Jim is Dead

December 18, 1969. A large moon rises before me in the geriatric wing of the Royal Hobart Hospital. This is unexpected as we are indoors and it is noon. The moon shines across the room in my direction. Beneath the bright disc sits a white clerical collar. Just below the disc’s equator a set of white teeth smiles widely. The smile advances, a pink fleshy hand extends and a voice says, ‘Hello. I’m Father Jim. I’m a chaplain here. Call me Jim.’ The hand is warm and kind. I am a new doctor. Today is my first day in my first job. All around me old people drool and gibber in a manner to overwhelm a new doctor.

The moonfaced Friar Tuck is delighted to meet Howard Goldenberg. He says, ‘You’re new here Howard? Welcome to the Royal. I hope you’ll be very happy here.’

Fifty metres distant stands the weatherboard shack which houses the new doctor and his new wife. The new doctor says, ‘Jim, will you join my wife and me for lunch? We’re going to eat soon. Fish…it’s an Indonesian recipe.’ Jim would love to. Thirty minutes later Jim and his new friends Annette and Howard are seated in the shack eating a luncheon of fish bones and curry. Jim fossicks for flesh among the fine bones, eats up and does not complain. And Annette and I have made the first new friend of our married lives.

April 6, 2016. My Facebook-facing daughter forwards the following:

Dear Howard, I am sorry to have to post a message like this via Facebook but I am sad to say that your good friend Jim Smith has died this week, here in London. My name is John and I am his partner, Jim & I met you in North London when you were visiting your family, I think in 2014. Jim had a stroke last year and I was caring for him at home, he had to go into hospital with a pulmonary embolus and then had complications which led to his death on Sunday. I know he always enjoyed his conversations with you, if you have any special memories you would like to send me I can include them in a JimMemory book I intend to put together. I will let you know when the funeral is, if you would like to light a candle and say a prayer for him.

PS RIP Jim! He was quite comfortable and free of pain (he had some back trouble) at the last. John

Jim is dead. Faster than tears an image flashes before me. I see a black and white photo in a family album of a moon-faced man seated outside our rustic house in a village outside Melbourne. The large face is crowned with a white handkerchief knotted at its corners. Upon the lap of the large man sits a small child, our angel Raphael, aged not many months. A perfectly ordinary image: no collar, no ecclesiasticals, no pretence; just a man nurturing a child. The image says enough. A man, a child. Poignant as a Pieta the image drives me from my screen to Annette. My voice disintegrates as I tell her the news. I ring my daughter who is tearful too.

Father Jim Smith married hundreds of heathen nurses to hundreds of pagan doctors in his days at the Royal. All those unbelievers flocked to this man who seemed to personify something missing from the lives of those science-infested people. But around 1990 Jim quit marrying. He said, ‘I marry them, they make vows, then they divorce.’ He felt the losses, each by each, personally. ‘It’s as if their marriage meant more to me than to them’, he said.

Father Jim introduced us to his partner in goodness, Jim Turley. Now we had two Father Jim friends. The two – together with a non-priest – created what might have been Australia’s first refuge. They called it St Michael’s Priory and to it flocked beaten wives, beaten children, lonely people, people mad and broken. All were taken in, housed and fed, and where possible, repaired.

The Priory rested upon the slender incomes of the three and upon donations from parishioners, who brought laying hens, a milch cow, produce – and a pair of Nubian goats. The Jims took us down to shed and showed us two sleekly beautiful creatures. Their coats of Nugget Dark Tan shone on the backs of their aristocratic bodies. Shy, their slender faces darting, their small ears rising and turning to sound, they looked like deer. ‘Meet the Goldenbergs’, said Jim Smith. He was addressing Annette and me, not the goats: ‘This one is Ruth and this is Naomi. They’re pedigreed. We were told we should register them. You could register them by name, so we chose from the Bible. Then Jim and I said, “Ruth and Naomi are Jewish names. Let’s give them Jewish surnames”. So we called them Goldenberg, after our Jewish friends.’

Years later Annette and I gave our third child a Biblical name. She became Naomi Goldenberg, named after a relative at St Michael’s Priory in Hobart.

The Jims used to come to our shack in Gore Street, for Shabbat dinner on Friday nights. They’d stand silently in their yarmulkes while I’d recite Kiddush. Afterwards they’d make a fair fist of translating odd phrases from the Hebrew, to which they’d been introduced during their studies in Divinity. One Shabbat eve one of the Jims – I don’t remember who – challenged the second: ‘Jim, I don’t sense you are making any effort at all to convert the Goldenbergs.’ The other Jim confessed: ‘That’s true.’ And the second Jim nodded and admitted he too was remiss. And one said: ‘I don’t feel any call to change the Goldenbergs.’ That moment love shimmered before us at our Shabbat table: two men of God had each found grace sufficient to deny abstract vocation in favour of human feeling.

Eventually Jim Smith left the Royal, left Hobart, said goodbye to the Priory and to his celibate brethren. It might, for all we knew, have felt like dereliction. Today I picture it as burnout, as an escape from accumulating vicarious trauma.

Jim took a job in Melbourne as chaplain at Pentridge. There his parishioners were prisoners and warders. He sat and he listened to their confessions and to their unconfessions, their lies and their rationalisations. One godless murderer habitually visited Jim on the pretext of spiritual need where he simply craved intelligent conversation. That man had forced his way into a hairdressing salon where he splashed lighter fluid over his rejecting girlfriend before igniting it. The woman survived her horrible burns. Her hairdresser did not.

An equally godless, notoriously brutal warder used to seek Jim out in the Officers’ Mess. He’d ask Jim, ‘Do you mind if I join you?’ Jim decidedly did mind but avowed the reverse. The man, loathsome and unctuous, habitually chose Jim as his companion. Jim couldn’t say which of the two – the murderer or the officer – he liked less.

On one occasion the murderer made a singular confession: boastfully he declared, ‘When we want to punish a warder, we do. We have our ways.’ Jim, genuinely curious, asked –‘How?’ He regretted the question instantly. The prisoner said, ‘We piss in their tea.’

Some time later Jim went to the Officers’ Mess for lunch, took his seat at an isolated table and said, ‘Yes, of course’ when the warder asked to join him. Shortly a prisoner arrived to take their meal orders. Jim ordered his lunch, the warder ordered, the prisoner noted their requests, then asked, ‘Beverages, gentlemen?’ Jim requested tea, the warder said, ‘Same for me.’

Jim sat and enjoyed the warder’s conversation until a second prisoner arrived bearing their food and drink. This prisoner was none other than the murderer. He handed Jim his food, passed the officer his, then said, ‘Here’s your tea, Father.’ He walked around the table and, standing a little to the side and behind the warder, passed him a second mug. Winking hugely at Jim he said, ‘And this is yours, sir.’ Jim sat and watched and kept his peace.

Once again Jim and we were living in the same city. Often he’d would join us at our Shabbat table and at Passover Seder and he’d report on what he called, ‘my time in gaol.’

Later, with his usual genius for vocation among the desperate, among those who were losing and those who were lost, Jim became chaplain to Intensive Care at a major Melbourne hospital. In ICU something like one patient dies of every four who enter. The rates of loss are higher than in a theatre of war.

Eventually Jim retired. Amazing us all, since he’d been resolutely republican and a pronounced proletarian, Jim settled in Britain. Here he found love, a partner in John, and diabetes – the lot of many Friar Tucks.

Every Passover and every Jewish New Year a letter would arrive addressed and written in the child’s block lettering that was the Jim Smith calligraphy. The letters told us of the Jewish roots of Jim’s belief. They’d include clippings from the newspaper columns of ‘my favourite religious writer, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’, soon to become Chief Rabbi of the British Commonwealth. In his long London epoch Jim read widely and deepened his sense of following a Jewish Jesus. His pleasure in our friendship grew deeper and eventually he crossed the world to attend our eldest daughter’s wedding in Melbourne.

Jim lived with John, sharing travel with him as well as musical theatre, which he loved. A man great in his levity, Jim radiated a softness that healed, attaching him to old friend and to new. When I visited my daughter Naomi (the goat’s child) and her husband and children during their domicile in London, Jim, frailer now, crossed the great city with John for a visit. It was Shabbat and space and time had shrunk. Here was Jim, here were his old friends, here were our tender little ones. Jim was still Jim. The spark of joy still shone. But I wondered if we’d meet again. The moments passed.

And now Jim is dead.

  

A High Churchman in Hobart

It is my first day at work in the Royal Hobart Hospital. Apart from my bride, I know no-one in this town. From the far side of the ward I become aware of a wide smile upon a moon face. The face sits above a clerical collar and a generous body and it is moving relentlessly closer to me. The nearer it comes, the wider the smile, until it is upon me and I am a bit wary.

I don’t know this bloke and he doesn’t know me. Why is he so happy to see me? It can only be the yarmulka on my head that attracts him.

I sense the imminence of uninvited salvation.

Friar Tuck sticks out his hand. The hand is soft and warm and firm. Hello, he says, welcome to the Royal. I’m Father Jim.

This bloke is irresistibly charming. I say – I’m about to go home to eat. How do you like Indonesian cooking, Father Jim? My wife is making fish, it’s a new recipe – would you like to join us?

Jim accepts and is delighted to meet Annette. He makes no comment about the fine garfish bones which are inextricable from Annette’s delectable Indonesian sauce.

It turns out that Jim is the Anglican chaplain at the hospital. That is his day job. By night and at weekends, he is one of the founders of a tiny Order of celibate Christian men who provide refuge for people who are lost or homeless or in crisis. They call their Community St. Michael’s Priory.

Every needy person, every demanding, manipulative and lost person in Hobart comes to the community and is greeted by wide smile Jim.

Celibate himself, Jim marries everyone else at the Royal. Nurses, doctors, morticians and clerks – Jim ushers them all into matrimony. But Jim’s best efforts are not proof against the rising tide of divorce that washes away his marriages. So he stops marrying people.

Father Jim joins us for Shabbat meals on Friday night. He reads the Haggadah with us at Passover, recounting our exodus from Egypt.

We leave Hobart but whenever he can, Jim visits us in Melbourne for Shabbat or Passover.

Years later, he leaves the Royal and the Priory and becomes a prison chaplain, then a chaplain to the dying in Melbourne. He welds himself to our children with the warmth of his smile. He comes to Synagogue with us, collarless, wearing one of my yarmulkas, and soon is taken for an Israeli.

He retires and goes to live in England, writing to us, posting us cuttings from texts by his favourite religious leader, Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi.

Over 35 years Father Jim is our friend. He celebrates the religious differences between us.

Monanism

English: MONA - Hobart, Tasmania

English: MONA – Hobart, Tasmania (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

MONA is the Museum of New and Old Art in Hobart.  All of its promotional materials are written with tongue lodged firmly in cheek. One such refers to Monanism, a play on Onanism. This in turn is named for Onan, a figure in Genesis whose wife had suffered bad luck with her previous husband: he went and died on her. Onan decided to prevent pregnancy. He did this by spilling his seed on the ground, at once giving rise to the eponym and leading to the naming, some three millennia later, of a parrot in the USA. (Onan the parrot belonged to Dorothy Parker, who named him thus because the bird too “spilled his seed upon the ground.”)

MONA is remarkable. Submerged in a hillside it is a museum without windows. Visitors are entombed for the duration of their visit. Dominant themes of the artworks are sex and death. All this might warn off a visitor, suggesting a visit will be a dark or morbid experience. This in turn is the museum’s little joke at its own expense, an instance of Monanism at play.

Cynics who view Hobart as Australia’s petrified forest – views that are themselves stale and petrified – simply feed into the joke and the pleasant surprise that is MONA.

We* visited MONA yesterday. It is fabulous. The entire experience is exciting, playful and confronting. To remark that the collection is eclectic is to discover how inadequate and weary is that term for artworks that range in date from antiquity to today, to tomorrow. And to some time well beyond tomorrow.

My two favourites are Arthur Boyd’s “Melbourne Burning” and another work, commissioned for MONA and titled “Untitled”. This looks like a giant spud; it’s about the size and shape of a Morris Minor motor car, and like that vehicle, it has small windows through which you can peer into the interior. Here, red apples fall vertiginously from the grip of finger-like branches at eye level towards small wells, or open cupolas, containing water. The effect is enchanting, both magical and charming. And mysterious. I looked and felt as Moses might from a mountain peak in Moab: I could see but never hold a view of endless allure and promise.

(It should be obvious that I cannot recall the name of the artist; it’s an Armenian name. Like his work, he remains untitled…)

Boyd’s “Melbourne Burning” recalls a work by Breughel the Elder. It expresses the artist’s mixed up, unnamable and profoundly distressed reactions to WWII. In the painting life both destroys itself and asserts itself in grotesque and cruel ways. I have not been moved so strongly by a work about war since viewing Picasso’s “Guernica” in MOMA (no relation to MONA).

My mind exercised itself throughout the visit. Tracey Moffatt’s mixed painted and photographic work is as brilliant as anything there. This Aussie artist (of mixed extraction, including Aboriginal) stands as a peer alongside any of the ambiguists and tricksters at MONA. Her work, “Something More”, seeks to confuse meanings – particularly of cultural identity – by emphasizing its own ‘fakeness’. (Wikipedia)

In my experience, culture is very hard on the feet: a trip to an art museum always leaves me footscore. Not so at MONA.  The experience set my mind to dancing. But my feet feel fine. [Unlike old Onan, who, soon after his marriage, left his bride a widow once again (See Genesis, 38, vv 1-10).]

*This blog has a spouse who accompanied me to MONA.

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