My father’s father’s name was Joseph. Born in 1886 in Petach Tikvah in Turkish Palestine, Joseph Goldenberg stowed away on a ship at the age of twelve, passing his Barmitzvah date without celebration before disembarking alone in Australia. Papa, as his grandchildren called him, arrived here with five shillings, a working knowledge of Yiddish and Arabic, and no English.
He left his home and his family as a child, remaining an observant Jew throughout his lonely years until his marriage, and beyond, through a long life.
Dad used to say his father was like Joseph in the Bible, a faithful Jew from childhood to old age, steadfast through long exile and separation from his home and family.
Dad found lifelong inspiration in his father’s example.
My own father, Myer Goldenberg (z’l), grew up in Melbourne, married and took his bride, Yvonne Coleman, to the small Riverina town of Leeton, where the couple lived for 14 years, raising four children as knowledgeable and observant Jews. Dad never thought this was remarkable, but it was an unusual achievement and it certainly inspired this son.
Indelible memories come to me from time to time as I recite the Shema, of Dad teaching me to read and to translate every word of this, the first and the last prayer of our Jewish lives. I would sit on his knee, Dad holding his worn and oft-repaired siddur in front of me, his finger showing me each letter and his voice speaking these words time and again: and you shall teach them to your children, and you shall speak of them when you sit in your house,and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down and when you rise up…
A Jewish education of this intensity and intimacy is a rare and precious thing. It left this son with the unorthodox confidence that I could live an orthodox life fully and independently anywhere, with or without a community or a congregation to support me. My father’s example assured me that my own observances, my Jewishness, were proof against distance. Dad had taught me how to be a Jew as I walked by the way.
Dad never had any delusion that distance was a good thing. Well before we reached Barmitzvah age, Mum and Dad had resettled the family in Melbourne, where Dad showed (through his subsequent scores of years of service to Shules,) that the question was not whether he needed a congregation, but what could he contribute to one.
But the ‘harm’ was done. By the time we left Leeton, I had absorbed my father’s aberrant example of distance-proof faithfulness; and ever after I have lived a maverick belief in walking by the way, to remote places, well off the Jewish trade routes, taking with me the observances my father taught me. Over the decades, that phrase in the Shema has come to hint to me that a Jew should actively go bush – as Moses did in his shepherd days, as Elijah did while on the run from the king – to find God.
How did I know about Moses and Elijah? How too did I know about the midnight walk in the wilderness of Jacob; and of his encounter with the wrestling angel? It was Dad’s fault, of course: it had been Dad who brought these heroes of the spirit to life within me.
And so it was that I’d bake challah (read damper) in Leigh Creek, read Megillath Eicha by candlelight in Arnhem Land, host the Jewish residents of Alice Springs for Shabbat meals, discuss Zionism with a knowledgeable Elder in the Ngaanyaatjarrah Lands, sing Hebrew songs with one of the Strong Women at Galiwin’ku, sound the Shofar in Ellul at Wamoom; and celebrate Shabbat in the Andyamathanha wilderness with one of Melbourne’s leading rabbis.
(And so it was that I was been absent so often and so painfully from shules, from tolerant children and perplexed grandchildren, from a neglected wife and from a lonely mother.)
All of this unorthodox conduct had some unexpected results. I found what Joseph finds when sent by
his father to “see the peace of his brothers”. Wandering, lost in the wilderness, Joseph meets a mysterious stranger who asks – in a singular phrase – “what will you seek?”
Joseph replies, in a sentence that is equally pointed
syntactically, “(it is) my brothers (whom) I seek.”
The brothers whom I found are the first Australians. In encounter after encounter over a decade or more I have met and worked with Aboriginal people in the outback, discovering much about them, more about my
Jewish self, and writing, writing all the time of these experiences.
(That writing gave birth to a book, Raft, launched at Melbourne Writers festival in 2009.)
And deeply moving to me were those experiences as a practising Jew, when alone in God’s creation, I’d wrestle with the angel, and where I’d catch the echo of a still soft voice.
And, morning and evening, as I’d rise up and lie down in those far places, I’d recite the Shema, that prayer of portable Judaism that my father taught me.