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.

By the River Derwent, there we sat down.

The Hobart Synagogue is Australia’s oldest. It was not always thus:  Australia’s first Jews arrived in Sydney – involuntarily – on the First Fleet and built a synagogue well before the Hobart structure arose in Argyle Street. Fortunately (for Hobart) the Sydney Synagogue burned down.

For one year, my wife and I worshipped regularly at the Hobart Synagogue. Ten males over the age of thirteen are needed for a quorum for public prayer in Judaism. Such a group is a minyan, from the Hebrew word for counting. In 1970 we were a small minyan – we counted just four – my bride Annette, Mr. Fixel, Mr. Lewis and Mister me.

In its heyday in the 1890’s the Hobart Jewish Community numbered fifteen hundred souls. They were as numerous as the community in Melbourne. By 1970 no Jew of my generation had married Jewish and remained in Hobart: if a person had married a Jew they had left Hobart and moved elsewhere to do so. Annette and I arrived to join the last Jews in Hobart. Or so we thought. But  Russian Jews and South African Jews arrived after left and the community has never quite completed its dying.

I conducted the services. Mister Fixel was Viennese. He arrived punctually and sat erect, his polished brown scalp  and his wide brown face shining in attention. His pronunciation of Hebrew was like my own, a relic of the Germanic, which was distinctive, archaic, and until then  -for me – an embarrassing secret. Mr Fixel himself was a relic, elderly, childless, a survivor. His manner was indelibly courteous and sweet and grave. His sister Heide had survived and lived together with him and Mrs Fixel, whose first name was never pronounced in our hearing. Mrs. Fixel was petite and had fine features and singing Viennese-accented speech. Heide, round faced, brown faced like her brother, moved in her orbit around him, ostensibly serene, a silent satellite.

Annette believed the Fixels had lost children in the Shoah. They lived in Macquarie Street, just over the fence from us, near the lower slopes of Mount Wellington.

Mr Lewis interrupted his Sabbath rest in order to join us and resumed it promptly on arrival. Small, stocky, older than the Fixels (who must have been in their late fifties), Mr Lewis wore a large hearing aid. He’d arrive, sit down and get back to business. He’d snore while I sang. I recall my singing never disturbed his audible rest.

There existed a scattering of Jews, totaling about thirty, who had other business to attend to on a Saturday morning. One of these was the president, Clive Epstein, a bookmaker. Clive was old too, a pillar of the congregation, one of those pillars that function at a remove. He was tall, broad, vigorous and ancient. Whatever Clive said was law and whatever he said, he said in a loud ocker-accented voice. His nose was large, curved and red and he bore his vivid Australianness like a badge of office. His was the authentic voice of Australian Jewishness, the voice of legitimate authority. Lesser Jews, European Jews, quivered and subsided before the Traditional Owner.

We left Hobart after one happy year, left the Fixels quietly lamenting in their dignified way. Mr. Fixel’s face shone with a smile of grief, the smile he wore always, the smile that faced a world in which his future had been taken away.

Copyright, Howard Goldenberg, 10 March, 2013