How are You?

My friend wrote from the sunshine state. How are you doing in the pariah state? When it’s the caller from the electricity company asking how I am, I know she is not interested, so I answer simply and briefly, I’m dying. But when a friend asks I pause to think. He’s asking because he cares. How am I doing? In general I look about me for clues. How are my loved ones? If they are suffering, I know it before enquiring. I know it bodily. My waking thoughts and my restless dreams ache with loving futility.


Well, friend in the sunshine, my firstborn is about to undergo major surgery. The surgery will disable her for a couple of months. She’ll deal with pain whenever she moves her shoulder girdle. Merely to brush her teeth will hurt intolerably. Do you wish to know more? She won’t be able to care for her children. A sole breadwinner, she’ll be unable to win her bread. How’s she doing through it all? She’s dealing with thoughts of disfigurement. She’s alarmed by stories of unbearable pain. But she reminds us, ‘I’ve got the cancer gene, but this surgery is not cancer; it prevents cancer.’

My other children? Number two child has been locked down since February. He’s working from home and he’s loving his household of women, who range down in age from his wife, to his newest, aged four months. He lives in the joy of watching his offspring bloom, and he chafes that he cannot share his loved ones. He’s the bridge between generations. He wants to share his little ones with his elders. He grieves for deprived grandparents, for a great grandmother in her extreme age (‘How many years has Nana left to enjoy, to know her little ones?’); for his siblings too. He knows his little ones are deprived. He’s a bridge and a virus has closed the bridge.

Number three lives in Sydney. Six months have passed since she last saw or touched a parent or a sibling. Six months in the life of a person permanently in exile from family. During those months she’s been diagnosed with cancer, undergone surgery, been cured. In a few weeks she’ll undergo the same cancer-preventing surgery as the firstborn.She subsists with a dozen face time calls a day, but the loving flesh, the warmth of presence, the sharing and the feeding (we celebrate her as a baker and a chef), these she aches for. And as we plan and we cancel plans, and we plan again, the novel virus comes between us. In short she suffers minor cruelties daily; she’ll suffer major surgical cruelties shortly and, God willing, she too will be saved from the genetic cancers that haunt our womenfolk. Overall, good friend, too much detail? I apologise. Our children are brave and loving and they fret for their parents. For us. Golly! Perhaps that was your question. Perhaps you really asked, How are YOU doing? Once again I look about me. I see my wife, a Jewish mother responding to threat by overcatering. Between working at home and trouncing me at Scrabble, and caring for her mother, she overfeeds me and she cooks and packs endless meals for loved ones all about. I feel cared for and loved. I feel safe.

But how am I? In myself? By temperament I tend to be cheerful, optimistic, sometimes vacuously so. But nowadays periods of gloom descend, circumambient fear visits me. My work sustains me with a rewarding sensation of being useful. I enjoy the glow of self-worth. I run a lot and I purge fear and gloom. And I drink plenty of strong coffee which transforms me into a cheery genius.It feels absurd to pity myself in a time when so many suffer so much worse. But if – as the Talmud asks – among the cedars the firestorm falls, what can avail the mosses of the wall? If happy howard is downcast, how much more suffer the cheerless many?

An Outbreak of Bibliophilia

Children, like humans, thirst endlessly for stories. My own seven grandchildren, who range in age from twelve-year old Jesse to two-year old Ruby, love stories. They thirst for story as we elders hunger to give story.

‘My son,’ remarked Rabbi Joshua to Rabbi Samuel (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin), ‘More than the calf yearns to suck the cow longs to give suck.’ How do I know this maxim? That story dates back to the commencement of the academic year in March, 1965, when I purchased the latest edition of Samson Wright’s textbook of physiology. I opened the great tome and found at the foot of an otherwise blank second page the above quotation. The sole yarmulke wearer in the class, I was the only one of 120 students likely to have knowledge of the Talmud. But the passage was new to me. And I was astonished to read the quotation and its attribution in this secular text.

What have the lactation urges of the cow to do with human physiology? Everything, it happens: that interrelation of forces, that feedback loop, that mutual energising is the very stuff of homeostasis, which operates also in markets, in the climate and in the biological relationships between humans. The sage Rabbi Joshua nailed a great truth. But I fear I wander.

The entire purpose of children is to satisfy the need of humans to regale them with stories. The reason children don’t run away is their reciprocal story hunger. The reason we don’t chuck teenagers out is the promise they’ll one day employ their disturbing sexual organs to create grandchildren for us so we can resume storytelling. And that’s what happened: my adult children used their sexual organs for the pleasure of their parents, creating seven grandkids.

All seven served their grandparents well, occupying yearning arms and longing laps, snuggling in and subsiding to the song of the story. Then they learned to walk. Two of seven, both of them boys, took to their heels and never stopped running. In time, although those two learned to read, they never took it to heart; it is in motion that they find themselves, one in organised sports, the other in disorganised sport. (Readers of this blog will recall this boy and the rescue of his fingers when trapped in a bathplug.)

Their bookish grandfather gazes upon the boys and sighs. He calls them to the couch for a story but the call of their balls is louder. Off they run, to soccer, to cricket, to mayhem.

What will become of them? What will become of grandfather?

Later the ball-players have returned home. Grandfather wanders to the toilet. Before him, on the floor, lies a cornucopia of books; the disorganised sportsman comes to a stop in this place. And in this sanctum he reads.

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?”