Once, a long time ago, I was sitting in a barber’s chair when the hairdresser unexpectedly laid down her comb and scissors and stood gazing at me. Her hands opened and closed. At length she spoke: “There’s something important I need to ask you.”
“ I belong to a Bible study group. We’ve been reading Romans…”
“And I’m ashamed.”
I was taken aback. Through our respective professions the hairdresser and I were well acquainted. I’d treated her and her children, she had cut my hair. In those days I had hair to spare. She was perhaps seven years older than I. She had been born in Germany around the start of the Second World War; she’d have been six when the war ended, the age now of her younger daughter. From the outset we’d had a comfortable relation of trust and openness, but at this moment my patient was not comfortable at all.
“What about? I mean why are you ashamed?”
“ What we’ve done to you. What we’ve always done, we Christians. Reading Romans, I was shocked. I suddenly thought what it meant, how it all started, how it never stopped…”
“What started? What never stopped?”
“Jew hatred! It starts with the birth of the Church, we learn it with mother’s milk, we take it in and we pass it on. And then my people… with Hitler, we were the worst of the worst! I’m ashamed. I’m sorry. I need you to know I’m sorry, how sorry I am.”
I had no words.
At length I spoke: “You said you wanted to ask me something.”
“Yes. I want you to forgive us.”
In my work I had touched her, in her work she had touched me. A pair of licensed touchers, touching now too closely. I felt out of my depth.
My supplicant stood before me, unclothed, holding her burden of history like so much unwanted clothing.
Words came to my lips. I spoke them, grateful to extinguish the crowded silence. Were my words wise? Were they kind? What would the six million have me say?
My words must have been enough for the moment. My hairdresser completed my haircut and we parted, knowing each other differently, sufficiently. The pain, the shame, the decency of the woman, her courage stayed with me a long time. Eventually our close encounter sank beneath the surface of life’s events and I seldom thought of it. Forty years passed.
Last week I read an article written by a survivor of the Shoah. After the War he’d become a doctor. In the course of his work he was told a dying patient, not in his care, was asking for him most particularly, insisting on talking with him. Puzzled, the doctor made his way to the bed of the dying man. The patient told him he’d been a member of the SS. He said he’d been a guard in one of the camps, he’d killed Jews, many of them. Now he was dying. He needed to confess, to a Jew. And more than that, he wanted the Jew to forgive him.
The doctor did not know how to respond. He searched himself, he thought of those he’d known in the camp, of those he’d lost. What would they want of him?
The doctor did not know. Not knowing, he said nothing. The patient died, unshroven. Years later the doctor wrote a letter which he sent to dozens of people, people of moral stature. From memory, he sent his letter to the Dalai Lama, to Martin Luther King Junior, to Abraham Heschel, to others whom he esteemed. In his letter he recounted his encounter with the dying SS officer and he told of his non-answer. He asked his recipients what he should have done. Opinion was divided. Over years the doctor wrote to more and more people, an Ancient Mariner, burdened by his own feeling of self-dissatisfaction, a species, perhaps, of guilt. He published the replies he received.
Last week this story came to me and stayed with me. I recalled the good woman who cut my hair. I recalled my response. I had said: “It is not for you to apologise to me; it is not for me to forgive; it is for both of us to remember.” Today I feel more dissatisfied with my response than I did forty years ago. I should have added: “It is for all of us to teach.” How was I to know how the deep ocean of Jew hatred would gather again its force, how it would rise again to the mighty wave we see today?
The morning finds Phillip’s bed empty. No-one has discharged him, no-one has removed the intravenous bung from his arm. The plastic bottle of saline hangs from its pole, its tubing droops into air. Phillip’s just gone.
At mid-morning a call comes from the nearby general practice: “One of your patients turned up here with a bandaged arm; would we change his dressing? We found an IV bung. We figured he came from the hospital.”
Two days later a young woman wanders into the hospital. She shows the back of her right hand, swollen and deformed.
A full-cheeked face, a crooked smile. A palm-upwards gesture from the opposite hand: You know how these things are. Just a swollen hand…
She offers no words.
“When did it happen?”
We won’t have X-ray until Monday. She turns to go, her walk crooked like her smile. A fruity aroma hangs in the air.
On Monday the X-ray shows a fractured metacarpal, classic fracture of the biff. We ask again: “How did it happen?”
Her shrug, her smile convey confession and self–forgiveness.
She points in the direction of her companion, who volunteers: I made her wild.
She is so young, at least in years. Her face, even younger in its innocence, looks older in damage.
A pang of regret for that damage prompts a candid question. “Do you think your drinking is doing you harm?”
Her companion is a slim young man with a meandering black beard. He replies before she finishes the familiar smiling that she substitutes for words: It’s doing both of us harm!
That face, that beard, I know them: the man’s sobriety and his gaiety confused me. The speaker is Phillip.
I heard a story once, one of those stories that make you. A student driving his wreck along Toorak Road lost attention or lost his brakes and ran into the back of a larger car. All attention now, he jumped out, preparing apologies.
The driver of the other car, an older man bore down on him: “What happened son?”
The student fumbled for a voice, stumbled his explanation.
The older man seemed to be somewhere else. After a while he looked at the younger man’s car. He said: “ You’re not insured are you.”
“You have any idea what a new panel costs for a Rolls?”
The student shook his head.
“More than you’ve got. More than you’ll have for a while. Am I right?”
“I’ll tell you a story, son. I was your age once. I pranged a rich guy’s car. He said to me not to worry about it . He said to remember. He said one day I’d have the chance to do the same for someone else.”
The boy looked up, half unbelieving.
The man continued: ”Today you gave me my chance. Thank you.”
The older man turned to go. He opened his car door, stood for a moment, looked over his shoulder and said: “Remember, son.”
The High Holydays are almost upon us. Jewish people are reflecting on their ways, repenting, seeking forgiveness from those whom* we have wronged, resolving to do better in the coming year.
The seasonal liturgy lists an intimidating list of “who’s” – fire, water, hunger, thirst; who in his allotted span and who before his span; who will be at peace, who will wander; who will pass in quietude, who in agony.
It makes you think.
The liturgy does prescribe antidotes – prayer, sincerely remorseful penitence and charity.
On the eve of Rosh Hashanah Jewish families gather to overindulge. We will be fifteen at our table and we’ll consume one bottle of wine and three sheep, numerous hens and sundry kine. We eat too much and drink too little. Next day, following a synagogue service lasting about five hours we go home and gorge ourselves, thereby putting ourselves at risk of “whom by knife and fork.”
We eat apple dipped in honey and we take honey on our round loaves of challah (read brioche, the “ch” in challah being like the final throat-clearing sound in Bach; the ch in brioche the same as in douche). The honey suggests the wish for a year of blessing. In our case that sweetness resides in the grandchildren who will throng and riot around our table, ensuring our New Year commences not in quietude but in full throated life.
My wish for my reader/s is that you might find this blog rewarding in the year to come, that you might buy the books that I’ll flog to you (a novel – Carrots and Jaffas – in early 2014; and A Threefold Cord – a novel in 67 chapters for 8-10 year olds, also in 2014, if not before.)
More disinterestedly, I wish for peace in the Middle East, a Collingwood premiership – at the moment both appear equally likely – and a year of euglycaemic health for us all.
Expressed as Shana Tova u’metukah
*I realize that Leonard Cohen sings “Who by fire”. Likewise “Who” appears in the English translation of the Hebrew prayerbooks. However, I am persuaded on grammatical grounds that it is not what you know in this life that matters but whom you know.
Fifth grade is a long way behind us. The party is full of old faces. The boy I bullied back then walks towards me, his gait uneven, his face smiling. “Good to see you, Howard.”
Good to see me? Really?
“Hello Isaiah, great to see you. Hurt your leg?”
“Car accident, shortly after I got my Driver’s Licence. I was driving on the Hume. I hit a tree, hurt my head. I didn’t know I’d fractured my leg, not until three weeks later, when I came out of the coma.”
Three weeks in a coma! A shock.
“Will your leg heal?”
“They told me at the hospital I’d know after a year how good the leg would be. It’s been eighteen months…”
Isaiah leads me to a table where he takes the weight off his damaged leg.
“A single car accident. You’d know from medical school that a single car accident is usually a sub-suicide.”
“I didn’t know that.”
“Well it’s true. And I have no doubt that’s what mine was.”
I want to ask: what drove you to it? But the accidental pun will add hurt; and I am pretty sure I know the answer.
In grade five in our rural school, Isaiah is a philosopher and I am a social climber. Already taller than most of us by half a head, his hair a thicket of lustrous black, his manner professorial and his elocution like that of a news reader on the ABC, Isaiah is different. He wears glasses with wide black rims. He is an intellectual who is no good at sport; he’s neither rich nor fashionable nor popular. His voice is deeper than ours by a couple of octaves, a voice racing into puberty, but he is hopeless with girls.
It is fun to tease Isaiah for his mannerisms. We all do it from time to time and it raises a laugh. My social rise is based on performance, on raising a laugh. So I persecute Isaiah systematically. I organize a squadron of followers, to stalk Isaiah at recesses and at lunchtimes, and to chant my witticisms at his expense in a loud and public manner.
After one such lunchtime of bloodsport, Isaiah rises in his seat and addresses our teacher: Miss Redfern, allow me to introduce to you the Anti-Isaiah Army, organized and led by Howard Goldenberg.
Isaiah describes the marching and the stalking and the chanting, how the army surprises him in every nook and corner where he tries to hide. He lists the names of my volunteers and conscripts, he details the misery and humiliation, the desperation of his plight. Hearing this testimony the army deserts. Its generalissimo shrinks in shame, looks down, away from that tall figure, that crop of hair, that deep, true voice.
Isaiah’s speech marks the end of his persecution. He befriends me, confides in me. In his forgiving he heaps coals of fire upon my head. Neither he nor I speak again of the Army. School year follows year, Isaiah matriculates in unsung distinction and disappears. Three years on, he limps into my life at the party. He is glad to see me again. Really. He speaks and acts towards me as if his forgiving has been superseded by forgetting. As if his brain were injured.
The next time we meet we are in our sixties. Once again Isaiah is glad to see me, and I – glad in his gladness – feel relieved and warmed. And a strong need to be absolved. I tell him how sorry I am for my behaviour towards him in Fifth Grade. He searches my face for a joke. Or irony. Or mistaken identity.
Isaiah looks genuinely lost.
I explain, describing events that remain all too clear in my memory. Isaiah shakes his head, still crowned with its thicket: Howard I honestly don’t remember any of this. I do recall your friendship. I was grateful for it. Somewhere at some time over our lost decades someone has mentioned to me how Isaiah was one who suffered violence, real physical abuse, through his childhood years. Enough abuse, it seems, to obliterate the pain of small injuries perpetrated by Howard Goldenberg and his militia.
Copyright, Howard Goldenberg, 4 April, 2013