Not Pittsburgh

I call and invite myself to visit with my friends David and Nancy in Pittsburgh. Nancy is a paediatrician and David a paediatric psychiatrist. Their lives in work are an inspiration to me. I get onto David. He’s welcoming and hospitable as always. ‘We’ll love to have you. What are your dates, Howard?’

‘Last week in October.’

‘That’s unfortunate’, said David, ‘I’ll be attending the meeting of the Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at that time, in Seattle. You couldn’t come to Seattle, could you?’

I can come and I do. And so I don’t go to Pittsburgh.

In Seattle, a sizeable city where the rain falls, coffee shops and bookshops abound – as in Melbourne. The coffee is good, just about good enough to compensate for the weather. Like Melbourne, Seattle is a UNESCO World City of Literature. I feel at home in Seattle’s mists and drizzle, with Seattle’s coffee and bookshops, and in the city’s richness of cultural endowment.

I attend the conference and I soak up the latest research into adolescent mental health. I see how my friend David knows everyone, how they cherish and venerate him, how the younger researchers find him inspiring. Over thirty years’ leading child psychiatry in Pittsburgh David has contributed richly to his field. Adolescents without number he saves from death by despair. A few years back I see him at his work, one-on-one with kids whose lives are blighted from the start. I see and I marvel at the pioneering work that keeps these kids alive and helps them thrive.

It turns out the Academy are honouring David, choosing him to give the Plenary Address. On occasions like this Americans enjoy pomp and formality. The Plenary is a grand event. Every delegate attends. A great hall fills. David and his fellow Illuminati – numbering perhaps one hundred – occupy tiered rows of seats facing the audience. The audience of seven hundred delegates and their friends and spouses fills the remaining rows. Oratory bursts into flower, moving with the spirit from Grandee, to Honoree, to Celebrity, to Worthy Worker. As Yeats wrote, ‘…all’s accustomed, ceremonious’.

I sit in the front, opposite my friend, myself aglow in his glory. David sits, pregnant with the words that will distill his wisdom. But before he will speak, we must hear from a Traditional Leader of the Peoples native to this area. Her name, we read, is Connie McCloud. A short, stout woman rises to her feet before us. She is not young. I notice her heavily tinted spectacles. You don’t need sunnies in Seattle; perhaps her sight is impaired. The woman does not move until a younger man with brown skin offers an arm, which she accepts, and she descends ponderously to the lectern. The President of the Academy introduces the speaker: ‘ It is an honour for me to present Connie McCloud to offer us her Blessing and her Welcome. Miss Mc Cloud has led her people, the Puyallup, for over thirty years.’  Someone adjusts the microphone to her height. Connie McCloud stands and regards us, visitors to her lands. She thrusts a fleshy arm upwards and she gives voice.

The voice is at one moment strong, freighted with pride and feeling, the next moment faltering beneath that heavy freight. The woman tells us proudly of her country, of its sacred mountain, its waters, its nourishing salmon, its deer, its skies and clouds and forests. ‘We have always been here! Despite all attempts to bring that to an end, we have always been here!’ The voice rises and the woman declares, ‘And God damn it, we are still here!’

She flings her stout arm backward and upward: ‘Our sacred mountain, which you will be told is Mount Rainier, is Tacoma. A newcomer named it for a friend of his, a magistrate named Rainier. Mister Rainier never visited these lands. He never saw our mountain.’  I’m reminded of Alice Springs, named for Alice Todd, absentee wife of the telegraph surveyor. The true name of that place is Mpartwe.

The speaker speaks of her lineage. She names her father, names his, then traces both to the brother of Great Chief Seattle. (As far away as Australia we’ve know that name for the lines attributed to him upon the imminent surrender of his lands: ‘Every part of the earth is sacred to my people. Every shining pine needle, every sandy shore, every mist in the dark woods, every meadow, every humming insect. All are holy in the memory and experience of my people.’)

At length Connie Mc Cloud says, ‘Here is my blessing. Here is my prayer for your success here in our lands. Here is my prayer that your wise people, your leaders, will find a cure for this suicide that takes away our young people.’ Oratory comes to its end as Connie Mc Cloud bursts into song. None of us non-native persons has heard song such as this. An ageing woman’s voice rises and falls, consonants and vowels sewn together into a strange fabric of slow rhythms and novel patterns, make their way into our stilled being. A sense of something solemn, something authentic and ancient and potent, penetrates us. The song rolls along, a river of sound that flows, from age to age, with steady pace, to its last syllable. We know a serious peace. I look up. David is mopping his eyes even as I do the same.

https://www.theolympian.com/news/local/article203194544.html

When at length David does speak, it is of death – of the premature loss of our young at their own hands. David is not a morose person. His rubicund features glow with ready playfulness. The life and the play reside alongside the gravitas of the protector of young lives. David’s theme this evening is ‘Saving Holden Caulfield.’  The reference is to Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, in which Holden Caulfield imagines himself as the catcher of children who tumble helplessly over a sheer cliff at the edge of a ryefield. David and his colleagues are the catchers below the ryefields from which our true life teenagers leap.

David begins with a light-hearted remark that I don’t catch. He twinkles and his audience relaxes. Then it’s down to business: ‘After all these years we’re seeing not a fall in teenage suicide, but a rise. After all these decades of research and treatment we’re not winning. It’s not as if we don’t know what works: research has shown us what works; we’re simply not implementing it. After these many years in the field my mind turns to retirement, to enjoying the grandchildren. But there’s that graph’ – David points to the rising line of trend on his slide – ‘and I’d like to see it point downward before I leave the field.’

David flies back to Pittsburgh, to Nancy and his children and his grandchildren. His house stands 500 yards from The Tree of Life Congregation where a family gathers on Shabbat to name their eight-day old baby boy.  A man posts on Facebook, ALL JEWS HAVE TO DIE. The man enters the congregation and the following are named among those who die:

• Joyce Fienberg, 75, of Oakland;

• Richard Gottfried, 65, of Ross;

• Rose Mallinger, 97, of Squirrel Hill;

• Jerry Rabinowitz, 66, of Edgewood;

• brothers Cecil Rosenthal, 59, of Squirrel Hill, and David Rosenthal, 54, of Squirrel Hill;

• married couple Bernice Simon, 84, of Wilkinsburg; Sylvan Simon, 86, of Wilkinsburg;

• Daniel Stein, 71, of Squirrel Hill;

• Melvin Wax, 88, of Squirrel Hill;

• and Irving Younger, 69, of Mount Washington.

A Pogrom in Islamdom

2013 has been the year of the burning church. Throughout Islamdom churches burn. 

It started before 2013. For over a decade I have seen my Coptic patient from Egypt beside himself with grief and anxiety as he watches his relatives trapped in fear, paralysed like a kangaroo doe in my headlights, unable to resolve – to flee or to stay?
He sits, this large man, in my consulting room and nurses his ulcer. Gaps, lacunae of silence in the consulting room and his eyes fill with tears as the silence falls and swells.
At present Egyptian Copts burn bright and hot enough to hit our papers. Syrian Christians burn.
Elsewhere, in Iraq, the oldest Christian community in the middle east convulses. In 1991, Christians in Iraq numbered 1.3 million people; today they number 300,000 to 500,000. Catholic Chaldeans, Nestorians, Orthodox, almost all Iraqi Christians are ethnic Assyrians. Assyrians speak Aramaic, lingua franca of Jesus. From time to time I meet a Christian from Iraq in the Children’s Hospital where I work. When I address him and his family in my rudimentary Aramaic (which is, of course, an inherited language for any Jew who has ever opened the Talmud), their faces open in disbelief, in joy, in homecoming from linguistic exile.
(While liberal Christian groups turn a blind ear to the slaughter of fellow Christians there exists but one country in the middle east where, as Gabriel Nadaf, a priest, declares, “we feel secure”. Guess which country.)
Last week 34 Assyrians died in a church bombing in Baghdad. In 2010 a series of ‘suicide bombings’ (call sign of the hero martyr, history’s adolescent crying LOOK AT ME! LOOK AT ME!) killed 58 people. There have been 71 church bombings reported in Iraq since 2004.
So much, so normal, so historically unremarkable. So much blood: thirty four here, fifty eight there. Have you seen how much blood there is in the body of but one human being? (I have. Cain did. God called to him saying: “The bloods of your brother call out to Me from the earth.”
Why bloods – in the plural? Because, explains the commentator Rashi, no-one had seen a human die before Cain. No-one knew how much blood
there was in one human brother.)
We know now about the blood of the human person. We cannot plead ignorance.
I remember another time – it was recent, only November 1938 – when houses of worship burned, when the bloods of my brothers cried out.
I remember the shameful silence of the decent civilised world. I remember the silence of churches, governments, communities in Australia
following the great pogrom that was the night of broken glass. I remember how my people was forgotten. I remember the silence.
I remember William Cooper and his Aborigines Advancement League raising the sole protest in Australia against the pogrom.
There are pogroms occurring throughout Islamdon. There is a great silence here.
Do we need to wait for another Australian Aboriginal leader to awaken this nation, to rouse its parliaments, its churches, synagogues and mosques, its noisy Boycotters, its pious Divestors, its smug Sanctioners, to cry: “I am my brother’s keeper?”

Back in Print

This blog wears a yarmulke. It observes the many and protracted Feasts and Appointed Times of the Jewish religious calendar. It reflects, repents, atones and fasts over the High Holydays and it prays and feasts and feasts over the endless Festival of Tabernacles. The blogger gets holier, purer and fatter but writes not, nor blogs.

 

I’ve brought a note to explain my absence. It reads:

I have been walking in the ways of my fathers. As a result I didn’t write blog posts. It wasn’t a case of ‘couldn’t be bloggered’, just that you aren’t allowed to write on the holy days: writing is working.

 

Now I am back.

 

 

I’ll tell you a story. It’s a true story: I saw it happen with my own eyes.

 

It was on Yom Kippur, around the year 1956, that a small girl stood in the row in front of mine in the great synagogue and read her prayers. Small, bony, freckle faced, auburn haired, she stood among the men, close to her father and her brothers, and read those endless prayers. In all the empty vastness, beneath the great vaulted roof, the girl stood and read the order of service, word by word, letter by painstaking letter, in the archaic Hebrew.   

At intervals her small bony fist beat her left breast as she read the Musaph prayer, the long additional service. 

After twenty minutes or so the few men standing either side of her completed their reading and sat down. The child did not notice. Head down, with her right forearm a horizontal pendulum, her fist rising and falling against her left breast in slow periodicity, she beat out her ‘sins’:

“For the sin we committed in thy sight without intent, (thump);

And for the sin we committed in thy sight by lustful behaviour (thump).”

 

The synagogue swiftly filled. The cantor began his sung repetition of the Musaph prayer. The child, nowhere near finished, read on, beat on:

“For the sin we committed in thy sight by oppressing a fellow man (thump);

And for the sin we committed in thy sight by lewd association (thump)…”

 

As the repetition continued the congregation lifted its voices in chanted responses to the Cantor. At intervals the choir burst into song. Red head bowed, slow sentence by audible thump, the dogged child continued her reading. She had commenced, with the field, thirty minutes earlier. At this rate I reckoned she’d still be standing there, reading and beating for another twenty minutes.

 

A latecomer, a man, arrived to take his usual seat in this all-male section of the synagogue. Shaking thrice-annual hands – Gut Yomtov, Gut Yomtov – he progressed along the row of seasonal faces towards his seat. Bonhomie, smiles,  handshakes distracted him from the problem I could see coming. The man would be unable to reach his seat, let alone sit in it. A small red-headed child, a girl, oblivious of this world, stood in front of his seat reciting the Musaph Amidah, literally ‘the additional standing prayer.’

During an Amidah the worshipper stands in place, feet unmoving, until the end. Further, during this prayer speech is forbidden. I feared for the red-headed trespasser who would well know she should not yield place nor respond in speech to request or greeting or command until the grim end. What would she do?

 

Latecomer, standing in mutual discomfort between the feet of the incumbent in the penultimate seat, took in the sight of the obdurate breastbeater. His face registered incomprehension, then frustration, finally defeat. He backed out, apologizing, embarrassed, bonhomie eclipsed, hands not clasping friendly hands, back to the empty end of the now fully occupied row.

 

The man turned and left the synagogue.

 

“For the sin we committed in thy sight by haughty airs (thump);

And for the sin we committed against thee by scornful defiance (thump)…”

The child, all unwitting continued her reading to the end.

“I read it all, Daddy.”

Proud of herself, she trod lightly the much put-upon feet of the row of men, making her father’s seat. She climbed onto her father’s lap and settled there, sucking her thumb.

 

After a good while the usurped man returned to the synagogue. As he made his progress to his seat, he looked around. I saw, in addition to the normal prayer book and Tallith bag, he carried a small package. Arrived at his seat, he searched the rows for something or someone. At length he saw her, his trespasser. His face of serious purpose fell open into a wide smile. He waved to the child, caught her gaze. Uncertain, she smiled back. The man beckoned her to come to him. She looked at her father, who nodded.

Trampling again she slipped and wove her way along the row to the place of her earlier devotions.  The man stood, waiting. He took her right hand and shook it. He said something to the girl and handed her the package. He pinched her cheek gently as his smile once again broke his face open. 

 

The girl hurried back to her father. She opened her package and took out a miniature ladies’ handbag, elegantly crafted in parti-coloured leathers, an exquisite piece.

 

Whenever she attended synagogue I saw the child carrying that handbag, until maturity claimed her and she disappeared upstairs to the Ladies’ Gallery.

 

 

 

By the River Derwent, there we sat down.

The Hobart Synagogue is Australia’s oldest. It was not always thus:  Australia’s first Jews arrived in Sydney – involuntarily – on the First Fleet and built a synagogue well before the Hobart structure arose in Argyle Street. Fortunately (for Hobart) the Sydney Synagogue burned down.

For one year, my wife and I worshipped regularly at the Hobart Synagogue. Ten males over the age of thirteen are needed for a quorum for public prayer in Judaism. Such a group is a minyan, from the Hebrew word for counting. In 1970 we were a small minyan – we counted just four – my bride Annette, Mr. Fixel, Mr. Lewis and Mister me.

In its heyday in the 1890’s the Hobart Jewish Community numbered fifteen hundred souls. They were as numerous as the community in Melbourne. By 1970 no Jew of my generation had married Jewish and remained in Hobart: if a person had married a Jew they had left Hobart and moved elsewhere to do so. Annette and I arrived to join the last Jews in Hobart. Or so we thought. But  Russian Jews and South African Jews arrived after left and the community has never quite completed its dying.

I conducted the services. Mister Fixel was Viennese. He arrived punctually and sat erect, his polished brown scalp  and his wide brown face shining in attention. His pronunciation of Hebrew was like my own, a relic of the Germanic, which was distinctive, archaic, and until then  -for me – an embarrassing secret. Mr Fixel himself was a relic, elderly, childless, a survivor. His manner was indelibly courteous and sweet and grave. His sister Heide had survived and lived together with him and Mrs Fixel, whose first name was never pronounced in our hearing. Mrs. Fixel was petite and had fine features and singing Viennese-accented speech. Heide, round faced, brown faced like her brother, moved in her orbit around him, ostensibly serene, a silent satellite.

Annette believed the Fixels had lost children in the Shoah. They lived in Macquarie Street, just over the fence from us, near the lower slopes of Mount Wellington.

Mr Lewis interrupted his Sabbath rest in order to join us and resumed it promptly on arrival. Small, stocky, older than the Fixels (who must have been in their late fifties), Mr Lewis wore a large hearing aid. He’d arrive, sit down and get back to business. He’d snore while I sang. I recall my singing never disturbed his audible rest.

There existed a scattering of Jews, totaling about thirty, who had other business to attend to on a Saturday morning. One of these was the president, Clive Epstein, a bookmaker. Clive was old too, a pillar of the congregation, one of those pillars that function at a remove. He was tall, broad, vigorous and ancient. Whatever Clive said was law and whatever he said, he said in a loud ocker-accented voice. His nose was large, curved and red and he bore his vivid Australianness like a badge of office. His was the authentic voice of Australian Jewishness, the voice of legitimate authority. Lesser Jews, European Jews, quivered and subsided before the Traditional Owner.

We left Hobart after one happy year, left the Fixels quietly lamenting in their dignified way. Mr. Fixel’s face shone with a smile of grief, the smile he wore always, the smile that faced a world in which his future had been taken away.

Copyright, Howard Goldenberg, 10 March, 2013