My son, the writer

Melbourne doctor Howard Goldenberg has written an honest, touching and bold tribute to his father.

father book 88 224 (photo credit: )
father book 88 224
(photo credit: )
My Father's Compass: A Memoir By Howard Goldenberg Hybrid 236 pages; $29.95 Australian born and bred Howard Goldenberg's writing debut is an unapologetic testimonial to his late father, Myer Goldenberg MD, which manages to safely navigate the minefield of saccharine sentimentality. My Father's Compass: A Memoir is eminently readable, replete with family vignettes and mostly amusing anecdotal recollections, and lends itself either to being devoured at one sitting or, if you are the kiss-and-run reading type, being sampled and digested in installments. Goldenberg Jr., 62, makes no bones about his purpose. The biography opens with a simple and all-embracing declaration of intent: "My father was a faithful Jew. He was also a radical skeptic." The oxymoronic scene thus set, Goldenberg goes on to regale the reader with the story of a somewhat typical Jewish family growing up in a totally atypical purlieu. "We were the only Jewish family in Leeton," says Goldenberg, referring to his diminutive hometown far from the "civilized world," approximately 550 km. west of Sydney and 450 km. north of Melbourne. "And we were an observant family at that," he adds in an interview while on a recent visit here. One of the most endearing qualities of My Father's Compass is the tongue-in-cheek style that dominates the 200-odd page tome. There are plenty of glimpses of childhood insouciance and, as the author himself notes, "there are a couple of chapters in the book which will not endear me to the haredi reader." One of those involves a detailed and hilarious account of boyish high jinks in the bathtub as the author and his brother get a quick - and painful - anatomy lesson from an older cousin. But it is not all humorous. There are some unabashedly emotional passages about, for example, Myer's failing health as he enters his 90s, and Howard's and older sibling Dennis's attempts to protect their aging father from himself. The book is also a fascinating account of extremes. In addition to Howard's succinct opening description of his father's take on life, the Goldenbergs are patently a pack of religious fish out of water. In the early part of Howard's life there is no Jewish community to hand in Leeton: The family started relocating to the far more Jewish lifestyle-friendly urban environs of Melbourne when he was nine. The writer has no childhood recollections of holding his dad's hand en route to shul. The incongruity of the familial cross-cultural mix is further enhanced when you learn that the author's paternal grandfather was born in Jaffa and ran away from a less-than-sympathetic stepmother to Australia as a penniless 12-year-old stowaway. However, far from feeling displaced, Goldenberg Sr. not only manages in his extraneous cultural milieu, he actually thrives. "My father was a really remarkable man," says Howard, not for the first or last time. "You don't have to engage in any hyperbole, or to love him, to see that." Myer Goldenberg's CV seems to support that filial claim. Briefly, he was a country doctor in a small town, father of four, devoted husband, gardener, carpenter, olive grower, French polisher, sailor and shipwright. The latter two interests may explain the book's title. In fact, the compass is of a more philosophical ilk. "My father was a strong man - sometimes brutally so - and he guided us through the early parts of our life," says the author. "My father explained to us that a compass doesn't always point to the true north, but his compass always pointed us in the right direction." In many ways, Goldenberg, who followed his father into the medical profession, is a chip off the old block. Despite spending most of his waking hours tending to people's health, Goldenberg is an avid sportsman - he runs marathons in his spare time - and has been quietly honing his writing skills for over half a century. "I've written all my life. I've been writing since I was seven. I was the youngest editor of our school magazine. Nobody had heard of me before this, I'd never been published before." Now that he has, does he foresee future literary endeavors? "My Father's Compass: A Memoir is a sort of consummation, but also a beginning." That said, he does not exactly see himself as a Pulitzer Prize recipient. "I'd like to be known as a third-rate writer. If you put Tolstoy, Goethe and Melville there, and Shakespeare, and maybe Dickens - he might get in, he was a great storyteller - than you'd have to put people like Graham Greene and [Gabriel Garcia] Marquez on the second rung. I would settle for being known as a third-rate writer. Occasionally I've written a sentence or a paragraph that I've thought would give people some pleasure, and has some beauty to it. There have been the odd nuggets amongst a lot of ore." At the end of the day, Goldenberg just wants to tell a story. "I believe in stories. It's a sort of credo. When I was a young boy two great storytellers told me great stories. Dad was the teller of the stories of the Bible. He told us about Abraham and his two sons, Isaac and his two sons and Jacob and his 12 sons. All those sons quarreled and fought, just like my brothers and me. You could feel the passion in the way he told those stories. This was my introduction to the power and drama of stories." Mrs. Goldenberg Sr. complemented those religiously oriented bedtime sessions with tales of a more secular nature. "When she told us stories, we walked the Yellow Brick Road and we faced pirates on Treasure Island. Although we learned there was evil, we also learned that goodness and bravery may yet win the day."