A Dream

In early 2018, fourteen of Clan Goldenberg descend on a vast villa in the Dominican republic. We have not been long in DR before we start to feel its bite. While we reside in a vast house of huge rooms and lush grounds the world outside is very different. Simply put, the people are poor. While the sun-and rain-drenched soil feeds most of its 13 million people more-or-less adequately, measures of relative poverty place DR 19th-poorest on the planet. Schooling is free but generally brief and standards are deplorable. We read of teenage pregnancy – 28 percent of girls aged eleven to fifteen have undergone termination of pregnancy. Unemployment and sub-employment drive a cycle of generational poverty. The poor attend poorer schools for a shorter period. They leave, they marry too young, and it all starts again.

There is, it appears, something of a solution. For every additional year that a girl stays at primary school there accrues a 3% rise in her employability. But for every additional year of high schooling, employability rises 26%.

 

 

So far, so regrettably common. But there’s something uncommon about this particular half-island. In 1938 two of the worst humans of modern history found themselves at cross purposes. While Hitler worked to persecute, and finally to exterminate Jews, Trujillo, the Dominican butcher-dictator, strove to save them.

At the ill-fated Evian Conference, convened by Roosevelt to find countries of shelter for Jews, thirty-two nations gathered. The setting was elegant, the food sublime, the sentiments uniformly noble. The outcome was disastrous: America remained obdurately closed; Britain accepted children but kept Palestine closed to Jewish immigration; vast, empty Australia piously declared: we are a young nation without a racial problem (really?) and we have no wish to import one…

 

 

Nation number 32, the Dominican Republic, vowed to take 100,000 Jews.  Why did Trujillo make his offer? While opinion is divided about his motivation it seems he was anxious to improve his image following his recent massacre of 20,000 of his countrymen. Trujillo, himself partly black, was a racist who used to powder his face white for public appearances. He stated he sought Jewish immigration to raise the standards of Dominican agriculture and industry. He added openly his wish that by intermarrying with locals, European Jews would whiten his citizenry.

It is this mixed package of information that bites us. In Sosua, in the neglected north, we find a remnant Jewish community, proudly Dominican, proudly Jewish, unashamedly religiously ‘impure’. Sosua speaks to the grateful heart. A friend from New York helped to endow a school here for the children of the poorest, dedicating it to the memory of his mother Flora, herself an early childhood educator.

Sosua bit our friend and it bit my family too. We are accommodated between Sosua and Cabarete in a gated community of vast villas with yawning ceilings, timbered walls and picture windows opening onto lush grounds. Cheerful Dominicans bearing weapons protect us (from cheerless Dominicans?), patrolling the grounds day and night. Their guns have the look of the blunderbuss, somehow horrific and laughable at the same time. It is all very comfortable – just a little too comfortable for comfort. A comfort from which our New York friend relieves himself by working relentlessly for the people of DR, both Gentile and Jewish.

Two days ago we visited the school named for Flora, a part of the DREAM Project. The drive from Sosua to Cabarete was punctuated by the now-raining, now-sunny weather and the familiar dicing with death of the weaving motocyclistas along the perpetually slippery roads.

When we reached Cabarete’s sole traffic light we turned right, as directed, along Callejon de Talloga. This little ribbon of road twists and turns though the Dominican village, a place vivid for its street life and stark for its street life. People here abide in evident vivacity and in evident want.

We become lost repeatedly in side streets too narrow for a U-turn. Few of the villagers speak English but everyone knows the two words, DREAM Project. Faces light up, people point, someone materializes as designated interpreter and directions are given.

The roads are narrow, footpaths are lacking, and soft human bodies share the roadway with battered cars, bikes, motorcycles and hungry dogs. Dwellings are tiny and insubstantial. They will not survive the next hurricane season. Eateries are very numerous, generally someone’s front room. Bright colours, lounging youths, slim-hipped schoolgirls, their bodies advancing to a ripeness far beyond their years, smiles everywhere, people moving with the grace of dancers; life is pinched but never mean.

We turn a corner and here are the DREAM Project’s Flora Rabinovitch premises. By chance our visit coincides with the inauguration of something. The fundraiser, a charming American called John, shepherds a small herd of pink visitors to an outdoor shelter where he explains the DREAM in fluent and quite accessible Spanish and in English.  Seated on the ground before us is a class of three-to five-year olds, the pupils of the beginners’ grade. The children observe deep decorum, their bodies unmoving, their grave faces a mute challenge to all: behold my irresistible humanity.

 

 

The fundraising man is handsome, utterly charming, and he is paid to charm us. He certainly charmed me. If he told me he was going to campaign for the re-election of the incumbent President of the United States I would probably follow him and drink at his Tea Party.

But charm is needless. Outside on the street the need is visible and unpretty. Here in the bricks and flesh of the school is a serious gesture towards cure. John-the-Charming reels off figures and facts: We now have ten regional and rural schools, we have 750 students, we teach by the Montessori System…

 

 

Montessori! My own children attended a Montessori school. It stands for a learning which is neither rigid nor structured; rather the child chooses what to task to learn, and having once learned it, moves onto another. The teacher explains: The child learns tasks of living. We prepare the child for life at each child’s pace. The pace can be quick: many of our four-year olds are reading.

In the USA Montessori means private; private means money. These kids of the DREAM receive schooling that most Yanquis can only dream of.

  

 

We sweat for a while in the blaze of day then follow John and the teacher to the classroom of Beginners. The flesh and curls teacher closely resembles the young woman of the billboard, at work among her charges. We stand, towering above children who are impossibly small, impossibly beautiful and so, so solemn.

The children will invite you to come and sit. They will teach you what they have mastered.

 

 

One child takes my hand in hers and sits me down at a tiny table. She turns, walks a little distance to some shelves where she selects a tray, which she carries studiously to our table. She sits. Upon the tray I see small sheets of coloured paper and a small bucket filled with sharpened pencils. I ask her name. Facing downward she makes a small sound which I cannot make out. Rather than disturb her composure by asking again, I hold my peace.  My nameless little teacher takes a yellow pencil and traces a fairly straight line on the bottle-green page. At the termination of the line she draws a roughly circular shape. Gravely she looks up. I nod. Once again Anonymous Child draws something linear which runs to and joins something circular. I might be looking at a balloon on a string, an olive on a twig, or a circle and a line. I nod again. Little teacher hands me a pencil and I do my best to emulate the task she has mastered and taught me.

My lesson is over. I thank the small teacher and approach the adult teacher. I describe an outback school in Australia’s Top End where I saw undernourished children, and where the school feeds them. The pupils eat two hot meals a day on every school day, their sole reliable nutrition. Does the DREAM in Cabarete feed these kids? At mid-morning we have Snack. The government supplies milk and bread. The school supplies cookies. At lunchtime some children have no food and we teachers feed them from the lunches we bring from home. At the end of the day we give leftover bread and milk to children of hungry families to take home.

It’s time to go. A quiet word to John Charming. Yes, the school does accept donationsOne hundred percent of donated money goes to work in the classrooms.

I trust the DREAM. I donate more than I imagined I might at http://www.dominicandream.org/ and so can you.

Watching Women Drowning their Babies

London, heart of anglophone civilisation, cradle of British culture? ‘For british’ read ‘brutish’.

See below. This is a true story.

This morning I watched a group of six young mothers and their babies, aged six to fifteen months, in an indoor pool in London. The pool was heated: they’re very considerate here when they set out to torture their young. The mothers undressed their babies and clad them in little wet suits. Entering the water they held the babies close to their perfidious breasts, murmuring the tender endearments that loving mothers do. They walked backwards in a circle, bouncing their babes in the water, hoisting them high, beaming, beaming all the time. Choreographed by Nicola – that’s the name of the licensed water torturer – the same cooing, smiling mothers all splashed water into the faces of their young. Spluttering, the babes looked up, discomfited. Their mothers chorused “hooray!”, made loving whisper and song, reassured the children that what had passed was not real, then splashed them again. After half a dozen such passes it was time for holding on. Holding on is taught by placing the babe, until now an entirely earthbound being, facing a horizontal railing just inside the margin of the pool. The mothers all sang “Hold on! Hold On!” Nicola sang the same. A sweeter chorus you never heard. Then the mothers let go of the slippery bodies, singing gaily as the newborn of their flesh slipped below the surface. Here the babies enhanced their education by breathing in water. After a little bit of this, desperate bodies surfaced, flailing arms found the railing, and most survived. None looked happy, but the mothers beamed and sang and cried “Hooray!”

I looked at my watch. We had been going for only seven minutes of the thirty that the mothers had paid for. I braced myself.

Now came swimming. Swimming is done by having your face pushed beneath the surface and held there for two seconds. To condition you for this submersion your mother calls your name, once, twice, then drowns you briefly, smiling withal. Mother Malvolio brings you to the surface, cuddles and coos. When you are a year old or a little more or a little less, you still can recall those aqueous moments of birth, when you suffered anoxia, your first near-life experience. Here, during the your seconds underwater you go through it all again. You’ve been flatlining: you never felt so thoroughly alive.

Throughout your thirty minute session of education you drink a good deal of pool water, chlorinated for your safety (and to foster your eczema). When you have drunk all your small tummy can hold, you pee, re-warming the water for the next baby to drink. The mothers never drink, their faces held above water level as befits members of an air-breathing species. Instead the adult female bodies shed their dribs and their drabs of belly button fluff and sundry fluids, augmenting the brew drunk by their young.

After too long the session is at an end. Money passes to Nicola. Stunned babies, shuddering, shivering as the cooler air hits them, blue of lip, mute with disbelief and moral shock, nestle in mothers’ arms. Those adults smile at each other in congratulation of their depredations.
Scot-free they’ll congregate here again next Thursday and do it all again.

The Reunion

We met in the grounds of our old school. Cars drew up, old faces emerged, old bodies, sagging here and there, supported by stiffening joints. Faces lit in recognition or knitted in puzzlement – I can’t place you – then opened upon discovery. Older faces, stiffer frames – these were teachers, old and treasured. The pleasure was of a novel sort: it was as if one discovered an aged aunt or uncle not seen for fifty years; and the aged one was as delighted we were at the encounter.
Fifty years. A large chunk of time in anyone’s lifetime, an epoch unimaginable when we left in 1963.
We toured the school, the new and the old. The dunnies hadn’t changed except they were clean.
Afterwards we gathered in the dining hall.
I volunteered to speak about the lost eleven of our classmates. I didn’t want the ninety survivors of the class of 1963 to bee-suck on nostalgia and leave the dead unsung. So I read the following:

Here we are fifty years on.
We have become, I realise, walking memorials to those we have lost.
We travel the roads and the paths of our lives and our minds register: Aunty Sylvie lived in this street…Dennis used to walk his dog in this park…that’s the Shule Dad and his bothers walked to when they were kids…this is the street where my grandparents lived…

Now, gathered here at Scopus again, in this dining hall, beneath this roof, shadows of old friends, old rivals, flash across memory. Teachers we loathed, teachers we revered, those we mocked, those we feared, all move across the mind in their chalky academic gowns. They lived, they did their work and they passed on. And we – we who were once seventeen, eighteen years old and full of wonder about the future – we approach threescore years and ten, full of amazement about the years past.

But we have left some behind. I name them now.

Manny Olian, dead in 1964.
Faye Broons, dead only a few years later – in 1971.
Ephraim Bergner – died early – I haven’t been able to track down the year.
Leon Fust and Suzanne Gescheit in 2006;
Miriam Hamer, Norman Stern, Shareen Fremder – all in 2007;
Joe Serwetarz in 2008.
Zelda Slonim in 2009.
Michael Kowadlo, just over a year ago, in 2012.

The names are the bones. Some I can clothe in the flesh of concrete recollection.

Manny Olian.
Many memories, warm, smiling memories of a thin, manically funny boy, a stranger to malice, a friend who stood out from our glorious contemporaries for his originality of mind. Manny was the source of extraordinary insights that always astonished me. I see Manny holding a pen, grabbing a footy, his fingers spidering, hyperextending, exclamation marks at the extremities of a boy at the extreme.
Manny was a pioneer in death by drugs. During a trip on LSD, Manny stepped off a cliff in England and died.

In my imaginings I see Manny’s parents in 1946, at the time of his birth. They look upon their firstborn and they choose a name. The parents see their child before them and put the unspeakable past behind them. They called him Menachem, “comfort”. Eighteen years later, in 1964 – what comfort do they find?

Fay Broons.
I hardly knew Fay. I wonder how many did know her. Pretty, quiet, shy, ladylike, almost ephemeral at school, Fay was a mother of three little kids by 1971. She started the last weekend of her life in good health and was dead 48 hours later – of fulminating infection, or a brain haemorrhage? – even her family does not know to this day.

Ephraim Bergner.
Ephraim, Effy – that gifted, creative, wild child. Those fabulous good looks, that innocent disconnect from the rules, from the mundane, from consequences.
Our class’s James Dean.
Who was surprised that Ephraim’s life ended early?
Only the exact year, and the precise drug escape me.
What shadows, what secrets, what ghosts, was Ephraim escaping?

Leon Fust, skinny, nimble, fearless on the footy field, subtle and gentle in his thought; I last saw him in an Australian bank in Piccadilly, in an impeccable suit and a bowler. Leon looked the epitome of an English gentleman.
Never sighted again, what did Leon die of? Whom did he leave to mourn him?

Sue Gescheit, her kidneys failing after decades fighting off her viciously severe diabetes; Miriam Hamer, marrying for the first time at sixty, marrying for love, knowing her lung cancer had already spread to her brain; Norman Stern, one so jovial, often an innocent magnet for mischance, Norman, whom I had not sighted since school; he and Joe Serwetarz – the tall, the gregarious, the good looking, athlete – both of them, following just before or soon after Miriam and Sue.

Zelda Slonim – I think I knew her. Did I know her?

Shareen Fremder – I’m sure I didn’t know Shareen.

What does it mean that one passes and passes unknown?
Who knows? Who mourns?
Who carries their memory?

Finally, Michael Kowadlo, passing in 2012.

My first memory of Scopus is of Michael. This big friendly kid takes this very lost, very strange new kid –Howard Someone – from the country! – under his wing.
A week or so later I am climbing the steps of the slide when a bunch of interlopers races up the steps, pushing me aside. My face collides with the steel rail, a tooth chips, my mouth fills with blood and Michael, Big Michael, steps in and pushes the interlopers away. I take my turn and slide down. I meet and enrich a dentist. I become closest of friends with the principal slide aggressor – great to see you again Tommy – and Michael becomes a dentist.
The last 100 times I saw Michael occurred when we both spent a year reciting kaddish in memory of loved ones.

I want to recite kaddish now, and I invite everyone to stand and join with me, in memory of all our lost friends. In memory of Manny – “after the first death there is no other’’, as Dylan Thomas reminds us – in memory of youth, in memory – and in forgiveness – of our lost selves…

Yitgadal ve’yitkaddash sh’mei rabah…

***

After I delivered that sombre material, my voice dying at the end, I looked up. Fifty serious faces looked down. My schoolmates, silent for the first time in our twelve school years and in the following fifty years, did not meet my gaze. Gone was the buzz, the gaiety of moments ago. I had spoiled our evening. Or so I feared.

Mount Scopus College was born in Melbourne just after the end of the War. Fiercely partisan community leaders in their congregations and their factions came to historic agreement to bury difference and to create a school. The compromise they made was without precedent or subsequent. The leaders, the secular with the devout, the Yiddishists with the Hebraists, the political with the cultural, agreed on one thing: this ragged remnant of Jewry must educate its children if Jewry were to survive. So Mount Scopus was born at the same historic moment that we, the class of ’63, were born.
What did we know of the Shoah, what did we learn? Precious little at Scopus, only dark and unspoken shapes and silences from our parents. We did not realize until later that ours was a generation without grandparents.
Our Jewish teachers, burning with an intensity that burned us, cared unaccountably that we learn, that we incorporate the burden of their scholarship; while we, dull and distractible, remained unforgivably innocent, even indifferent to the heritage they were transplanting. Only in Rabbi Schwartz was truth writ clear in the body: his throat, a terrible terrain of wound and scar, remained red and swollen these years later. Somehow we all knew – the Nazis had pulled out his beard.
We are the result, their fruits, this class of 67-year olds, gathered again in the old Scopus dining hall that was also assembly hall and concert hall and community banquet room. Was I the only one to gaze about the room and to marvel at the achievement of Scopus, at the fruits of our parents’ sacrifice? The room crawled with professors, with doctors a dime a dozen, with lawyers, teachers, psychologists, with businesswomen, artists, computer greats. I could see how middle-of-the-roaders in our Scopus class rose to enduring distinction in the wider world. Truly the fires of the fathers had kindled huge drive in the children. Starved parents raised a generation hungry for success. We took our opportunities. Some seized the future, becoming pioneers and creators. We flamed, we made our mark.
Most of us had married Jews and produced Jews. Many of us had sent our kids to Mount Scopus. Making the real sacrifices needed for this costly schooling we endorsed the vision of the founders. Some of us had grandchildren at Scopus.

***

The class of ’63 has been decimated in two quite different ways – one in ten has died; one in ten has emigrated, made aliya – literally ascended – to Israel. Of these latter, three classmates have journeyed here solely for this occasion. It is a long and costly trip; why have they come? Why have others travelled from Western Australia and Queensland? Why have the remaining fifty-odd Melbourne residents bothered?
In the course of our four hours together clusters form and drift. Old intimates greet each other but do not linger, instead moving on to find others less known, less loved. A genuine thirst for connection, a tenderness, a respect – the things we all needed and often begrudged in those rougher days.
In place of the empty phrases of everyday greeting, men and women shake, hug, regard; they take in faces that have ripened and withered and deepened; they see and they don’t need to ask; the face of the other is the face they see in the mirror, a face stricken, blessed, stripped by the years. No-one is measuring, no-one comparing: that which we are, we are…

Four hours, equivalent to half a school day, long enough to discover

Equally interesting to me: why have others chosen not to come?
Two, I know, are disabled by mental illness. A third, with whom I am closer now than fifty years ago, told me she could not imagine a more distressing experience than to return to the terrain and personnel of her schoolday trauma. Having rebuilt herself from her remains, she has retreated to another state where she rusticates and has some peace. She begged me not to press her to come. She forbade me to explain. The committee was to erase her contact information. This friend would be astonished to know how many missed her, how many wondered aloud about her. In the face of this goodwill it was difficult for me to hold my peace. I fed friends scraps: She’s doing well…she couldn’t make it…
In the course of the reunion, another – likewise closer in adult life than in school days – turned up unannounced and stood at the rear, listening to the few speeches. The longest speech was my elegy for the lost. Upon completion of kaddish my friend turned and left in silence.
Not everyone won academic laurels. Not everyone had a stellar career. Some of those present at the reunion, vibrantly present, knew their unsuccess didn’t signify. As we toured the school, one removed his adhesive lapel tag and placed it between the names on the Honour Board. There he was, Dux of Mount Scopus College, now, after fifty years. There he was among us, huge in his mirth and delight.
There would be some who decided not to attend, conscious of ‘failure’ – in career, in material status, in family – unaware that no-one measures any more, no-one judges. We missed them.

***

What is the measure of the years? After fifty years what does it mean? I imagine the survivor of the Shoah washing up on this godforsaken Jewish wilderness, this godspared paradise, looking around, looking forward, never backwards, no never back to those places, those times. He stands, he mates with another survivor. Together they work, they scrape, they venture, they struggle and persist. They raise a generation, often of one only child – the previous children lost, burned – they find the tuition fees, they send the child to Scopus…

The Scopus of today dazzles. I venture to suggest there exist university campuses in Australia which would envy the facilities and the faculty of this school.

In all the vivacity of this evening, the buzz, the energy of this still radiant class of ‘63, in all the softening, the love, there abides among us grandparents the uneasy understanding that a Scopus education is beyond the means of many of our children to provide. Some of my contemporaries, I know, quietly pay their grandkids’ fees. Others work for the school, raising funds for scholarships and bursaries.

What would the founders say? Would they count Scopus a success if the rising generation were locked out?