Summer Stories: Just Dirt

Before arriving in Coober Pedy I read of The Breakaways, an accessible scenic spot of some sacred significance. Once in town I asked directions. These were simple enough to alarm me: ‘Turn right at the Stuart Highway, turn right at the signposted track and drive to the end of the road.’  And – ‘You  best get there in time for sunset or sunrise, when the colours are stronger. Other times it’s bleached by the sun.’

The Stuart bisects our continent. I’ve never found myself alone on the Stuart before. The road roars with lorries and road trains that hug the tail of your smaller vehicle at their permitted 110 kilometres an hour. But this early morning my car alone moved through the dark along the Stuart. Cloud covered the stars. The car radio was silent. A velvet cloak sat upon the earth. I knew I was alone.

The kilometres slipped behind me as I raced to catch a doubtful sunrise. A tiny signpost flashed into sight and out. Had I missed the turnoff? I laughed aloud at my famed ability to get lost. But no – a few minutes on a large sign read: THE BREAKAWAYS. So-named, I read, because chunks of the planet appear broken off from the surrounding scarp.  One or two locals, indigenous people, shrugged when I mentioned The Breakaways: ‘Never been’, said one. ‘Just dirt’, said a second.

The velvet was breaking up. Teal blues split the clouds, a lightening over my shoulder from the east, the dark surface now reddening, the black grasses greening. Earth awakening, but everywhere, silence, stillness. The dirt track shifted beneath my tyres, the car, tipsy, slid from side to side, my passage never quite controlled, not fully skidding. Up a rise, the end of the road. Once out the car the first sensation a blast of wind, night-cooled, but warming towards today’s 46 maximum.  A wooden barrier separated me from a sudden void. The earth fell away at my feet, a vast valley, roughchopped, opened before me. The wind tore up the slopes and away. Nothing else moved. No sound. No life. Stepping forward felt like sacrilege.

I stood still and gazed, astonished. Unprepared for an encounter none could prepare for, I simply stood. My eyes flew up the slopes of table-topped massifs and followed the fall of abrupt clefts. Hills of caramel pink and nude rocks of white ochre in a repeating pattern of rise and fall, fall and rise. And no sound at all. Was this the birthplace of the world? Would that scrubby shrub at the valley floor burst into unconsuming flame?

I stood for some time as one at prayer. I knew an aloneness and a silence and a stillness that must have spoken to my soul. In time I returned to time and I took up the elements of my ritual dawn prayers and I prayed and I gave thanks. I felt kin to others who have stood here over the millennia and contemplated creation. I made my poor homage.

At length a living thing came to me in the stillness, a blowfly. The fly sniffed and sipped, and finding my skin dry, it went its ways. The wind whipped my tallith which made to join the insect in flight. Alone again, no human on earth today had better access to his Creator. If a voice had called, ‘Howard, Howard’, I believe I’d have answered, Hineni.

My prayers done I walked to the display that detailed the nearby salients. The text, authorized by a local elder, hinted opaquely at their sacred significance. The place has its true name, Kangu. Behind me at a short remove was the bearded dragon, Cadney, over there was Pupa, two dogs lying down.  And in front was Kalayu, the emu, father caring for his chicks. The area is an initiation site for young boys. Its elaborated meanings are secret, forbidden. This is meet. Sufficient to be here in mystery.

A side track to Pupa beckoned and I ran. Ochreous powder cushioned my feet. The track took me down and around. Soon I was at the valley floor and the mighty forms rose up, thronging about me. This was ‘just dirt’ and I human clay, a small thing in all the greatness. I thought of the miracle of being, I thought of annihilation. So easy here, to slip, to fall, to break an ankle. In a day or two the heat would finish a crippled runner. The thoughts carried no drama, little colour. Death in this valley would be ordinary; it was living and moving that were out of the order of things.

I was alive and moving. I turned and I ran back up the hills.

A Guest of the Emir

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


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


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

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


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



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


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



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

‘Australia. And you’re from Korea?’


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


Going to the Wall

My family used to be employed in Jerusalem. Unfortunately our family business was disrupted for a time by conflict and conflagration. In what appeared to be arson, on the ninth day of the month of Av in the year 70 of the Current Era, our office was burned down. 
The office I refer to was the Holy Temple where my forebears would officiate in rituals of sacrifice, in mediating and arbitrating disputes, in quarantining suspected carriers of contagious disease and in blessing the people. As the reader will realise we worked as lawyers and doctors and priests. After the burning my family was unable to go to our office for nineteen centuries. Then in 1967 we returned. The other day I went back to the office where I resumed working in the family business. 
It happened like this.
My two eldest grandchildren, both aged thirteen, accompanied my wife and me on our current visit to Israel.
The boy, a pretty secular fellow whom we’ll call Jesse, walked down to the Wall with me. He understood the antiquity of the Wall and something of its sanctity. Praying is not his specialty. ‘What will I do, Saba?’
‘I pray there, Jesse. Some people write their prayer on a slip of paper and insert it into a crack between stones.‘
‘What should I pray for, Saba?’
‘Think of the thing that you most want in the world, Jesse. Ask for that. It could be some deep and secret thing, something you wish for yourself or for someone else.’
Jesse has seen suffering. Earlier he saw a man begging. Well made, about the age of Jesse’s father, the man requested small change, blessing anyone who donated. The man walked on a distance from Jesse, turned away and covered his face with his hands. His shoulders shook.
At the Wall, Jesse pressed his lips against the glowing stone. He leaned his forehead against the Wall for some time, his lips moving. Then he posted his slip of paper into a tiny eye socket in the stone.
As we walked away backwards, Jesse stopped me and threw his arms around me. He said, ‘That was a really important experience, Saba. Thank you for taking me here…I love you, Saba.’
We rejoined my wife and Jesse’s cousin, whom we’ll call Ellie. They too had prayed at the Wall. Ellie’s fair features glowed: ‘Saba and Savta, that was wonderful.’ My hands twitched, a spasm in unemployed muscles. I recalled I was a Cohen, a lineal priest: I was in the blessing trade. I rested my palms on Ellie’s head. My fingers splayed and I searched for some voice. The voice shook as I recited the ancient words: ‘May God bless you and keep you…’ Here I was back at the old workplace, here was Ellie, flesh of my flesh.
I had waited 2000 years to get back to work. I annointed her fair head with my salt tears. 

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.


The phone call comes at 3.30 on the last afternoon of term. An unfamiliar voice speaks: ‘I have your boy here. He came into the shop and collapsed.’
The woman’s voice is concerned, competent: ‘He wants to get back onto his bike and ride home but I won’t let him.’ The woman gives the address, a shop on busy Centre road, Bentleigh.
The mother of the child calls the boy’s father, cannot contact him, drives towards the place in Centre Road. The heavy Friday afternoon traffic races, stops, starts, unpredictably. The mother suppresses her urge to speed, shakes her head: ‘What if he’d collapsed in this traffic!’ Alone with her fear, she calls her father, doctor to the injured boy. She gives her father the bones of the story, adding: ‘He told the lady in the shop he was hit in the head earlier today. She says he’s talking but he’s not making sense. He couldn’t remember my number. Didn’t know the password to his phone. She rang the school and they put us in touch… I’ve nearly arrived. I’ll call again once I’m with him. ‘Bye.’
At 3.50 the doctor’s phone rings. His daughter’s voice, the boy’s, an unfamiliar woman’s voice, traffic sounds, snatches of conversation – ‘Dad, I’m with him now. He’s awake. He’s seeing double… Yes, thanks, in the back here. Sorry Dad, the lady who’s been looking after him is helping me get the bike into the car. He lost consciousness a couple of times. What does it mean that he’s seeing double? And he wants to vomit?’
Forty-eight hours earlier the doctor saw a boy in Resuscitation at the Royal Children’s Hospital. The boy had been hit by a car. He lay on a trolley, his body a gangle of bones, on his face a large bruise and the dopey smile of a child with no memory of the car that hit his head. The doctor-grandfather spends a lot of time with injured children in Emergency Departments. The doctor knows what double vision means, he knows what vomiting means. The grandfather in the doctor avoids the question, asking some of his own: ’Has he had a head injury?’
‘Yes Dad. A kid at school swung his locker door open and belted him in the head. He went to sick bay for an ice pack. After school he rode to the shops.’
The boy’s voice pipes, indistinctly, the phone set on speaker. ‘Saba, when I look at anything I see two of everything.’ The child slurs the words.
‘What part of your head did the locker hit, darling?’
‘What do you mean, Saba?’
‘Was it the front or the back or the side?’
‘Are you joking, Saba?’
‘No darling. What part of your head was it?’
‘Above my ear, a bit in front of it.’
Just in front of the ear, in the temporal region, runs a vulnerable artery which shelters behind skull bone thinner than elsewhere.
The doctor instructs his daughter to drive directly to Monash Medical Centre which is not far distant.
‘I don’t know the way, Dad.’ The father-grandfather-doctor is notorious for his lack of sense of direction. He directs the daughter, hoping. ‘I’ll call Emergency at Monash, darling, so they’ll expect you… Take a book with you. You’ll be there for hours.’
‘Dad, he’s just vomited. Now he’s falling asleep. Does that matter? Do I need to keep him wake?’
‘Try to keep him talking, darling.’
The grandfather speaks to the child: ‘Darling you’ll go into the hospital and they’ll look after you until you’re better. Then they’ll let you go home. You probably won’t be staying in the hospital.’
‘Saba, what will happen to me?’ The voice quavering:’ Will I be alright?’
‘Dad, where will I park?’
‘Drive straight to “Ambulances Only”. At the moment you are an ambulance.’
At 4.10 the doctor calls Monash, asks to be connected to the Consultant in Emergency. A young voice, informal: ‘Emergency, Preeti speaking.’
‘Hello Preeti, I’m sending you a child with concussion. I’m his GP. Are you the consultant?’
The doctor briefs the young voice. She listens, asks a couple of questions, says, ‘Thank you. We’ll be expecting him.’
‘Thank you, Preeti. I’m quite concerned… He’s my grandson.’
When the doctor’s phone rings the time is 4.40. It rings as he’s hurrying to the toilet to pee, the third time in twenty minutes. He stands still, commands his bladder to wait.
‘Dad, I dropped him and they took him straight in. Doctor Preeti was waiting. I’ve just come back, I had to move the car. My phone’s about to die.’
‘Darling, Shabbat is about to start. But I’ll answer the phone if you ring. Someone will lend you a phone. If you need me, call me, even though it’s Shabbat.’
‘’Bye, Daddy. I love you.’
The old man puts the finishing touches to his Shabbat table. His wife is away, visiting their Sydney daughter and Joel and Ruby.
He covers the loaves of challah, races to the bathroom, showers, dresses, recites the Afternoon Prayer, racing the setting sun. He finishes, checks the time, realises he’s just too late to light the Shabbat candles: he won’t make fire on the Sabbath. Ordinarily he won’t use the phone. During Shabbat he’ll allow the phone to ring, enjoying freedom from the i-tyrant, celebrating the sample of paradise that is the Sabbath. But tonight he’ll answer it.
Darkness falls. The old man recites his Evening Prayers, rich with poetry from the mystics of Safed and the Golden Period in Spain. The dying of the day, the passing of the workaday week, the beauty of the sung hymns, all these have always found him susceptible; since childhood the eve of Sabbath makes him prey to tender feeling.
He looks across at the table, set for two. He recites the She’ma Yisrael prayer, inserting, by old family custom, an improvised prayer. He prays: ‘ Heal the boy and all who love him.’
The old man sings the hymns, he welcomes the Ministering Angels, he praises his wife – “A woman of Valour, who can Find? Her Price is above Rubies” – then he sings the Kiddush dedication, drinks his grape juice, washes his hands and sits to break bread. Before him, chicken soup with noodles and kreplach, four salads, slow cooked lamb shanks, potatoes. He eats alone, wolfing the feast he prepared for two. His elder daughter won’t be finished at the hospital until very late.
The food is good. He’d made a great effort for this meal with his daughter. He eats and gives thanks. Afterwards he reads. He reads three newspapers then opens the political biography a friend gave him. Deprived of sleep as he always is by Friday, he doesn’t expect sleep will come quickly tonight.
At 8.00 the front door opens. His daughter enters and they embrace. The boy is well. He’s back home with his brothers and his father. Surprised by her early arrival, the doctor listens to his daughter: ‘Dad, they asked him questions, they checked his eyes and his pulse and his blood pressure again and again. They tested his balance. He improved and they let us go. They said once four hours had passed the danger was much less. They timed it from when he collapsed in the shop.’
While the mother speaks the father prepares a salad to replace the four he wolfed. The child-mother eats with relish. ‘I’m sorry I spoiled our meal, Dad.’
She toys with the lamb shanks that come cold to the table. ‘Dad, I can’t eat any more. It’s been a big day.’
Father and daughter look at each other. No words are spoken, none needed; each knows the content of the other’s mind. The father looks away, knowing without looking how his child’s lip trembles and her eyes fill.
A minute or two of quietness, then the daughter smiles: ‘By the time we were leaving ED his speech was perfectly clear. He was saying he wanted junk food. Then he said, “Let’s ring the kind lady in the shop and thank her.”’

The Prayer of the Traveller

Many of us are on our travels as I write this. Today I will resume mine – one hundred and fifteen kilometers by road before a flight of forty minutes (in the air we register time not space), then a break before resuming for the next seventy minutes of flight. Finally thirty kilometers of suburban roads. Then home. Home – that word for an idea that houses our love; for the island we build to grow a couple into a family. After two stationery days I’ll skip from the continent of my birth to the land of the free – three flights, ten security checks (eight of these in the US) – eighteen hours in the air.

Long before the Malaysian airliner disappeared I had my misgivings. The loss of a civilian passenger aircraft over Donetsk did nothing to comfort me. And now the AirAsia tragedy. Travel is dangerous. Out here in the Outback, the roads are full of kangaroo, wandering stock, feral donkey and camel, species which share with the shahidi a zest for homicidal suicide. Air travel, far, far safer, remains hazardous.

Travel has always been thus.

If you are a wuss (I am) and if you have a prayerful bent (I am severely bent in that way) you might pray for a safe arrival – and if you are needy or greedy (I am both), you’d slip in a word for your safe return home.

The following comes from the ancient Traveller’s Prayer recited by Jews. The text catalogues a surprisingly contemporary list of hazards:

May it be Your will to direct our steps to peace, to allow us to reach our desired destination in life, in joy and in peace.

Rescue us from any enemy, ambush and danger on the way and from all afflictions that trouble the world.

Let us find grace, kindness and compassion from all who see us.

You can fill in your own particular concerns. (Afflictions that trouble the world are plentiful. I think of Ebola. I think too of violence of all kinds – both abroad and within our domestic walls.)

An anxious Jewish traveller (Jewish people are past masters at anxiety), having completed the lines above, might feel the need for elaboration or emphasis. Such persons follow on with Psalm 91. I do. I love this one: I loved this one and I quoted it to my shell-shocked teenage daughters after two hilarious hoons chucked rotten eggs through the girls’ car window, breaking on and altering the grooming of their lovely long locks.

Five years ago, grandson Toby, famous in these pages for his flirtations with danger, drew a picture in vivid primary colours. The picture, three inches by one and a half, was intricate, pulsing with the vibrancy of his four-year-old being. Toby presented it to me: ‘This is for you, Saba.’ Since that day it has sat between the leaves of my travel prayer book. It guards the place of Psalm 91.

One who lives in the shelter of the Most High abides in the shade of the Almighty. He will save you from the trap of the hunter and the deadly pestilence. You need not fear the terror by night, nor the arrow that flies by day; nor the pestilence that stalks in darkness, nor the plague that ravages at noon. Though a thousand may fall at your side, even ten thousand at your right hand, yet unto you it shall not come nigh.

I am not simple – or faithful – enough to believe that simply reciting these words will guarantee my safety. Saying the words is not the equivalent of completing the enrollment forms in supernatural travel insurance. I am not insured. But it is in the beauty of the poetics; in the relief of putting fears into words then filing them away; in the unspoken reminder that in matters in which I am powerless there is no point fretting – in these I find comfort, acceptance.

I am not insured, just assured.

I wish us all safe travels.

So Foul and Fair a Day

Howard at the Boston Marathon 2013

Howard at the Boston Marathon 2013

When I solicited funds as a charity runner in the 2013 Boston Marathon I promised to write a report on the race and my donors’ ‘investment.’ The moment the race started I started to compose my report. The mood was light, the crowd a united force of love, the events and sights all affirming a shared humanity. This would be a report of smiles. The serious counterpoint would be the 26.2 long miles.

At 2.07pm the mood changed. After that the playful response would feel profane. But I did promise a race report.

I slept on the matter. The evil was great and real, certainly. Real too was the goodness. Both demand to be written.


Does any runner sleep well the night before a marathon? I don’t. To prevent dehydration on race day I drink plenty through the previous day and every cupful demands its exit through the night. I am excited, nervous, a kid before his birthday party. Boston, after all, is to marathoners as Wimbledon is to tennis players. An enormous privilege, unearned by any effort of my legs, paid for in thousands of donated dollars.

The playful mind must be carried by legs that are 67 years old. Some prudence surfaces. The sixty-seven year old prepares methodically. The experience of forty past marathons insists I vaseline my second toes (which always blister), my armpits (which chafe), my nipples (which bleed) and my private bits (none of your business).
To prevent my shoelaces untying over the distance I double knot them: a trivial detail? No, not in Boston, for it was at the start line of one Boston Marathon back in the seventies that the favourite, noting his arch rival’s single-knotted shoes, bent down and double-tied them.

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