile said her thanks.
 
 
I went to my quarters and fell fast into sleep.  My phone rang. When the screen read ‘Unknown Caller’, I knew it would be the hospital calling. Surmise told me death had arrived for one or other of my friends. No, not yet. A third patient, more peremptory, had summonsed death by swallowing two weeks’ medications. With one hundred and forty tablets inside her she dictated to the nurse the disposition of her possessions: ‘Give my good overcoat to this one. Give the money that’s coming to me to that one.’ 
 
 
Sleep was slow to return. I lay and calculated the effects of twenty-eight strong blood pressure tablets, and an overdose of aspirin. I must have slept, for the ringing of my phone disturbed me. ‘Unknown Caller’ again. No, no-one had died. A child had a red throat.
 
 
Over the following hours of darkness ‘Unknown Caller’ rang six times. Asthma, wet lungs, fever. No death. At dawn the call hauled me from deep sleep: ‘Come now! Cardiac arrest!’ A large inert body, a small nurse pushing down hard, again and again and again. A flickering trace on the cardiac monitor, a chain of us thumping an unwilling heart, injections of adrenaline, a failed electric shock. No pulse at the wrist. I called a pause, the hopeful triangles on the monitor fell into a flat line. No breaths, no heartbeat. The husband of the inert figure stood, watching, his hand on his mouth. We tried again.
 
 
After a time I called a second halt. I listened for a heartbeat. I listened and watched for breathing. I shone a torch into pupils and found them wide with death. I walked across the room to the husband and said, ‘Your wife has died.’ A massive man, erect, he crumpled into silent weeping. His heaving trunk was enveloped instantly in the embrace of a woman I had not sighted. I spoke into the bereaved man’s free ear, ‘She didn’t suffer. She was unconscious from the instant she fell.’ The embracer’s arm groping blindly, grabbed me, held me hard in the grieving ruck.
 
 
At length I extricated myself. The small nurse from Uganda wiped his eyes. Another nurse said hoarsely, ‘I was at school with the husband.’
After certifying the death and writing my notes I left the hospital. Outside, the chill of an Alice Springs morning felt welcome on my skin. I wandered to a park and attended to my dawn prayers, delayed by a death.

Mother’s One Hundredth Birthday Party 

I’ll invite my brother and his family and Mum’s nephews and nieces, her great-nephews and great-nieces, and my children and their children, as well as some of my friends who were also Mum’s friends. But Aly Ong won’t be there. He’ll be back on the plantation in Malaya. My sister Margot won’t be with us; she lives in New York so she’s excused. It was all Margot’s idea, really, this idea of a family party. She’s inviting her kids from New Rochelle and Philadelphia and Boston and all their children and they’ll tell stories and eat pavlova in Margot’s pavilion by the Hudson. And we in Melbourne will feast and reminisce by the Yarra. Well, within cooee of that river.
 
 
In their generation Mum and her younger sister Doreen were masters of the pavlova, grandmasters really. The meringue edge was firm, the interior light and mallow, the whole edifice of air stupendously high. When Dennis ran his restaurant he turned to Mum to bake pavlovas which he’d serve in massive slices topped with whipped cream and passionfruit and strawberries …. and lust. Now the mantle has passed to Margot.
 
 
Will it spoil the party that Mum won’t be coming? Well, it would be lovely if she were to attend, but it’s big ask. Mum will be there, though. She never really left.
 
 
(Let me tell you about Mum and Aly Ong. Back in the ’sixties Aly came to Melbourne under the Colombo Scheme, a government initiative whereby Australia would educate Asian students and send them back home to become leaders in their own, developing countries. Aly studied Accounting with my brother Dennis and the two were close friends. That meant Aly became an habitue at number 15 Atkinson Street, Oakleigh, eating pavlova and Mum’s form of fried rice that must have made him laugh. But Aly was too polite to laugh.
 
Aly was shy. Left to himself he’d never have raised the courage to ask Mum for the loan of her car. But having Dennis as a friend meant you were not left to yourself. ‘Mum, Aly needs to borrow your car tonight. He’s got a date.’
Aly blushed: ‘Oh, no Mrs Goldenberg, I really don’t need…’
‘Of course you can use the car Aly. With pleasure.’
So Aly took the car.
 
He returned a few hours later, looking shaken. I asked him what was wrong. He shook his head, saying nothing. I saw tears forming. ‘I must speak to Mrs Goldenberg, was all I could get out of him. Mum was in bed upstairs, in one or other of her various states of partial consciousness. I told Mum Aly needed to see her. He was in some distress.
 
 
Mum descended: ‘Hello Aly darling. Did you have a nice time?’
‘Mrs Goldenberg, something terrible has happened. I crashed your car!’
‘Oh, Aly, are you hurt?’
‘No, Mrs Goldenberg, but the car…’
‘Are you sure you’re alright, Aly? And your friend? Is she alright?’
‘’Yes, thank you Mrs Goldenberg, quite sure. But I’ve smashed your car.’
Mum’s car was new, brand new. It was a Holden Premier, top of the range, with iridescent green duco and beautiful tan leather seats, Holden’s first foray into luxury.
‘Oh, never mind about the car, Aly. Sit down and have a cup of tea and some pavlova.’)
 
 
Mum was born on June 8, 1917, and she did not have to wait very long to become acquainted with death. Her father died when she was twelve and she lost her mother three years later. Falling happily into the care of Gar, their miraculously liberated and liberating grandmother, the girls thrived. After her parents died Mum accepted the reality of death. On visits to Melbourne Mum would drive us past the Brighton Cemetery and remark, ‘Mummy and daddy are in there.’ It took me a while to work out what and who was ‘in there’, and why. It was disorienting to hear ‘mummy’ and ‘daddy’, words I attached to living, loving, parents, indispensable supports of my being. But Mum’s tone was blithe. Death held no fears for her. Not personally, not for herself.
 
 
But for Doreen, Mum trembled. In her middle and later life Aunty Doreen fell sick often and fell hard. Once or twice I found Mum in tears: ‘I’ve told Dor I have to peg out first.’ In the event Aunty Doreen did Peg out before Mum, dying in her late eighties of heart disease that exhausted her will to live on. Then Dad died, and my younger brother Barry said, ‘Don’t you go getting any fancy ideas, Mum.’ Only two years later Dennis died, Mum’s firstborn and first loved. Mum said, ‘I’ve always known death is part of life.’ And I said, ‘Mum, don’t think you’re allowed to die.’
‘I’ll do my best not to, darling. I’ve never died yet.’
 
 
One week before her ninety-second birthday Mum’s best was no longer sufficient. She won’t be at her one hundredth birthday party, but we will excuse her dying. She can be forgiven one lapse.
 

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.



The Mufti at the Synagogue 

Rachid Imam lives in Diamond Creek, where I used to live. We both raised our families there. In a country town of white faces there were a very few Maltese, the odd Italian and the Chinese wife of my medical partner. I was the Jew on the Main Road and Rachid was the Muslim on the hill. For many years we ran together. As we ran we’d speak of our families. Rachid told me he was the second of three brothers, the black sheep.

He spoke tenderly of his Mum, born into a Christian family, who fell in love with Fehmi El Imam, formerly of Lebanon, since 1951 a resident of Melbourne.
Rachid told me how his Mum left Melbourne, travelling to London where she applied herself to the study of Islam. There she converted to that faith, returning to Melbourne with that as her surprise gift for Fehmi. They married and eventually brought their black sheep into this world – a sheep pale enough to do the pilgrimage to Mecca with his Dad and his daughters. I greeted him with, ‘Salaam, Hajji Rachid!’
Rachid and I had been friends for years before he said with quiet pride: ‘Fehmi came here as a young scholar. The community needed a teacher. Now he’s Mufti of Australia.’
After nearly thirty years the time came for me to leave Diamond Creek. The local Methodists lent their hall for a communal afternoon tea. Rachid made a speech. He mentioned my offer to circumcise his child (how was I to know she was a girl?), he mentioned my tendency to arrive for a run before six on a Sunday morning, waking him and his sleeping girls. After he finished reminiscing he called me up on to the stage and he kissed me – twice – once on each cheek. Then he took the microphone and declared, ‘I’ll run with you anytime, anywhere, my Jewish brother.’
Some years before I met the Sheikh my elder daughter married. At her wedding I watched with delight the son of Australia’s Mufti dancing a hora with the President of the Zionist Federation of Australia.
Yesterday Rachid’s father died. 
I knew Sheikh Fehmi’s health was failing. I’d heard of his stroke, I knew his wife had died years earlier. Today Rachid and his brothers and his sister will observe the rituals of burial and receive condolences from their thronging community, from high dignitaries to the Muslim in the street. All those familiar old rituals, all those echoes of the mourning I observed with my brothers and my sister after our father died.
I met the Sheikh but once. It came about like this: my family has belonged to the Melbourne Hebrew Congregation since 1853. Like most members of that grand synagogue, I seldom attend its services, but I remain a member. Every so seldom the Congregation runs a communal cultural program. Around the year 2000 my brother asked me if I’d ask Rachid if he’d ask his Dad to join a Rabbi one evening and each would address the members on the question, ‘Do we Need to be Afraid of Islam?’

photos courtesy Destiny Magazine Melbourne Hebrew Congregation


I agreed, Rachid agreed and Sheikh Fehmi agreed. Were we foolhardy? I imagine we all heard the same challenge, unspoken, inescapable: if not us, then who? On the appointed night Rachid met me on the footpath and introduced me to his father and to his brothers. The brothers stood either side of their father. It was clear they were there to support him – and if need be – to protect him. The Sheikh wore a traditional head covering. One son wore a kaftan.
The clergy were to speak in the Social Hall. I offered to show the Sheikh the synagogue’s interior. He was interested. I found some light switches, we entered and I saw the place – a little emptier than usual – with new eyes. I took in its splendor and I sensed from the Sheikh’s reactions the Mosque in Preston was a more modest affair.
We went upstairs. The clergy were introduced to each other and to the audience. The hall was full, people were standing in the aisles, the atmosphere was intense. I saw faces I knew, some of them of people I knew to be mistrustful of Muslims. I was to be the moderator. I welcomed the reverend gentlemen and I reminded all present that the Rabbi and the Sheikh were our guests and I would insist we conduct ourselves on our shared principles of Abrahamic hospitality.
The rabbi spoke uncontroversially on the history of Jews and Muslims. The Sheikh spoke diplomatically on the principles of his faith. He explained the precept of Jihad: ‘Every Muslim must practise Jihad. Jihad, simply, is struggle. It is not warfare. It is, fundamentally, the struggle within to live a godly life.’ The voice that spoke these words was unemphatic, mild, genuine – a teacher’s voice rather than a preacher’s.


Questions followed. Mistrust found its voice. Fehmi never raised his voice. He spoke with quiet dignity. Abraham took a bruising that night at the synagogue, but his hospitality was not broken. Sheikh Fehmi’s bodyguards did not need to rise to his defense.
After our evening at the synagogue I never met Fehmi El Imam again. Later I askedWaleed Aly how the Sheikh was regarded in his community. ‘He’s a very gentle soul, widely respected, he wants a convivial relationship between the faiths in this country.’ I wondered how the Mufti avoided the sectarian conflicts of his diverse community: ‘Fehmi has been around as an Imam for some fifty years, he has an Order of Australia, he is very widely respected and highly regarded. He’s untouchable,‘ said Waleed.

    

Yesterday Rachid’s family lost a patriarch. His grandchildren lost their Jidoo. The Australian community lost a peacemaker. An asset increasingly scarce has passed. He leaves, within the breast of this infidel at least, an abiding resolve, a personal ‘jihad’ for peace and harmony. The Islamic Council of Victoria said: ‘Former Mufti of Australia, Sheikh Fehmi Naji El-Imam moved to the mercy of God this morning.’

Dread

The child’s body dropped like a stone from the platform to the track. One moment a boy stood securely on the platform, the next he was a flash of movement downward, vertically, feet first from the platform. No cry, no sound, just a flash of grey school shorts and white school shirt. Standing on the platform a moment earlier he looked small, perhaps a first grader. I did not know him.Now he was an absence, a silence.

 

I peered downward and could not sight him. I leaned out , far forward, near to my own tipping point. I saw an unsuspected shelf beneath the platform – small enough for a small body, too small for mine. Perhaps the train would miss him, pass him by. Who knew?

 

The moment after he dropped extended horribly forward into Time. I did not know when the train would come. I was the nearest adult. It would have to be me.

 

I awakened with a small cry. I sat up in the dark and shook my head, shaking away the image of a small body in a new uniform, passing from safety into the plain where I must step forward. I and only I. The dread lingered long after the unreality – there is no boy; there is no hazard – settled in my mind.

 

The dread lingered. I think it was not the dread of my dreadful death, but the dread I would delay too long.

 

 

***

 

 

What triggered this unearthly vision before the rapid movement of my eyes? Two days earlier I rode my bike home from work. As I pedalled hard past the boys’ school a small body in a white shirt exited a gate just before my flashing wheels. I jammed on the back brake and the front. The hurtling bike stood on its end and stopped. I did not. I fell at the feet of the boy like a stone. He stood, shocked as he regarded the body of an aged man lying at his feet.

The Man said to the Woman

The man said to the woman, look how beautiful is the wide blue sea. The woman looked at the sea and saw what the man saw. She saw how the sea sparkled in the light of beginning. She saw its beauty and she knew this was what she wanted. She wanted to share it with the man. She felt something in her hand and when she looked she saw the man’s hand was holding hers. The two hands looked comfortable and strong together.
 

The woman said, yes, it’s very beautiful. It looks like it has no end.

 

The man said, we’ll need to build a boat. The man and the woman looked down and both saw how each hand held the other; how the hands were comfortable and strong together. The woman said, we can build this boat together and we can sail it together on this sea that has no end. And the man said, we’ll build our boat and we’ll care for it together and we’ll sail on the endless sea together and we’ll never stop.

 

The woman and the man understood it would take a long time to build a boat. They had long dreamed of the beautiful voyage that had no end. In their dreams their longing moved to their lips, and one murmured about the beautiful sea, and the other murmured about the voyage that has no ending, and the murmurs entered their sleeping ears and when they awoke they both knew they would build and sail together.

 

They knew too a boat must be safe and strong. They both knew that the beautiful sea could become fierce and dark and stormy. Their boat would have to be strong enough for great storms, for hot weather and for cold, for rain and for long dry times. Their boat would need high walls to keep out the sea, especially if children might come aboard.

 

The man and the woman worked hard and patiently. In childhood they had floated sticks in the rain that ran down the gutters into the great drains and they had pretended their sticks were sailing ships. But neither had never built a real boat before. They chose the good stout timbers of the kauri tree. They weathered the timbers and after one year the timbers were ready for shipbuilding. The man and the woman measured and sawed and glued and soon their timbers took the form of a boat. Then the man and the woman caulked the gaps between the timbers, and they daubed the inside with tar. Finally they painted the hull with marine varnish, and below the waterline they applied anti-fouling to stop barnacles from spoiling the stout kauri timbers.

 

The boat was ready to float. The man built a cabin to keep the sun and the rain and the wind from his crew; and the woman built bunks inside the cabin and a galley where food would be made for the crew.

The man and the woman slipped their boat into the water and they saw it floating and their faces shone like the sun that blazed upon the bright blue sea.

 

The final task was to create a crew. This took time and care. The crew arrived one at a time. They were very, very small. The woman placed each one gently onto a bunk that she had made. After a good many years the man and the woman had a full crew of small children, and the children knew no home other than their good safe boat and they grew there and became strong on the face of that shining sea. The woman looked at the crew, all hale and bronzed from the sun, and she said to the man, let’s set sail on our journey of no end.

The journey took them years. The children grew bigger and stronger. All of the children suffered falls and cuts and bruises and burned in the strong sun, but all of them healed. The man and the woman steered their boat away from storms and pirates, away from icebergs and reefs that might crash or tear their boat apart. Together the man and the woman and their crew visited islands and ports, from Mombasa to Saskatchewan. They saw volcanoes from Vesuvius to the great extinct Mount Erebus. They saw the great leviathan that leaped and blew, they loved the merry dolphins that escorted them, they knew the flying fishes and the jelly fishes, the octopus, the inky squid, the dinified seahorse. Their strong boat housed them and moved them and kept them afloat and the crew and the woman and the man knew their planet as they knew their boat, which was their world.

 

Sometimes a sudden tempest would arise. The children would cling to their bunks as the waves threw the craft high upon crests then plunged it deep into troughs, and the winds shrieked in the sheets and the rain fell in torrents that ran down the decking and into the sea. The children looked at the great waves of dark green and the foaming crests of white and their world was angry and unkind. Deep inside themselves they feared their boat would break and they’d all be lost. And they felt a mighty fear for the man and the woman who made their world and kept it afloat. The children wept but their cries could not be heard over the scream of the wind and the thunder of the skies. And the woman did not come and the man did not come and each child feared and cried and shivered alone.  

 

And as suddenly as the squall arose it would subside. The sun shone upon a gleaming world and the terrified crew came up from below and joined the man and the woman who commanded their boat. And in that sunshine the world was at peace, the craft sailed on and the crew recovered.

 

In every storm the children knew those fears. And in every storm they understood the man and the woman could not comfort them. But luckily, after a few frightening storms the children found their own way to feel safe. The biggest child opened his eyes just as the boat climbed up, up, up a mighty wave then down, down, down the far side, and he saw the smaller crew weeping through closed eyes, and he sang to them. And as he sang the smaller ones heard snatches of sweet sound, a lullaby, and they opened their eyes and saw the singer was their big brother and they managed to smile. From that time, when storms came the crew would all climb onto the big bunk where the man and the woman slept, and they would hold each other and sing or hum and all knew they were not alone.

 

After every storm the children came out and looked anxiously at their boat, but the boat looked sound and the children mostly lost their fears. But the eldest child worried: how much violence, how many storms could the boat sustain and survive?

 

The storms came more often and they went on longer. The howling winds and the crashing seas were slower to make peace, and the children clung to each other and sang and hummed as they trembled and tried not to show their fear.

 

From time to time the man and the woman would steer the craft to a port and put in for repairs. And the boat’s invisible tears and strains and cracks and leaks were glued and tarred and caulked, the barnacles were sanded off the kauri and the hull repainted as before. And the boat seemed safe and strong. And the crew and the man and the woman continued their voyage.

 

One day the crew awoke to a frightful storm. They heard roaring and screaming. It was the voice of the wind that screamed and the voice of the sea and the thunder that roared. And the boat shook and the small crew members saw cracks opening between the timbers and water pouring in. The biggest little crew man grabbed a bucket and the smaller crew grabbed cups and bowls from the galley and all the small people filled their cups and bowls and bucket with the sea water and threw it over the side. Each of the crew filled and bailed and threw the waters away, each of them sensing they had to be the one who would save the boat. But it was no use: the waters came up through the floor boards and up to their ankles, then their knees. Now the woman came below and the man came with her and they told the crew what they already feared. Perhaps they already knew. Perhaps the sea waters had told the young crew that their beloved boat could no longer take them on their journey safely.

 

The woman spoke kindly and the man spoke gently. The man said, we will always protect you and you will sail again in peaceful waters. The woman said, you will always be our crew even when we no longer sail this boat that was so beautiful. And as the two spoke gently and kindly, the children realised the screaming and the roaring had stopped. And the small ones thought, no, that’s not going to happen; this beautiful boat will be made better and we will all sail in it again. But the biggest crew child looked at the boards, all swollen and splintering, and he knew the boat would not sail again.

 

The boat did not sink straight away. The brave man and the sad woman steered it and sailed it to a safe place. The bow of the boat rested on dry land, and the man jumped ashore and the woman lifted the children from the broken boat and passed the crew, one by one, to the man who set them down on the shore. The smallest crew person wasn’t used to the feel of sand and grass underfoot, and started to cry. The other crew tried to comfort the smallest one, but they could not speak; their throats were full of a great ball of sadness, and when the man and the woman tried to cheer the sobbing child their throats blocked too. Suddenly all found voice and the voice they found was the voice of sadness and they wept together. And when at last they all finished weeping they looked one last time towards the boat they loved. But the boat had gone. Only a swirl on the surface of the sea marked where it had been.