While in Israel

As my fingers hit the keys to write this, I imagine a reader shifting in her seat, adjusting, resuming a familiar position. If you squirmed a little on reading the title of this post, I guess the reason to be the word, the noun, the divisive name, Israel. When it comes to Israel everyone has a position. The position has been preformed, (too often prepackaged, bought cheaply off one shelf or another, marked respectively, ‘’Approve of Everything” and “Disapprove”.) ‘Israel’, the word itself, is derived from ‘struggle.’ The geography of the place, situated at the very crossroads of the ancient world, determines contest. The land sits plonked in a Valley that has seen every kind of Rift.

In my own way, I’m with you, squirmer; I too have opinions and sentiments. What follows is a list of happenings, little events. The reader can weave with these threads, as I do, the pattern of her choosing. I expect I might affront readers of every stripe.

While in Israel, travelling in the family caravanserai, a thirteen-year old grandson visited Yad Va’shem, the Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem, an emotionally hazardous experience for anyone. This is especially true for a child equipped with limitless empathy and less resilience. At the exit the child noticed a black book into which a visitor might register a reaction to the experience: Saba, wait! I want to write something. ‘Writing something’ took some time. A head of dark curls bent over the page, the pencil moved slowly, words were crossed out and replaced as a person of action and quick movement, slowed, stilled and searched within. At last he was done. Saba, you can read it now, he said. I read the following:

On December 15 last year I celebrated my barmitzvah. But here, today, I became a man.

I dedicate this to the person who prepared me for my Barmitzvah.

While in Israel we ate at a beachfront meat restaurant. In Israel ‘Meat’ and ‘beachfront’ both signal ‘expensive’. I decided to choose something affordable; on the menu, Turkey Testicles caught my eye. Do turkeys actually have testes? – I wondered.

No reason why not, I realised. They’d be very small, surely, if all were to be in proportion. More likely than true gonads, the ‘testicles’ would be some oblate spheroid of other flesh, colourfully named. I ordered them.

The family chose the safe and familiar, all the time speculating colourfully on my choice. Grilled meats arrived at table, chicken portions, sausages, kebabs. No surprises, nothing scrotal. Finally, five spheroids of dun flesh arrived on a plate. These would be mine. Breaths were held as I raised my fork, cameras sought, found and aimed as I impaled the first and smallest. It tasted meaty, turkeyish. My teeth struggled for purchase as the nimble little nugget slipped to one side or another. Finally trapped between a couple of molars, the testis yielded and collapsed, releasing a thin fluid (ejaculate, perhaps?) which was not entirely repulsive. The texture? I couldn’t decide. So I ventured a second of the near-spheres. This was unambiguously unpleasant – not the taste but the texture, which was of offal and quite awful. My mouth grappled for gristle, or fibre, for something chewable, but tongue, teeth and gums found only a slippery Gollum of near-solid goop. I cannot really commend turkey testicle. But don’t let me put you off.

While in Israel we went down to the Dead Sea. (Here some exposition of terminology is helpful: from abroad, one goes up to the Holy Land; within the land one goes up to Jerusalem. A spiritual ascent is intended.) But from anywhere on the surface of the planet you go down; the Dead Sea is the lowest point on Earth. We went down.

Nature too goes down to this sea. The Jordan flows from the snows of Lebanon (the name means ‘whiteness’) southward, ever downward, passing through Earth’s many trauma sites – Sodom, Gomorrah, the Cities of the Plain, where fire fell and brimstone rained – down, down to a sunlit sea. The sea is mineral-rich, life-poor. It kills all. All excepting the credulous, who bring their diseases to its waters for the Cure.

With the Negev Desert hulking above you on the right, you follow a road that winds down and down: you have entered and you now descend that storied Rift Valley. Arid Geography from schooldays comes alive in the dramatic silence of that descent. Huge tumbled sandstone cliff-faces on your right fling the gazing eye ever upward. Rugged, broken, appearing ever ready to break open afresh, to swallow you up like the biblical Korach, those Negev steeps keep their menacing silence. In colour the stones of the Negev resemble turkey testes (vide supra), while in sound they resemble nothing at all, so annihilating their silence.

And all the time we whizz and plunge car-bound, so many frantic ants, as if retreating from some dull terror that has no name. All about, on every side, the heat presses down, time pushes down, the brief moment of human history is swamped utterly.

And then the Dead Sea appears below you on your left, its silvery waters silent too, but this the silence of the ineffable serene. You look and you sigh. There on the far side loom the hills of Jordan. Before you on the water, an image of those hills lies reflected. All is still. You, the watcher, feel yourself stilled, your being subsides, the world of cares recedes, quiet rapture consumes you.

Later, as the day begins to die, the waters begin to colour. Pale blue opal appears, giving way slowly, slowly to deepening pinks as the unrippling waters darken and turn metallic. Night falls and your sated soul fills with contentment. Now the moon rises, near-full, and the sea shimmers once more.

Up betimes while the hotel slept, I wandered down to the beach, seeking more glimmer and shimmer. But cloud had settled upon the Rift overnight. I sought sight of the sun that should have been rising above Jordan. The merest glow in the grey was all I saw. The world lay beneath a muted light, lovely beyond words. I wished for a camera and the skill to capture a captured sun. I wished for words I would never find for this moment of deep peace. Alone on the beach I recited the dawn prayers and gave thanks for peace and for beauty.

Had I prayed for a camera and a photographer to operate it I might have found what then materialised, a man and a woman, Nordic blond upon the sand. They too had drunk deep of peacefulness. We greeted each other. I said the sea and the sky and the quiet were beyond capture by word or camera. The man, Johann, produced a telephone and captured these images. Johann and his wife, Gro (pronounced ‘Grew’, Norwegian for ‘Grow!’) were old enough to know we three had stumbled into unwonted moments of gift. The gift bound us in a web of memory. Weeks later, with few words shed, I feel those enduring bonds. The man had photographed shanti.

While in Israel we visited the Western Wall of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. The Kotel, as it is known, is Jewry’s holiest site. You go up to the Kotel. Going up with me were our two recent barmitzvah graduates, a pair of happy philistines who seldom have troubled their Creator with prayer. (They don’t like to impose.) But on visiting this location the sense of occasion, of significance, falls upon all. Would the boys feel lost? I made a suggestion: There’s no fixed prayer. There’s nothing you have to say. Some say the she’ma, which is the first prayer you boys learned. Or you could think of your dearest, secret wish or feeling. You could say that at the Kotel.

We stood before the Wall, its huge stones creamy in the morning sun. There was room to stand a nose-length from the stones. Antiquity, the weather, and a million kisses have all opened small cracks between the stones. Here worshippers have written down personal prayers and squeezed them in, little letters to God. My eyes closed and I whispered to God what He must already know. The boys were not heard, not sensed. At length I opened my eyes. One boy stood close, bending, posting something in a minute gap. The other was nowhere.

In due course we came together and we blessed each other, the three of us. Later I found written in my notebook, the following fragment, prepared for posting in a crack:

Hey God.

Please try to manage hate, discrimination and sad…

‘Try to manage’ – a modest enough way to couch a heartfelt plea – but my heart lurched to think of ‘hate, discrimination and sad’ hurting one of my tender ones. Did he find a crack?

There is a crack/a crack in everything/that’s how the light gets in.

While in Israel, we visited the pavilion that honours the Anzacs at the charge of Beersheba. Here, British, Australian and New Zealand soldiers defeated the Turkish defenders of the strategic wells dug by my biblical ancestors the Patriarchs. The respective allied forces took distinct roles in the battle; it fell to Australian horsemen to attack Turkish gun emplacements on horseback in what is described as the last cavalry charge in history.

At the pavilion we bumped into an ocker individual called Colin, a volunteer guide to the place. Colin grew up in Melbourne and came up to Israel forty-five years ago. He’s older than I, taller than Goliath, rounder than Falstaff, utterly devoted to the place and its Australian heroes. He’s also rigorously honest and quite unwilling to gild any historic lilies in his narrative. He doesn’t need to. If you are Jewish or Australian, or if you’ve ever thrilled to the power of horseflesh at the gallop, I defy you to hear Colin’s account of the charge and to watch footage of the re-enactment and to emerge with dry eyes.

While in Israel my thirteen-year old twin grandsons and I accomplished in 45 minutes at Masada what took besieging Roman armies three years: we reached the top of this mesa on foot. The Snake Path takes its name from its serpentine coiling route up the rugged steeps from Dead Sea level. Only Ancient Romans and boys at puberty choose to make the climb on foot in that blazing desert. Others take the cable car.

While in Israel we visited a cousin whose incurable medical condition is so extremely rare most doctors have never heard of it. (I hadn’t.) Of the details of my cousin’s plight I have nothing to say here. Rather, it is of a community that so elevates the care of its disabled that I feel moved to write. I witnessed among Israelis a broad embrace. No-one is hidden away. In the synagogue, in the streets, at tourist sites, in all manner of public places, the ill-formed, the mentally ill, the amputee, the palsied, the intellectually deficient, alongside those extremely aged, ride their electric conveyances and live among their people. Tough Israelis, old and young, include their disabled with tenderness. I saw it on all sides and always I felt thankful and oddly humbled.

While in Israel, at the precise moment of our landing at Ben Gurion airport, the people learned of the results of their elections to the national parliament. We lugged and sweated our way through Immigration and emerged into the dazzle of Israel light. Our cab driver had no words for us; he was listening to the election news.

Mi nitzach (who won)? – I asked.

Bibi.

Our driver discharged himself of those two syllables – that were to comprise his entire conversation – without emphasis or feeling. It was a fact.

In Tel Aviv, on the beaches, in the streets and cafes, on the buses, neither excitement, nor surprise, nor exultation. I sensed a numbness, a resignation: Bibi had gained victory, but respect? Irrelevant question, it appeared.

(An aside, a quiz:

1. Who won five of the last six elections in Israel?

2. Who won five of the last six free, clean elections in the Middle East ?

Answers to 1 and 2: the same person)

While in Israel the New York Times cartoon appeared: Trump in a black yarmulke, led by dachshund–Netanyahu, wearing a Star of David. Oops, sorry, a mistake, said ‘The Times.’ Some readers were surprised, some shocked. I was one who felt both, personally, and deeply disturbed. A violence had occurred in my immediate vicinity; a newspaper like the ‘The Times’ is that territory of thought occupied by people of moderation, of contemplation, of liberal values.

The cartoonist pleads the absolute, inviolable sanctity of free speech. A week or so after ‘The Times’ published the cartoon, someone decided to attack a Jewish house of prayer and study in Poway, California. Only one fatality.

Barely seventy years have passed since the unspeakable. Few remember, fewer know. Memory does not prevent repetition. Where today does the Jew feel secure? As I write this news arrives of four hundred rockets fired from Gaza onto civilian targets in Israel. Illogically, in precisely that place where most attacks occur, a Jew feels safest. Ultimately there exists but one land where the Jew is not the stranger, not dispensible.

On an isolated beach south of Haifa I went running with a friend and colleague, an Israeli Paediatric Emergency Physician. Picking out a ragged path between clumps of ground cover I kept a sharp eye out for snakes. ‘Do you treat much snakebite in Israel? – I asked. ‘Not so much in the cities, but down south, around Beersheba, plenty.’

‘What species?’

‘Viper.’

‘What about scorpion bite?’

‘Plenty.’

I thought about our countries’ respective biters. Scorpion bite in the Australian outback is not common. I’ve not heard of any fatalities.

An old story came to mind; my friend had never heard it, so I told him: A frog was swimming in the Nile when a scorpion called to him from the bank.

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.