From Laurenzo Marques to Nyngan on Bogan

A man accosts me in the darkened lobby of the hospital in the small town where I’m working. ‘Shalom’, he says.
He gropes inside the front of his shirt and pulls out a silver magen david.
‘Shalom aleichem’, says I.
We swap names. For the purposes of this story, his name is Federico.
Federico looks not ancient, not brand new. He’s tall, compact, has an olive complexion and he bends forward as he speaks. His accent is not Australian-made. His English is arrhythmic.


‘What are you doing In Nyngan, Federico?’
‘I live here. Thirteen years now.’
‘Will you tell me your story?’
He does so.
 
 Before I repeat Federico’s story, allow me orient you to the remote, obscure town of Nyngan by referring you to my recent blog post (Nyngan on the Bogan).
 
Back to Federico: ‘I come from Mozambique. You know, was colony of Portugal. In 1976 Salazar dies. A bastard, Salazar. Like Franco, not a Jew-lover. Both of them, friends of Mussolini. Salazar dies, the blacks start to revolt and Portugal says, OK, we leave. They just run away, no negotiation, no transition. Then starts the war. A civil war. Massacres, the usual thing. First the Portuguese come to the coast in sixteenth century, they set up the port, Lorenzo Marques, a stopping place to their bits of empire in India. They go to India for the spices. They build their African colony by sending all their criminals, convicts. Like Australia. Like Australia, the same, those convicts become successful and they are comfortable. Portugal comes, butchers the blacks, in 1977 they go, then more massacres. Africa.
 
A nice place actually, Mozambique – for a Portuguese. But not now, not in ’77. In ’77, I know if I stay I will die. I leave my birthplace. My barmitzvah was there. In the synagogue, in Lorenzo Marques. Now I am in Portugal, a refugee, among all the refugees – from Mozambique, from Timor, from all places that Portugal runs away from. I cannot go back to Lorenzo Marques. Another Jewish refugee. History’s old story.
 
 
No-one can go to LM now. It does not exist: now the town is Maputo. And the big statue of that old colonist, Lorenzo Marques, they tear it down. Now in that square is a sculpture of a bird.   
 
 
My grand-grandfather comes from Portugal to Mozambique. Now my family, all gone, all scattered. Six brothers and sisters, some in London, some in South Africa, one sister in Norway. She was the last one of the six I have seen. She used to visit me here in Nyngan, every winter of Norway. Last time I visited her was before five years. That last time, in Norway. Family all scattered. The Jewish story. Always the same. You know.
 
 
You want to hear how I come to Australia? Things happen for a reason. There is a meaning. I study history, I research. There is a reason. I believe that. So in Portugal I am safe. My grand-grandfather was Portuguese so I have citizenship. But no future, a refugee. The Jewish story. Always the same. So I wander. I work in Vancouver, I leave, my visa has finished. I work in South Africa. Many Jewish there. I work In London, in Finchley Road. Again many Jewish. I work in Norway. In between visas I work on cruise ships. Eight years on cruise ships; you don’t need a visa. On cruise ships there are Jewish. Also Barbados, every one old, everyone rich. Some Jews there too. I work In Korea. That’s where the miracle happens that brings me to Australia.
 
 
One year before Korea in Vancouver I apply for Australia. A Mozambiquean friend in Australia advises me: be careful what you tell them when you apply in the Embassy. Don’t say the wrong thing. So the embassy woman, she asks me what I will do – she means work – in Australia. I say I have qualification. I tell her I am chef. I don’t know what answer is the right answer. I know from my friend they don’t tell you what they want and what they do not want, but if you say wrong, they close the door. I answer, I pay the application. It will take a few months, the application, she tells me. Another cruise. And another. A letter arrives from Ottawa. The letter is from Australian High Commission in Ottawa. I have immigration visa. But no money. To come to Australia I must pay. So I wander on cruises and I work and I save. And I know I will leave the ships one day and I will settle and all my friends on the ship, always they will be slaves. I pay for a flight from Korea to Australia. Maybe three hundred American dollars, I go to the airline office to pick up ticket, the day before my flight. But it is a public holiday in Korea. Office is closed. I have paid, I have visa, I have no ticket. My flight is tomorrow. Here happens the miracle. I put my face against the window. I see people inside, cleaning. I make with fingers – come here please – come to window, I must ask. They come, but no-one speak English. They find someone. I tell him I need my ticket, I point to the office where the woman sold me the ticket, they go in, bring the woman out. A miracle. A public holiday, in Korea, the office is closed but I have my ticket. Things happen for a reason, I believe it.
 
 
 
In Australia, in Sydney, I work in Bondi Junction. Again many Jewish. I am there some years. I marry there, my wife have lymphoma before we meet. Then she is cured and we marry. Have children. Since thirteen years I am in Nyngan. I come here, I come here for the peace. I work at the pub as chef. Then the manager closes the kitchen, leaves Nyngan, manages from the city. I have no job, but things happen for a reason. I believe that. I sit in this coffee shop and the manager of the biggest hotel comes in, says, Hello Federico. Come work for me.
 
 
Small town, you know, everyone knows everyone. Good people here. My wife gets a second cancer. We drive to Dubbo, we drive to Sydney, we drive, drive. Always long drives, costs hundreds of dollars petrol. And the people of Nyngan collect money for our travel. Good people in Nyngan. Nothing happens without a reason. But my son, he’s grown up, I tell him – get out of Nyngan, no future for you here, go see the world, go build your future. You know I believe.
 
 
Will you do me a favour, Howard? I want for my doorpost the Jewish sign, for the doorpost, you know. I google but I don’t just buy. Has to be real, you. Needs the writing inside, not just the box .   

I Read the News Today, O Boy

I read this news report today. You probably missed it as mainstream news media don’t print this sort of news.
“Mourners are streaming to the central Israel city of Tira to comfort the family of a nineteen year old woman killed by ISIS. Lian Zaher Nassser was one of 39 people killed by an ISIS gunman at a New Years celebration at an Istanbul nightclub.
She was laid to rest at a funeral attended by thousands on Tuesday, just over a week after another Israeli woman, Dalia Elyakim, was buried. 

Nasser, an Israeli Arab, was on holiday in Istanbul with three friends, one of who(m) was injured. Elyakim, killed in the Christmas market attack in Berlin, had been travelling with her husband Rami, who was badly injured in the attack.

In the Nasser family’s sorrow, it found help from an unexpected source – ultra-orthodox Jews. The parents wanted to get their daughter’s body back to Israel as quickly as possible, but ran into difficulty as she was not insured, and in the end enlisted the help of the Haredi-run rescue organisation, ZAKA. ‘ZAKA is an international humanitarian organisation that honours the dead, regardless of religion, race or gender,’ said the organisation’s chairman Yehudah Meshi-Zahav.”

People react differently to this sort of report. For some the news comes as a salve, a corrective to the bad news tsunami. Others read it and say, ‘Yes, but…’

Working at the Children’s Hospital recently I treated a child who wore a pink hijab. She did not look mid-eastern, nor African. Her surname was unusual. I wondered a bit then hazarded a guess:’Are you from Albania?’ Her dad was amazed. ‘How did you know?’ 

Then, ‘Where do you come from, Doctor?’

‘Australia. I was made here – with all Australian parts.’

I removed my whimsical hat, exposing my yarmulka.

The father practically whooped with delight:’ You are Jewish! How wonderful!’

Then, ‘Do you know the story of my people and your people during the Second War?’

I admitted I knew it but dimly.

Father filled me in: ‘Albania was one of the few nations to give Jews shelter. We hid them and protected them. And after the War, the Jewish Holocaust Centre here – in this city of Melbourne – honoured my people.

And do you know, Doctor, our mosque was Melbourne’s first?’

Some will read this and feel the salve. Some will react, ‘Yes, but…’

 

Worst of Times, Best of Times

Ours is a world in agony. The holy is awash in profanation. Men hear the voice of a ravening god that sends them to cut off heads. Others kidnap children in the name of a god. Again the toxic cohabitation of religion with violence, the foul marriage that brought us the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition and Bushido on the Burma Railroad.

In the centre of our own country the Hayes clan lives at Whitegate, a ‘town camp’ in Alice Springs. The site is ancestral land going back to a time before the counting. Last week local government cut the water supply to Whitegate. The power died there some time ago. The cold desert nights are bitter.

How to breathe? Where to find hope? Why believe in our species at all? What light can we show our small children?

Last week the International Council of Christians and Jews honoured Debbie Weissman, a veteran worker across the tribes and creeds, building frail bridges of peace. Peace has broken out in Gaza-Israel. Rod Moss, artist and writer, chops wood and hauls water to Whitegate.

The peacemakers, the hewers of wood and drawers of water: these small signs. I clutch at such as these.

The Elephant not in the Room

A roomful of people in the dusk of the inaugural Melbourne Jewish Writers Festival, expectant, keen to hear and discuss “Carrots and Jaffas”. I anticipated we’d be fewer. I should have known Emily Lubitz (from Tin Pan Orange) and Martin Flanagan (journalist) would attract people. But Emily sent a series of text messages.

2300 last night: “Howie, we might need a rain check. My waters just broke. I’ll see the doc before tomorrow’s gig. Am keeping my legs crossed.”

1100 today: “Howie, I’m in hospital but not contracting. I asked the doc can I duck out for a couple of hours. She looked at me as if I was crazy. Still hoping I’ll be the elephant in the room.”

1300 today: “I’m contracting. If it’s a redheaded boy we’ll call him Jaffas or Carrots.”

So, no Emily.

Martin Flanagan, journalist, novelist, anthropophile, led a conversation about the book, about my choice to turn from serious non-fiction to the novel, about stolen children – the ultimate wound, about twinness, about the problems and pitfalls of the whitefella writing about blackfellas.

An audience of committed, highly informed and compassionate people engaged us in a conversation about the interfaces between Australia’s first peoples and later comers. They explored the curious and recurrent engagement of blackfellas in Jewish affairs that started with William Cooper, and the reciprocal engagement by Jews in Aboriginal advancement.

Martin and our audience created an atmosphere of the most distinctive quality. Humans and their stories, people and their dreams, the mystery and the sanctity of the Dreaming, the heritage that is memory, the sacrament that is storytelling – all these were raised up and seen at their height.

We went home fulfilled.

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376,000 Footsteps in the Sisterhood of Man

It was the running of the Jews. Not in Khazakstan but at Melbourne’stan.

Historically, you only saw a bunch of Jews running if there was a fire or a pogrom. But yesterday hundreds of Jews were afoot, an infrequent event since the original Fun Run across the Red Sea. (On that occasion all the Israelites crossed the line. The Egyptians failed to finish.)

We Jews were not alone at the Tan: joining us were Africans from the Horn and from Mandela country; a pair of Iranians, a smiling Swiss, sundry Catholic Australians; the odd Chinese, a couple of Argentines and their Australian born progeny. And my wife and my not-very-old oldest grandchild.

If a kilometre is one thousand metres and the average human pace is one metre, and the circumference of the ‘Tan’ is 3.76 kilometres, then a single lap represents 3760 paces. Yesterday saw 376000 paces in the sisterhood of man.

My team, “Queue Jumpers”, named in honour of those disgraceful individuals who do not go through the correct channels, raised about 1800 dollars. The entire event raised in excess of $20,000, to be spent in two struggling Aboriginal communities in far north NSW and in a Community Centre for queue jumpers from Darfur.

Over coffee, before the event Akbar the Persian storyteller told a story. Akbar has elevated my runs over 25 years – ‘one quarter of a century’, he observes – with folktales from his homeland. Yesterday’s story: The revolution was coming in Iran. We knew people, Bahai, whose houses were burnt by militants. A friend said to us – do not stay in your house. It is not safe. They will burn your house next.

We decided to leave. We went to a cousin’s house. But another warned – ‘this house will be burned tonight.’

We had to leave. We all ran from the house but a man with a big automatic weapon stood outside. He said: ‘Do not go. They will burn this house only when my body is dead.’

That man was Savak. Secret Police. But we did not wait. Instead we ran. We ran to the house of the parents of this young woman…

Akbar here indicated his niece, Paloma. It turns out that Paloma -‘dove’ in Spanish – speaks Spanish fluently. This dove was born in Bristol. She takes up the story: My father was in America. He bought a red Ford Mustang. I sat in the back; there were only two doors. He brought the Ford Mustang to Bristol and he drove us, Mother and me and Father, to France, then all across Europe, all the way to Iran. I was four when we left Bristol, but I remember the red car, I remember I sat in the back.

Akbar takes up the story: We ran to the house of Paloma’s father and mother, all of us – myself, my parents and my cousin. Paloma’s family took us in and we stayed. We stayed in their house for nine months and we were safe.

And then we came to Australia.

Akbar smiled. He said it was time for a real Persian story. He told a folk story, of Mullah Nasruddin. Akbar’s story took us to a different age, a different place. We sat in the sunshine and watched and listened to the genial teller of tales as he smiled and talked.

Then we arose and ran, we Aussies, we Jews, we Muslims; we Africans and Catholics; we old and wrinkled ones, we new and sprightly ones; we arose and ran 376,000 footsteps in the Sisterhood of Man.

 

Giving Thanks

Barry and Paul (in the tux)

Barry and Paul (in the tux)

 

Howard and Paul

Howard and Paul

My old and cherished friend, Paul Jarrett, writes from Phoenix Arizona:

 
“Thanksgiving is the day we reserve for giving thanks.
When I was small, every meal was preceded by “returning thanks” which was “Grace” before meals.  It was “returned” by my father if present, or mother if not.
This brief prayer was to express gratitude for God’s many blessings and to ask for His continuing guidance.  We did not eat before the “Blessing” was asked.
While it is true that when small I was impatient to get this ritual over so that I could scarf down my meal, it is also true that I can hear Dad today in my mind’s ear reciting the blessing and realize how important it was to him, no mere gesture or formality.
Once in awhile in a restaurant I see a person asking God’s blessing on the food they are about to eat, but very seldom.  I must admit that I do not do it myself so as not to attract attention.  For that matter I do not “return thanks” when I am by myself at home, a matter that I shall correct.
God doesn’t need these rituals, we do.”
 
Paul is exceedingly old and exceedingly wise. In his time he has been a military surgeon, an aviator, a morbid anatomist.  This means he could fly you to hospital, operate on you, and should you be ungrateful enough to die, Paul would, without hard feelings, carry out your autopsy. 
 
Paul describes himself as conservative. He claims to be to the right of Barry Goldwater. He shows a photo to prove it.
Nowadays, Paul cuts neither the living nor the dead. He contents himself with wise and sometimes splenetic observations about a world and a nation going to the dogs.
 
Paul’s reminiscences are always evocative. His recollections of Grace evoked this memory of my own:
Dear Paul
I recall growing up in a country town in new south wales where our family were the only Jews.
my closest friend’s family were Presbyterian.
like my friends the jarretts, the wanklyns provided kosher meals so i could eat with them.
dulcie wanklyn prefaced each meal with: FOR WHAT WE ARE ABOUT TO RECEIVE THE LORD MAKE US TRULY GRATEFUL.
i recall sitting through this small ritual, head down, in quiet uncharacteristic decorum.
i’d gaze at the linen napery, each napkin held furled inside its collar of china or silver or pewter.
it all seemed holy.
no-one ate, no-one spoke, until AMEN was heard.
it never occurred to me that the benedictions  my father taught me and which we recited before and after every meal, were likewise, Grace, and likewise holy
the problem with an everyday ritual is ritualisation, the normalisation of the quite audacious idea of finite man reaching with words towards infinte God
mrs wanklyn never made Grace feel mundane
love,
Howard

“I lived in the era of Nelson Mandela”

English: Young Nelson Mandela. This photo date...

Nelson Mandela. 1937. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“I lived in the era of Nelson Mandela”.

That statement is something I can tell my grandchildren; and they in turn will say to their grandchildren, “My grandfather was alive in the days of Nelson Mandela”.

A person of that calibre does not pass this way every century.

I’d like to share the following article written by Roger Cohen that appeared in the

New York Times 8 July 2013.

Dreaming of Mandela

By ROGER COHEN

LONDON — The South African living for my family was easy. The staff changed the nappies. The houseboys brought the braziers to the right glow for the braai. Two gardeners were employed, one for the roses and one for the rest. When dinner ended the bell was rung, either by hand or by pressure of the foot on a buzzer beneath the carpet. A black servant would appear dressed in a white outfit.

My grandfather, Laurie Adler, and his friends donned their whites for Sunday lunch, preceded by a cocktail of “gin and two” (one third gin, one third Cinzano Bianco, one third Cinzano Rosso and “and full to the brim with ice”), before ambling off to play bowls.

At picnics on Table Mountain, a beret on his head, socks pulled up almost to his knee, Laurie would plunge a knife into the pale green watermelons, making a series of incisions before, with a flourish, allowing the succulent fruit to fall open in oozing red bloom. We feasted and left a trail of eggshells and bitten-out watermelon rind.

And on Robben Island, without watch or clock, Mandela maps time on the wall of his cell.

A particularity of the apartheid system was that blacks were kept at a distance except in the most intimate of settings, the home. They cooked and cleared away; they washed and darned and dusted; and they coddled white children. After the Shabbat meal on Friday night guests might leave some small token of appreciation on the kitchen counter (“Shame, I don’t have much change”) or slip a few rand into a calloused black hand.

Elsewhere lay the Africa of the Africans — the natives as they were often called — the distant townships of dust and dirt where water was drawn from a communal spigot, and homes consisted of a single room, and clothes were patched together from scraps of passed-down fabric, and the alleys were full of the stale stench of urine. I could smell the hardship in the sweat of the houseboys and see it in the yellowish tint of their eyes.

And on Robben Island, Mandela records on a South African Tourism desk calendar the humiliations inflicted by white prison warders.

A relative told me his first political memory from the early 1950s was of a great tide of black walkers streaming from Alexandra township — “like the Jews leaving Egypt,” he said, but of course no liberation awaited. The blacks were protesting against a one-penny hike in bus fares. Moenie worry nie, Laurie always insisted — don’t worry. He had been born in South Africa in 1899, my grandmother Flossie in 1900. They should know.

South Africa was as good a place as any for a Jew to live in the 20th century. A friend of the family let slip a sentiment widely felt but seldom articulated: “Thank God for the blacks. If not for them it would be us.” Jews on the whole kept their heads down; better just to keep stumm. Flossie voted for Helen Suzman’s anti-apartheid Progressive Party and then prayed the National Party remained in power. She was not alone in such genteel hypocrisy.

And on Robben Island, Mandela cultivates not hatred — that would be too easy for the whites — but the power of patience and perseverance.

The blacks were a form of protection. If you are busy persecuting tens of millions of blacks you do not have much time left over for tens of thousands of Jews. For South African Jews, aware of the corpse-filled ditches of the Europe they had fled, the knowledge of the 69 blacks cut down at Sharpeville in 1960 was discomfiting. But this was not genocide, after all. Most, with conspicuous exceptions (more proportionately among Jews than any other white South Africans), looked away.

Why think of a black man in a cell for his just beliefs when you could gaze at the canopy of purple-blue jacaranda blossom over the avenues of Johannesburg? Everything seemed untroubled, unless you caught a glimpse of ragged black men being herded into police vans. Then a cousin might say, “I suppose they don’t have their passes. Enjoy the swimming pools, next year they will be red with blood.”

And on Robben Island, Mandela learns that not even a life sentence can condemn a man to abandon the mastery of his soul.

I have been dreaming of Mandela. An old idea: He who touches one human being touches all humanity. I have been murmuring his name: He broke the cycle of conflict by placing the future above the past, humanity above vengeance.

He reminded us of what is most precious in Jewish ethics: What is hateful to yourself, do not do to your fellow man — or, as the Mosaic book says many times, you are to treat the stranger well for “you were a stranger in a strange land.” Repair the world. Be a light unto nations.

The truth is we did not deserve him. We could not even imagine him. But, as I learned young in South Africa, the human spirit can avert even inevitable catastrophe.

A version of this op-ed appeared in print on July 9, 2013, in The International Herald Tribune.