Rembrandt’s ‘Return of the Prodigal Son’

In the course of conversation today a man said, ‘My doctor showed me a painting by Rembrandt. It was the Prodigal Son. Do you know it?”

I didn’t know it. 
I pulled Mister Google from my pocket as the man continued: ‘My doctor showed me the painting. I looked at the painting, wondering. I looked back at my doctor. He was looking at the painting and I saw his eyes in a sea of tears.’

It was my turn to gaze at the painting. I was right: I’d never seen the image before. My own eyes stung. 

Tearful in New York City

My red rimmed eyes smart. Tears fall. A victim of homeland security in the United States, I cannot blame the state of my eyes solely on the State of Siege. My blephs were reddened and my tears prone to fall before leaving Australia.

What is blepharitis?

In general I know –itis. -itis is my stock in trade – be it stomatitis, be it balanitis*, be it appendicitis – if it’s inflamed, it’s an –itis. My own inflammation is blepharitis. Blepharitis is the inflammation of an organ that has no known name: search as we might in medical dictionaries and in general lexicons we will find no blephs. But blepharitis, which is the inflammation of that part of your eyelid which is neither external skin, nor internal membrane, but the terminal edge of the lid, hurts in a niggling and mildly miserable manner. The seat of the problem is a scaly deposit, a scurf, somewhat like dandruff, that forms on the edge of the lid. With every blink that scaly stuff scratches the surface of the eye. The eye responds with perpetual tearing.

There is no cure for blepharitis.

My grandson Toby – known in this blog for his flirtations with danger and for his love of this grandfather – witnesses my tears as they swell to a fullness and fall. His insect features tighten with concern. He approaches, leans forward, pulling me down towards him,
studying my face anxiously. His rodent digits grab at my arms to arrest me: ‘Are you sad, Saba?’

His love makes me laugh for joy. My mirth augments the tearing. A full waterfall of affection and my blepharitis is somehow sweetened.

My son-in-law Dov, a rising genius in ophthalmology, advises me: ‘There’s no cure, but there is treatment; you need to dip a cotton bud in diluted baby shampoo then scratch away at the scaly stuff at the edge of your eyelids. I invite my readers to try this: most enjoy the practice quite as much as vaginal douching performed with sandpaper.

On the eve of my trip abroad, I decant some baby shampoo into a urine-less urine specimen jar. I seal the jar and pack it carefully in a nest of socks in my suitcase. On arrival in the United States I open my suitcase and read the enclosed:


To protect you and your fellow passengers, the Transportation Security Administration is required by law to inspect all checked baggage. As part of this process some bags are opened and yours was selected for physical inspection.

My suitcase has been selected! I feel honoured. Glad to protect my fellow passengers in this manner, I rummage for a pair of socks. My fingers report something unexpected, the tactile sensation of something cold and viscous and gooey, not unlike cooled semen. Sticky soggy socks everywhere swim in baby shampoo manufactured by Johnson and Johnson. The urine jar itself is fragmented, shards of plastic dripping yellow.

The shampoo treatment suspended, my blephs scale, my eyes smart and redden and weep. Without Toby’s loving concern blepharitis is no fun at all.

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?”