Birth of a Pearl

My mother’s name was Yvonne but her sister’s children called her Bom. I believe that name was the gift of her toddler nephew for whom Yvonne was too large a mouthful. That scapegrace nephew entered Bom’s life before she had children of her own. From the first, the two treasured each other with the distinctive closeness of the boy who finds a second mother, and the sister (yet childless) who yearns to mother.

The aunt moved to the country town of Leeton where she promptly hatched a litter of her own, of which I was the second born. From time to time the nephew (it’s time to give him a name: let’s call him Barry) was sent to us in Leeton, where his sojourns were long and wild and wonderful. His parents sent him to us ‘for the country air’, ‘for his asthma’, ‘to recover from the injury when a stake went through his belly’. All understood the true reason: They sent Barry to us when his parents needed respite. Bom would take Barry to her bosom, and he thrived.

In Leeton Barry taught us the Facts of Life. I have found these Facts to be of enduring value. He taught us too, a game called Murder in the Chook House, which I have described fully in my book titled My Father’s Compass. But all wild things must end and eventually Barry would return to Melbourne.

Contrary to all prediction and expectation Barry reached the age of thirteen without being hanged. His family marked the occasion with a barmitzvah celebration in the grounds of their beautiful home. The heavens marked the occasion too, with the mercury reaching 112 degrees. A marquee appeared on the tennis court, glamourous women sprang up like so many flowering shrubs.  Barry behaved with mature grace, accepting gifts and tribute without complaint.

Among the adult company present that day one particular beauty stood out. She was a person, someone said reverently, from Channel Nine. We didn’t have TV but I’d heard of Channel Nine. This lady’s job was to be beautiful on television. Today she was being beautiful at Barry’s family home.

TV Beauty Brenda Marshall

I came upon her seated in a shady spot next to my mum.  The two were talking. Beauty was admiring a pearl suspended from my mother’s throat.

What a beautiful pearl, Mrs Goldenberg!

Thank you. Daddy found it at the bottom of the sea and brought it home and gave it to me.

How? I mean where..?

Daddy was a pearl diver in Broome.

How wonderful!

Yes. He taught us girls  – that’s Barry’s mother and me – this poem:

When the first drop of rain

Fell from the clouds

Into the deep blue sea…

Mum’s manner of speaking carressed the words into being. They’d tumble from her and flow sweetly to you. Ready to be embarrassed, I watched TV Lady anxiously. Channel Nine was leaning forward, her red lips parted. I saw the pearls that were her perfect teeth. She leaned and listened and she did not move.

She was tossed, small and wistful, by the waves.

How minute I am in all this immensity, she cried.

And the sea replied: Thy modesty pleaseth me.

I shall make of thee a little drop of light.

Thou shalt be the fairest jewel among jewels…

 

 

The TV lady turned slightly to look again at Mum’s pearl pendant.

Thou shalt even rule woman.

 

 

Mum stopped, looked up at her companion, smiled:

And a pearl was born.

Wandering

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.