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)

 

In an Age of Nausea, Auguries of Sweetness

A year or so ago the news was full of the globe-wide threat to honey bees

The threat was not confined to the buzzing, stinging insect but to all vegetal life: no bees, no pollination, no animal life

A simple silence, the end, good night, no tomorrow, no new year, no honey

It didn’t transpire – at least it hasn’t yet

We still have bees, pollen, honey

I recall a patient of mine, not Jewish, who always knew, well in advance, of the approach of Rosh Hashanah

He’d wish me the greetings of the season

He knew about our new year through his work: he was an apiarist who would visit all the Jewish schools and kindergartens with honey and stories of honey bees, and bee raising and honey making and honey collecting

He’d bring honey to the children

I write this letter in the same spirit: I wish, I wish us all, a year sweetened, a year of blessing

howard

From the Heart 1

Warily opening the newspaper I came upon the following passage, quoted in an essay authored by Aboriginal leaders. I found it unusual.

 

“What Aboriginal people ask is that the modern world now makes the sacrifices necessary to give us a real future. To relax its grip on us. To let us breathe, to let us be free of the determined control exerted on us to make us like you. And you should take that a step further and recognise us for who we are – Aboriginal people in a modern world – and be proud of us. Acknowledge that we have survived the worst the past has thrown at us, and we are here with our songs, our ceremonies, our land, our language and our people – our full identity. What a gift this is that we can give you, if you choose to accept us in a meaningful way.”

 

 

This cri de coeur from the pen of former Australian of the Year, Galarwuy Yunupingu, distils the Letter from the Heart, which is the statement of Aboriginal consensus on their future. There’s a Jewish saying, words that come out from the heart (will) enter the heart.

 

From Laurenzo Marques to Nyngan on Bogan

A man accosts me in the darkened lobby of the hospital in the small town where I’m working. ‘Shalom’, he says.
He gropes inside the front of his shirt and pulls out a silver magen david.
‘Shalom aleichem’, says I.
We swap names. For the purposes of this story, his name is Federico.
Federico looks not ancient, not brand new. He’s tall, compact, has an olive complexion and he bends forward as he speaks. His accent is not Australian-made. His English is arrhythmic.


‘What are you doing In Nyngan, Federico?’
‘I live here. Thirteen years now.’
‘Will you tell me your story?’
He does so.
 
 Before I repeat Federico’s story, allow me orient you to the remote, obscure town of Nyngan by referring you to my recent blog post (Nyngan on the Bogan).
 
Back to Federico: ‘I come from Mozambique. You know, was colony of Portugal. In 1976 Salazar dies. A bastard, Salazar. Like Franco, not a Jew-lover. Both of them, friends of Mussolini. Salazar dies, the blacks start to revolt and Portugal says, OK, we leave. They just run away, no negotiation, no transition. Then starts the war. A civil war. Massacres, the usual thing. First the Portuguese come to the coast in sixteenth century, they set up the port, Lorenzo Marques, a stopping place to their bits of empire in India. They go to India for the spices. They build their African colony by sending all their criminals, convicts. Like Australia. Like Australia, the same, those convicts become successful and they are comfortable. Portugal comes, butchers the blacks, in 1977 they go, then more massacres. Africa.
 
A nice place actually, Mozambique – for a Portuguese. But not now, not in ’77. In ’77, I know if I stay I will die. I leave my birthplace. My barmitzvah was there. In the synagogue, in Lorenzo Marques. Now I am in Portugal, a refugee, among all the refugees – from Mozambique, from Timor, from all places that Portugal runs away from. I cannot go back to Lorenzo Marques. Another Jewish refugee. History’s old story.
 
 
No-one can go to LM now. It does not exist: now the town is Maputo. And the big statue of that old colonist, Lorenzo Marques, they tear it down. Now in that square is a sculpture of a bird.   
 
 
My grand-grandfather comes from Portugal to Mozambique. Now my family, all gone, all scattered. Six brothers and sisters, some in London, some in South Africa, one sister in Norway. She was the last one of the six I have seen. She used to visit me here in Nyngan, every winter of Norway. Last time I visited her was before five years. That last time, in Norway. Family all scattered. The Jewish story. Always the same. You know.
 
 
You want to hear how I come to Australia? Things happen for a reason. There is a meaning. I study history, I research. There is a reason. I believe that. So in Portugal I am safe. My grand-grandfather was Portuguese so I have citizenship. But no future, a refugee. The Jewish story. Always the same. So I wander. I work in Vancouver, I leave, my visa has finished. I work in South Africa. Many Jewish there. I work In London, in Finchley Road. Again many Jewish. I work in Norway. In between visas I work on cruise ships. Eight years on cruise ships; you don’t need a visa. On cruise ships there are Jewish. Also Barbados, every one old, everyone rich. Some Jews there too. I work In Korea. That’s where the miracle happens that brings me to Australia.
 
 
One year before Korea in Vancouver I apply for Australia. A Mozambiquean friend in Australia advises me: be careful what you tell them when you apply in the Embassy. Don’t say the wrong thing. So the embassy woman, she asks me what I will do – she means work – in Australia. I say I have qualification. I tell her I am chef. I don’t know what answer is the right answer. I know from my friend they don’t tell you what they want and what they do not want, but if you say wrong, they close the door. I answer, I pay the application. It will take a few months, the application, she tells me. Another cruise. And another. A letter arrives from Ottawa. The letter is from Australian High Commission in Ottawa. I have immigration visa. But no money. To come to Australia I must pay. So I wander on cruises and I work and I save. And I know I will leave the ships one day and I will settle and all my friends on the ship, always they will be slaves. I pay for a flight from Korea to Australia. Maybe three hundred American dollars, I go to the airline office to pick up ticket, the day before my flight. But it is a public holiday in Korea. Office is closed. I have paid, I have visa, I have no ticket. My flight is tomorrow. Here happens the miracle. I put my face against the window. I see people inside, cleaning. I make with fingers – come here please – come to window, I must ask. They come, but no-one speak English. They find someone. I tell him I need my ticket, I point to the office where the woman sold me the ticket, they go in, bring the woman out. A miracle. A public holiday, in Korea, the office is closed but I have my ticket. Things happen for a reason, I believe it.
 
 
 
In Australia, in Sydney, I work in Bondi Junction. Again many Jewish. I am there some years. I marry there, my wife have lymphoma before we meet. Then she is cured and we marry. Have children. Since thirteen years I am in Nyngan. I come here, I come here for the peace. I work at the pub as chef. Then the manager closes the kitchen, leaves Nyngan, manages from the city. I have no job, but things happen for a reason. I believe that. I sit in this coffee shop and the manager of the biggest hotel comes in, says, Hello Federico. Come work for me.
 
 
Small town, you know, everyone knows everyone. Good people here. My wife gets a second cancer. We drive to Dubbo, we drive to Sydney, we drive, drive. Always long drives, costs hundreds of dollars petrol. And the people of Nyngan collect money for our travel. Good people in Nyngan. Nothing happens without a reason. But my son, he’s grown up, I tell him – get out of Nyngan, no future for you here, go see the world, go build your future. You know I believe.
 
 
Will you do me a favour, Howard? I want for my doorpost the Jewish sign, for the doorpost, you know. I google but I don’t just buy. Has to be real, you. Needs the writing inside, not just the box .   

Favourite Books

After he died, my brother Dennis’ lifetime collection of books was set out on tables and benches, in boxes and on shelves at our parents’ house, for family members to choose and keep. Revealed before us was a catalogue of the brilliant and searching mind of my big brother. Biographies, especially political, books on management, art books and book after book on music. And cooking books, books on sailing, on fishing. The study and the joys of a big appetite for life and ideas. Books of all sorts, but not much literature and very little fiction. 

 

Dennis always named his three favourite books as the biblical Book of Ecclesiastes, Kahlil Gibran’s, ‘The Prophet’, and Siddhartha’, by Hermann Hesse. I knew and loved the first of the three, I knew and liked (and mistrusted) the second, and – as for the third – I didn’t know Siddhartha from Hiawatha. 

 

Dennis would read my writings, shaking his head, unhappy with my obliquity and my complexity. ‘Read Siddhartha’, he’d say, ‘And learn the beauty of writing simply.’ Dennis admired narration that was free of ornament and artifice. ‘You make me think too much,’ he said. I felt flattered and confirmed in my path. And I did not take up Siddhartha.

 

‘Ecclesiastes,’ I read religiously, every year, entranced by The Preacher’s philosophic quest, as he tastes and tests every idea and temptation, as he broods and takes up and sets aside every sacred and profane thing. And the rhythms of the text, whether in Hebrew or in English, have always entranced: 

 

To every thing there is a season,

and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;

a time to break down, and a time to build up; 
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;

a time to mourn, and a time to dance; 
a time to cast away stones,

and a time to gather stones together;

a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to get, and a time to lose;

a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
a time to rend, and a time to sew;

a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time of war, and a time of peace.

 

 

Dennis’ birthday falls on November 22. Each year on that day the stated gap between our ages would open up from two years to three. On November 22, 2016, Dennis would have turned seventy-three. But he never reached even threescore years and ten. He died aged sixty-three. Ten years later I pick up Siddhartha and read it, to mark his birthday and to honour the wishes of the older brother who always willed me to be better in the particulars that he selected. I read the work, too, to learn more of my brother’s questing soul.

 

I need to digress here, to my misgivings about ‘The Prophet’. I find it calming, pleasing, gently uplifting. It is as smooth as gravy, as sweet as the dulce de leche upon which my Argentine relatives were weaned. That’s my problem: ‘The Prophet’ lacks grit. You read and you wallow. As an essayist remarks in the New Yorker: ‘In “The Prophet” Gibran (mixed) a warm, smooth, interconfessional soup that was perfect for twentieth-century readers, many of whom longed for the comforts of religion but did not wish to pledge allegiance to any church, let alone to any deity who might have left a record of how he wanted them to behave. It is no surprise that when those two trends—anti-authoritarianism and a nostalgia for sanctity—came together and produced the sixties, “The Prophet” ’s sales climaxed.’

 

 

Raised as we all were, in a strictly Orthodox Jewish family, Dennis chafed against God the father and against our godlike father. He found the courage – indeed the compulsion – to rebel, but he never ceased to feel the pull and the lull of the old-time religion of his early nurture. He tried to relinquish Jewish restriction but the ritual would not let him go. Hence the enduring attraction to him of ‘The Prophet’, with its ‘anti-authoritarianism and its nostalgia for sanctity’.

 

Back to Siddhartha, another huge hit among those who were young adults in the seventies. When a book is so uncritically adored as this I start to feel uneasy. When I take up my newly purchased copy and discover that Paulo Coelho has written the introduction, my unease deepens. For – possibly alone among its millions of readers and adorers – I found the pretentious simplicism of ‘The Alchemist’ alienated me.

 

So you see, these works find me out as cynical.

 

But cynicism falls away as I read Hesse’s account of his searcher for enlightenment. Dennis sought enlightenment with his strong, rational mind. I recognise Dennis as the Buddha’s chastens Siddhartha: ‘You are clever…,’ said the Illustrious One; ‘you know how to speak cleverly, my friend. Be on your guard against too much cleverness.’

I see here Dennis, my too clever brother, the troubled searcher, endlessly testing his traditions, endlessly questing. This is the brother who embraced ‘Ecclesiastes’, in which The Preacher seeks but never finds a truth that satisfies. ‘Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher, all is vanity.’ It is an honest quest, brave and lonely. That was my brother Dennis, brave and lonely, longing, as his son remarked at the funeral, ‘to love and to be loved.’

 

But unlike the monk Siddhartha, Dennis did love: most particularly he loved our mother, and he loved me. And I loved him, and I miss him still.

 

 

 

 

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.

  

Walking with my Father*, after all this Time

Most Saturdays I walk with my father. Saturday is shabbat, when I go to shule (synagogue) in the morning and walk home alone afterwards. It is this walk that I take with Dad. It works like this: services at the shule of my choice finish around noon-thirty – precisely the time my family will be gathering at home. No-one wants to risk coming between a Goldenberg and her food at meal time; too dangerous. So just a few moments before the congregation sings the concluding hymn, Adon Olam, I duck out of shule and hurry homeward.

 
When it comes to a prayer or a song a Goldenberg is not one to short-change his Maker. So, striding like my father before me, I sing that song as I walk, feeling anew the melody I sang with my father through our decades of shule-going together. In fact, Dad and I shared two different melodies to Adon Olam, one of them quite beautiful, the other even lovelier – or should I say – slower, sweeter, more expressive of longing. We loved them both, I love them still, and so I sing – first one of the two, then the second.
 
When I was a timid child I attached myself devoutly to the final lines of this song:
Into His hand, I entrust my soul
While I sleep and when I awaken;
And while ever my soul remains with me –
The Lord is with me – I will not fear.
 
But of course I did fear. First I feared the wolves and the bears that would come for me in my bedroom from the grim tales of Europe; later I felt afraid of snakes, of adults who shouted at me, of the world. I felt safe with Mum and with my dreadnought father, and – more perilously – with my risk-taking brother Dennis. I did a lot of fearing and I seized needily at the comforting closing line of Adon Olam. I’d sing it to myself when I walked alone in the dark.
 
***
 
Dad sang sweetly, his light tenor voice rising high above the circumambient baritone drone of fellow worshippers. He’d look intent as he sang, for music spoke to Dad more truly than words. Dad always claimed he didn’t like poetry, but he loved song. Music reached Dad in his secret places of abiding anxiety, it inspired him and carried his hopes, his love of life, his belief in beauty.
 
It was late in Dad’s life that he surprised me, speaking once of Adon Olam: Whenever in my life I’ve felt afraid, that last line has come to me. As a child I’d sing it to myself when I was walking alone in the dark.
 
Now a man walks home alone. Approaching threescore and ten he walks, still vigorously, as his father walked. He sings softly as he walks. Adon Olam swells in his throat. His voice slows to climb the penultimate arc of old melody, he holds that high note, then allows his voice to fall, to slide peacefully, into peace.

The man walks home alone but never alone.
 
· *’Walking with my Father’ was a chapter title in my first book, ‘My Father’s Compass’ (Hybrid, 2007). That memoir recorded my life with my father that had ended with death at a great age, a few years earlier. It was that book in which I first went public with my (possibly regressive) ancestor worship.