Doctor of letters

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Henry Shires meets Leah Kaminsky, Elwood GP and now also popular, highly acclaimed, local author of The Waiting Room, the fictional story of an Australian female doctor living and working in terrorist-torn Haifa for whom everyday life in Israel is “ordinary”. Until one day, it isn’t.

Ironically, given the title of her book, Leah keeps me waiting a few minutes. If not actually in her Waiting Room then certainly at a nearby Elwood café.

I break the ice by declaring my only Jewish connection; I teach Tai Chi to a local, women only, Orthodox Jewish Group. “Well there’s a novel,” quips Leah, always thinking, as “being a Jewish mother” (her words) she fusses over me, wanting to make sure that I have a cup of tea and enough to eat. “Or a sitcom”, I parry.

Leah, like her protagonist Dina, left Israel to return to Elwood in 2002.

“Your job today is to ask the hard questions, as President Trudeau said,” Leah commences, giving me a licence to drill.

On how successful has this, her first novel just published, been, she sees the worth of it “not just in dollars and cents” but also in the extent to which it has touched and been associated with –and by– people as diverse as a female Syrian refugee and a young, male Somalian refugee author. It has also, “garnered Book of the Week and Readings, particularly St Kilda, has gotten behind it,” says Leah (interestingly identifying just a touch of international American, or perhaps her teenage native Aussie, rather than the more English “got”).

To my token local question: “Do you really believe, as Dina does in the book, that ‘Caulfield is a place that hope goes to die’?” Leah replies, “The second highest percentage of Holocaust survivors outside Israel ended up settling in Australia, many of them in Caulfield and St Kilda. As the children of these survivors we tried to live very normal, Aussie teenage lives, with Millers shirts and our Treds shoes, and go off to see Gary Glitter or David Cassidy,” (ever the author’s eye for detail) “but there was a tragic underbelly there…in the silences. Our parents rebuilt their lives but there was a lot unspoken. And, as in the case of any huge trauma, there is a transfer down to the children. I don’t believe in ghosts as in Casper the Friendly Ghost sense but I certainly believe that the presences of the dead are there, if we listen, in our memories. (The Norse word for haunt, heimta, means to lead home).”

“But in the book what I am exploring most is the concept of waiting. I very much set out to write a book about its many different aspects. Dina is pregnant and is therefore waiting. Her patients in the Waiting Room are waiting for news, possibly of the life or death variety. It strikes me that we are all born waiting. We are all, ultimately, waiting for the same thing, death. And, in a sense, the rest is just filler”. I begin to feel the wait of the world hanging just above our heads and wonder if Leah Kaminsky is going to turn out to be Leah Dostoevsky at heart.

I wonder if, as she says of her main character, she too is suffering from ‘compassion fatigue’. But then she suddenly flips the world. And me. “I have felt touches of it, especially working in the Middle East for ten years, but the overpowering feeling of being a doctor is privilege. That people trust me enough to share their incredible stories with me. And I used to think I have got to help them, fix them. But now I think that often just listening is enough; for them to have someone who can bear witness, which is also very much what the holocaust survivors needed too, in their day.”

So whether doctor or patient, Jewish or non Jewish, we are all waiting. Perhaps the important thing is what we do while we are waiting in the waiting room of life. Whether you spend the time (metaphorically) flicking through a dog-eared 2006 issue of Better Homes and Gardens. Or whether, instead, you use the time to read, or even write, a beautiful book like The Waiting Room.

And we all need someone to bear witness to our stories, as Leah has done so ably for the stories of her eminently everyday and yet ultimately dramatic characters in The Waiting Room.

To “What next?” She has “…another book already coming out in June, this time a non-fiction. A Matter Of Life And Death, a joyful book about death, which I guess I am using to find out why on earth, even though I am doctor, I am so terrified of death and always have been”.

“I am using the stories of patients in my career, who have been confronted by mortality, who have really inspired me”.

The Waiting Room by Leah Kaminsky is available from Readings St Kilda and all other good bookshops

SKN has two copies of the book to give away to the first two entries “out of the hat” sent by email to by January 31st 2015. Use The Waiting Room Books Giveaway in the subject line. Please include your email address and/or mobile phone so that the winners can be contacted to come and collect their copies from the SKN offices in February.

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