Before my third child was born I worked in one of the Catholic hospitals in Melbourne. I was a medical administrator in the radiology department and part of my job was to work closely with oncology patients. As you can imagine, you get to know people when you see them regularly.
I became friendly with one patient, after spending time with her after a procedure went uncharacteristically wrong. In these moments, of which I have had too many, people need someone to listen to their life story. The nurses were too busy and as I needed her history for admission anyway it gave an excuse for us to talk. She told me about her brilliant yet absent minded husband, her children and life as a Jewish women in post war Melbourne.
One festive season, I was walking down the corridor and saw Mrs Cohen* sitting, frail and ill from treatment and walked up to her and said “Happy Chanukah Mrs. Cohen to you and your family” and kissed her on both cheeks. She smiled and wished the same for my family and myself.
Fast forward 2 years.
I had recently given birth to my third child and was in the office to show off my baby in order to annoy my old manager. I was standing by the photocopier catching up on office gossip, as Mrs Cohen walked past.
‘Ah, Pinky, Mazel Tov, another boy! Mazel Tov.’ Kisses on both cheeks. “What are you doing for Chanukah this year? And with a new baby boy!”
My response in a squeaking; don’t make eye contact because I’m lying kind of way, “Oh you know…the usual…”
I couldn’t tell her that I wasn’t Jewish. I don’t why. I’m sure she wouldn’t have cared, but she looked so happy when she picked up the baby. It felt mean to burst her bubble given there was a good chance this would be her last Chanukah. Then it dawned on me, I’m an atheist, standing in a Catholic hospital, lying about being Jewish to a dying woman. Oh yeah, I’m fucking awesome. Sigh
Given I had no real idea what happens on Chanukah except what I learnt through reading “The Diary Of Anne Frank” in Year 9 and watching John Safran on the ABC. I thought I covered my bases with my response and she didn’t ask any follow on questions. I know a lot of secular Jews but never ones who celebrated Chanukah in the traditional way. For my family friends it was an excuse to crack out the good stuff and invite the gentiles over for a meal. I wanted to be Jewish when I was a kid, mostly because they seemed to eat a lot and your 13th birthday was the jackpot of all birthdays.
Now, where was I? Right, Mrs Cohen was called over the PA to return to chemo, she said something in Hebrew that I pretended to understand hugged me and said goodbye. I don’t know what happened to Mrs Cohen. I like to believe she made a full recovery and is doting on her Grandchildren, annoying her daughter in law and making sure Mr Cohen is not making a mess in her kitchen.
*Names have been changed to protect the innocent.