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?
Some trust in God, some trust in nature, others trust in nothing and no-one.
The roots of these feelings lie deep, too deep generally for the light to penetrate.
These feelings are almost religious: they express some faith or, occasionally, a fear of all faith.
If you try to debate feelings of this nature you’ll find them impervious to argument. They are held sacred and well away from the light of enquiry.
If you believed I held a particular faith you might consider my belief absurd. But because of your good manners you’d probably keep that view of my quaint beliefs private. You’d realise argument would not budge me and, out of kindness you’d refrain from locking horns with me.
Circumcision evokes a great example of quasi-religious positions. Whenever you hear the subject discussed you’ll recognise the intensity with which a person expresses a position. Here we find conviction, not opinion. Convictions are guarded fiercely, they are immune to fresh evidence: conviction is the opposite of scientific openness of mind. I have noticed how lay people, doctors and nurses alike defend their positions on the foreskin with religious intensity. I do not argue with the foreskin zealot.
Winter has come to Australia with promise of our regular influenza epidemic. With winter comes a rise in religious sentiment on the matter of immunisation against the flu. The government preaches immunisation, we doctors echo with our own hosannahs, the trusters in nature shriek back. We all talk at each other. We find it hard to listen when our faiths collide. Doctors trust in herd immunity. On Facebook my daughter tells ‘friends’ she trusts her doctor father. One respondent trusts in nature (“I‘ve been vegan for seven years, and I’ve never had the flu during all that time.”). Another respondent trusts no-one and nothing (“ It’s a conspiracy. Big pharma in cahoots with government.”)
I looked up some facts about influenza and vaccination. I found plenty of facts but these will change few minds. (Two thousand proven influenza deaths. Lots of people become unwell in the two weeks following vaccination. Not everyone who is vaccinated with be immunised. Not a single proven death from the vaccine.)
I had been doctor for two weeks when I saw my first influenza death. The patient caught the flu late in pregnancy. She deteriorated rapidly, developed pneumonia and was soon brain-dead. Her baby was delivered by emergency caesarean section and lived. That baby never knew her mother. Mother was twenty-four years of age. That was my own age at the time.
Last week I vaccinated my children and my grandchildren against the flu. I had the vaccine myself. I offer the same vaccines to all my patients. I answer their questions, I provide information, but I don’t enter into religious disputation.
Somehow the airline separates me from my wife. They allocate Annette seat number 21 C and they give me 22 B. Arriving at Row 22 I find seat B occupied by a young mum with a baby on her lap. The baby is asleep. The young woman explains: ‘The cabin attendant switched me so my Mom and I can sit together. Do you mind?’
I don’t mind at all.
The cabin attendant appears at my elbow. ‘Seat 22 E is free. Do you mind sitting there?’
I don’t mind at all.
I take my seat between a youngish man and a younger woman. He’s a muscular nugget. His fair facial bristles catch the morning sun and glow gold; she’s slim, no whiskers, café au lait skin. The man busies himself with his keyboard. I open my paperback. The lady smiles, says, ‘Hello’. I catch an accent, try to place it. Guessing she’s a Latina I prepare some Spanish. ‘De donde estais?’
‘Not from Espain. Not from any espanish speaking country. Try to guess.’
The smile widens. She shakes a lot of wavy hair: ‘No.’
More hairshaking. She’s laughing now.
‘One more try.’
Guessing wildly I try Portugal. She laughs a merry laugh. ‘No. Saudi Arabia.’
Golly. No head covering, light brown hair, pretty conventional western dress.
‘She proffers a child’s hand: ‘My name’s Amy.’
‘Hello, Amy. I’m Howard.’
‘What is your country, Howard?’
I give her time to absorb the incredible. Then, ‘You are Muslim?’
‘Yes, of course.’
I remove my cap, lean forward, reveal my yarmulke: ‘I’m your cousin.’
The smile widens. She’s delighted: ‘You are a religious man. I pray every day five times. I am estudent.’ She names her university in Los Angeles, a name not known to me.’ When in Saudi Amy wears her head covered, ‘only my face you can see.’
Amy tells me of her two brothers and her sister who are back in Saudi Arabia, with mother and father. A second sister is studying in LA with Amy. She points to a rich head of darker hair that crowns a quite ravishing face in a nearby row,
I spend some time pondering the life of a young Saudi woman on a US campus. A woman who dresses western and prays every day five times. Pretty brave, I suspect. And incidentally, pretty easy on the eye.
‘Amy, why do you take the risk of speaking candidly like this to a strange man?’
The head lifts and she regards me, smiling a little as to one who is naive: ‘Instinct.’
Back to my paperback. The young bloke types something about a baseball match. The young woman takes out some study sheets. I sight some highlighted terms familiar to me – homeostasis, perception, adrenergic flight/fight response. The head of wavy hair bends over the notes, a child-size finger traces the lines, her lips frame the foreign words.
‘What are you studying?’
‘Clinical Psychology. And what is your profession?’
‘I’m a doctor.’
‘That’s good. Maybe you can tell me what is homeostasis.’
I tell her what I understand by that term, the neologism I encountered first in 1965, a word that widened my mind.
Amy nods gravely and thanks me.
After a while Amy sets Clinical Psychology aside. She looks at my book and asks:’ Is that a good book?’
‘I think so, yes.’
‘But you do not know?’
The book won a Pulitzer. A close friend pressed it on me, saying: ‘Read it if you want to know DR.’
Do I like it? Not much. At least not yet. The plot, yes; the characters, yes yes yes. The style, not much.
Homeostasis is simpler to explain than ‘I think it’s a good book, but I do not know if I like it.’ A deep breath and I essay some literary criticism: ‘This book won America’s top award for literature. I think it gained attention for its unusual style of writing and for telling the modern history of the Dominican Republic in the story of one unfortunate family. The writing is bright, the story is dark. The language is lively, plenty of street talk. Every third word is nigger, every fourth word is fuck.’
I pause. No shock registers on the estudent’s face.
‘The characters are vivid and their story is dramatic. So, yes, I think it is a good book, an important book. Even ‘though I do not enjoy it much. Yet.’
‘You read many books?’
‘Yes, I do.’
‘Tell me please what books are good for me to read. Books you do like.’
She couldn’t give me a pleasanter task. The flight from Los Angeles to New York takes four hours. That might suffice. I speak of my favourite of all books written in the twentieth century. This is the book I read at Amy’s age ( I’m guessing here she’s as old today as I was fifty years ago): ‘The Leopard, an Italian novel of an aging aristocrat – you know? (Amy nods) – he sees the life he has known and loved, a life of privilege, passing. He knows that life will be lost.’
Amy remarks, ‘Life in my country is also changing… Slowly.’
Next I speak of Anna Karenina. ‘This is also an old book, more than one hundred years, written by another aristocrat, Leo Tolstoy. It tells the life of a woman who disobeys the rules of her society and obeys only her passion. She loves a man who is not her husband. I like this book very much; I respect Anna’s courage but I am angry at her too. I am angry because she turns her back on her son, a small boy.
‘It is an important book, one of the earliest books to give a woman strength, courage to make choices and to follow her own path.’
I watch Amy for signs of disapproval or discomfort. No sign of either.
‘Although I don’t entirely like Anna, the character, I like the book. The author shows us life. Like Shakespeare, he knows the good and the bad, the strong and the weak. He knows them and he shows them. He is not the judge, he gives us the life.’
‘And one more. This is maybe America’s most beloved book of the Twentieth Century. I love it very much. It is called, To Kill a Mockingbird. It is written by a woman, Harper Lee. The story is told in the voice of a small girl who lives in a town in America’s south at a time when many white people showed no respect for black people. The girl’s father is a lawyer who tries to save a black man who is accused of raping a white woman. You read this book and you love the father and you love the child.’
Amy asks me to write the names of the books she should read. It dawns on me I’ve recommended three books that challenge old norms. The books subvert male dominance, they chart the passing of feudalism and ancient authority, they show the rule of equal law.
I have lots of questions. Amy answers them readily. No she doesn’t go out with men (‘I am a good Muslim’), but she had been engaged to marry a man whom she chose. That was back in her home country. Later the engagement ended, the free decision of both. No hard feelings, no honour issues. It occurs to me Amy has found in Seat 22E a Father Confessor. I wonder about her vocation: I don’t know anyone who works in mental health who enjoyed an easy childhood.
The aircraft’s engines keep up a steady hum. Conversation is hushed and most passengers sleep. As Amy sits at the side of one of my deaf ears, there’s no lip-reading and I miss some of her speech. When I ask, ‘What work does your father do?’, I miss her reply. She repeats : ‘He’s a general in the Air Force.’
She adds, ‘My mother is a school teacher.’
‘When you finish your studies will you return to your country?’
‘I will visit. My older sister has two babies. I must see them. But my life, I think maybe here in America. And my sister Sara, she is here.’
My mind races from question to question: Is Amy the right sort of Muslim – by the lights of the current President – to be admitted to the USA? What does Daddy the General think of Amy’s choices – dress, spouse, profession, place of residence? All her choices bespeak independence but in reality she must be completely dependent on Daddy. Amy has none of the bearing of the rebel – there’s nothing defiant in her speech – yet her Americanness must challenge Saudi norms. I think too of the engagement of the Saudi’s military – especially the Air Force – in the nasty war in Yemen. A Saudi general would be a serious man.
These are questions this old man does not ask. Meanwhile the estudent has put away her study notes, buried her head in a blanket, tucked her legs beneath her and, by some miracle of youthful calisthenics, made herself comfortable enough to sleep. For the next two hours the Princess of Araby slumbers in Seat 22F. She awakens as we descend, smiles, shakes my hand and asks, ‘When will I meet you again, Howard?’
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.
The oldest friend of our married life is a parson. After inspiring and marrying hundreds of young believers and unbelievers and halfbelievers; and after watching their marriages fragment – fast or slow – and die, John concluded he was not a success in bringing people’s lives together. He left the parsonage and took up God’s work in a new business: in his own words, ‘I spent a year in gaol.’ The parson became a chaplain.
‘Long Bay Gaol was just like other congregations I’d worked in – lots of sinners, lots of righteous people (“I never did it… it was someone else’s fault…I was framed…”), and lots of people who couldn’t care less about religion. I didn’t mind the unreligious and they didn’t mind me. The convicted were just people, by and large. I found most of them likeable enough.
‘But a few of them were hard to like. There was one man who’d been convicted for trying to incinerate his girlfriend. She survived, horribly burned, but in the process he killed the masseuse who was treating her at the time. He was quite unrepentant, quite without conscience, but nevertheless he became one of my most frequent parishioners. He’d visit my office frequently, ostensibly for spiritual guidance. All he really wanted was the luxury of private conversation. I did not like him, but I couldn’t let on.
‘There were others in the gaol who were just as unlikeable. One was a warder, one of the ‘’screws’’, as the prisoners called them. This fellow treated the prisoners brutally. He was feared and hated. He used to visit me often and he was just as persistent, just as falsely pious and just as unwelcome as the murderer.
‘The murderer confided once how “cons” had their ways of getting back at the screws they hated most. He said, “Father, we piss in their tea.”
‘I understood how that might be. The best-behaved prisoners enjoyed the privilege of waiting on tables in the Officers’ Dining Room. That was where I ate. The prisoners prepared and serve beverages. One day I went to that Dining Room for lunch. I loaded my tray and sat at a table out of the way to enjoy some privacy. Out of the blue, bearing his own tray, that brutal fellow was at my shoulder, declaring, “Father, you don’t mind if I join you.”
I did mind of course, but I said the opposite, of course.
A prisoner turned up and asked us for our beverage order.
“Tea, white, two sugars,” said my guest.
I asked for the same. That waiter, my religious friend the incinerator, said, “Certainly, gentlemen, I’ll bring them presently.”
The con returned carrying two mugs. ‘This is yours, Father”, he said, as he laid my drink on the table. Then he walked to the other side of the table, placed the mug before the screw and said, “And this is yours, sir.” As he spoke he shot a huge wink in my direction.
‘What did you do, John?’
‘It was a moral emergency. If I remained silent I would be party to a wrong. If I spoke I would breach a confidence. I drank my tea. I watched the screw drink his.’
John’s story brought to mind my cousin’s account of certain events In Israel during the first Intifada. She wrote: ‘Consumers of a particular brand of hummus remarked on a change in the product. It didn’t taste bad, just subtly different. Closed circuit TV in the factory caught Palestinian workers wanking into the vats.’
Neither the hummus masturbators nor the prison micturators could have read the more recent American novel, The Help, in which a white racist woman consumes chocolate cake containing the ordure of the ‘help’ – an unfairly dismissed African-American woman.
I recount these stories to offer succour to a friend, a novelist, Margaret.
Now Margaret enjoys the attentions of a literary assassin, a relative by inheritance, a sort of outlaw-in-law. That person claims a critical authority and a mission to improve HCG by means of brutal dismissal.
The critic and the writer are destined to meet from time to time; what can Margaret do to fight back?
All the examples quoted have their appeal. The cake is of course, irresistible but time-consuming. The hummous is nourishing but beyond the resources of an unaided female. I suggest Margaret make her nemesis a cuppa tea – white, of course, with two sugars.
Ours is a world in agony. The holy is awash in profanation. Men hear the voice of a ravening god that sends them to cut off heads. Others kidnap children in the name of a god. Again the toxic cohabitation of religion with violence, the foul marriage that brought us the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition and Bushido on the Burma Railroad.
In the centre of our own country the Hayes clan lives at Whitegate, a ‘town camp’ in Alice Springs. The site is ancestral land going back to a time before the counting. Last week local government cut the water supply to Whitegate. The power died there some time ago. The cold desert nights are bitter.
How to breathe? Where to find hope? Why believe in our species at all? What light can we show our small children?
Last week the International Council of Christians and Jews honoured Debbie Weissman, a veteran worker across the tribes and creeds, building frail bridges of peace. Peace has broken out in Gaza-Israel. Rod Moss, artist and writer, chops wood and hauls water to Whitegate.
The peacemakers, the hewers of wood and drawers of water: these small signs. I clutch at such as these.
A few months ago a man and I were engaged in a conversation. The talk ranged widely over the man’s new book and mine, over asylum seekers to indigenous health, then to my odd affection for running marathons. We visited the Boston Marathon of 2013 and the bombing that brought the event to a halt before I could reach the finish line.
While we talked like old friends, as occasionally happens with an engaging new friend, we were not alone. An audience of tens of thousands listened to us on local radio. Our conversation was coming to an end when the interviewer paused, mused for a moment, shot me a half grin and said: “Howard, I see you as an idealist, a person trying to do good in the world. So I want you to give me an answer to a question I ask myself every day: ‘How does a person live a good life?’”
The interviewer is an awarded journalist aged about forty, a father of young children. He smiled, acknowledging how his question had flown in and landed abruptly in a chat that had satisfied itself with surfaces. Stumbling, I gave a suitably useless answer. I groped for something wise but not too portentous and I came up with something incoherent.
Two months have passed since the challenge of that question. I realise I did have an answer. I have had it for ages. It is couched in religious terms but you could remove the divinity from it and still retain an essence that responds to my radio host. It comes to me from a fellow who lived more than two thousand years ago who had gathered an audience of his own (rather like a radio host of ancient day). His name was Micah. He distilled his understanding of life for his public, teaching them as follows: He hath shown you, O man, what is good: and what does the Lord require of thee – only to do justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with thy God?