How High is Mount Sinai?

Around 1942, Myer Goldenberg asked Yvonne Coleman, ‘Will you marry me?’ 

Yvonne asked herself, ‘How high is Mount Sinai?’

Yvonne’s question was rhetorical. What she understood by Myer’s question was, ‘Do you reckon you can observe six hundred and thirteen commandments?’

In truth whatever the precise height of the mountain (2,285 metres), the answer would not influence Yvonne’s decision: Moses climbed up that mountain to receive the Torah.  If old Moses could do it, she would. The Children of Israel, standing at the foot of the mountain, declared to Moses they’d embrace the Law, sight unseen: We will do it and we’ll hear it! – they shouted. Yvonne said to Myer, ‘I’ll do it.’

Yvonne’s response was wholehearted. On that understanding the two married.

****

Yvonne Coleman was born in 1917, in Perth, Western Australia, the daughter of a pearling captain (a son of the tribe of Levi), who sailed south from Broome to marry his bride, the daughter of French Jewish settlers who landed in Australia around 1852. In 1917, Perth was a long way from Mt. Sinai. According to family legend Yvonne’s grandfather and the Anglican Bishop of Perth were close friends. There is no legend that links Grandfather with the Rabbi in Perth. We do know the family attended synagogue. Strangers to the word, shule, they attended Synagogue regularly – on the three days of the High Holydays.

Yvonne liked synagogue. After the family removed to Melbourne, Yvonne joined the Melbourne Synagogue where her father’s family had been members since 1882. Although unschooled in Hebrew reading, Yvonne enjoyed the choral service and judged her punctuality by the particular choral items she recognised. Famously unpunctual her whole life through, Yvonne judged her arrival ‘early’ if before before the closing hymn, Adon Olam; and ‘late’ if after that hymn.

At the Toorak Road Synagogue the presiding Minister, Rabbi Brodie, (later to become Chief Rabbi of the British Empire), introduced Yvonne to the young Doctor Goldenberg. The doctor asked his question and Yvonne gave her question in reply. And Yvonne began her ascent of the mountain.

By the time I learned stories of Yvonne Coleman-that-was, she was a Shabbat keeping, Hebrew reading, kosher cooking, succah decorating, challah baking housewife in the small country town of Leeton in New South Wales. Yvonne was the sole Jewish ba’alath bayit (home-maker) inthe town, the mother of four observant and knowledgeable children.

Mum said she would do and she would hear; she never said she’d love the restrictions; but she observed them. Travelling on a bus with Mum one night, I asked her, ‘How do you like your life, with all the rules and restrictions, and the ‘thou shalt’ and the ‘thou shalt not?’’

‘I do like it, Darling. But if I were granted an interview with God, I’d say, ‘Look, Almighty God, if, after a meaty meal (Mum never came to terms with fleishig), you’ll allow me just a dash of milk in my coffee, I’ll swear on a stack of Bibles I’ll never seethe a kid in its mother’s milk.’

One precept in particular showed Mum to me in a distinctively devout light. This was lighting the candles before Shabbos and Yomtov. Mum would light, recite the bracha in the unfashionable Anglo-German ashkenazith pronunciation that Dad taught her, then stand in silence, with her eyes covered, for a long time. During these long minutes, we kids would wait while Mum stood, a fixture, unmoving like Hannah, mother of Samuel; only her lips moved. The silence felt sacred. Mum was praying for her loved ones, praying for every one of us, praying in detail, in secret, listing our individual needs, telling the Creator what she needed Him to know, and what she wanted Him to do.

After more than sixty years of marriage, Myer Goldenberg died, full of years, and was gathered to his people. Yvonne held his hand, still warm, in hers, and said in a voice wrenched with feeling, ‘He was a lovely man…’

Mum was now a widow. In 1942 she’d given her word – she would do and she would hear – and for sixty years she had kept her word. Now she was free.  One son, looking perhaps to enjoying with Mum a more liberal future, asked, ‘Are you going to keep all those rules and restrictions now, Mum?’ Mum answered, gently, in her soft voice, ‘Why would I change now, darling?’

***Mum lived a further six years, keeping Shabbat, keeping kosher, keeping faith. She died just before her 92nd birthday, the day following Shavuoth, the Festival of the Giving of the Law at Sinai. Next Sundayher children will observe her yahrzeit. I might even find a congregation where I can recite kaddish. And a candle will burn in my house in her memory.

A Guest of the Emir

Recently I enjoyed the hospitality of the Emir of Dubai. Overnight Qantas flew me from Australia to the Emir’s desert airport where I boarded one of his aircraft, bound for Malta via Larnaca. At 0720 I found my seat in the very front row of Economy. As we were not due to take off until 0750 there was sufficient time for me to recite shacharith, (literally, the dawn prayer).

 

I looked around. I saw no other yarmulkes. On the other hand, there were no hijabs either, nor keffiyehs. I pulled out of my backpack all the elaborate paraphernalia of my morning prayer – tallith, tefilin, siddur and stood for a moment, irresolute. I recalled the prayers of my family on the eve of a previous Emirates flight: ‘Dad, you can’t do all those rituals on Emirates. It’s provocative. It’s not safe. Please, Dad, don’t do it!’

 

I unfolded my tallith. Not just any old prayer shawl, this was the final gift to me of my father. Very late in Dad’s life I took him to Gold’s where he bought this tallith for me and I bought one for him. An absurd exchange? Possibly so. It was one we had ritualised over a couple of decades: at the kosher grog shop, I’d shout Dad to arak or slivovitz for Passover and he’d buy me a brace of claret and Kiddush wine. Happy to enhance the other’s observances we’d grin and embrace and bless each other.

I looked at the tallith and felt the fall of many curious eyes. I thought of Dad and I wrapped it around my head and stood, enfolded, for a few moments of remembrance. Then I showed my face.

 

Standing in my seat in Economy I realised I was providing a live show for the roughly 160 gentile persons filing slowly past my seat at the front, en-route to their own. I had more colourful display in store for them. I pulled out the small bag of royal blue velvet that holds my tefilin. These small black leather boxes, fashioned after an ancient craft, contain Torah verses meticulously inscribed on vellum. Tefilin symbolise key rememberings that are mandatory every day upon every Jew. Attached to the little boxes are long black leather thongs by which I bind one box high on my left arm and another to the centre of my forehead. The verses thus are bound to my heart and my mind.

 

 

The unfolding of tefilin, the minute and precise steps of the placing and binding, punctuated at prescribed intervals by the reciting of rabbinic and prophetic words, constitute a dance no less exacting than the mating of brolgas. Three hundred and twenty eyes took in the old choreography. 

 

Upon completing my devotions I removed one leather box, kissed it perhaps a little more reverently than usual and coiled its straps. I did the same with the second. Finally I folded my tallith. The ceremony of prayer at an end, I took in my fellow passengers. We were Filipinas, Chinese, Occidentals, and a fair smattering of persons of Middle Eastern appearance. No-one had raised the alarm, no-one objected to my sectarian display.

 

 

When at last I sat down, the man next to me asked: ‘Where do you come from?’

‘Australia. And you’re from Korea?’

 

A large smile. Surprised, happy to be recognised, he nodded. He and his wife and his volleyballer-tall daughter were heading for Malta, as I was. ‘For our holidays’, he said. And what was it that drew me to Malta? The Conference of Arts and Sciences, certainly. And yes, the marathon. But before all that I was coming to listen for the voices and hear the stories of dead Jews.

 

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

At Prayer

The pale wintry sun descends and I recite my everyday afternoon prayer. Watching me, my eight year old grandson moves to sit on my knee. “What are you praying for, Saba?”
The enquiry jolts me to consciousness. If he’s asking, what’s your purpose in praying? – it’s a good question.
I fancy he’s asking, what are you praying for – in particular?
Still a good question.

He sits on my knee, this fleaweight who holds me captive. He forces me to interrogate the ritualized murmurings that issue half-bid, half-conscious. I translate for him:
The eyes of all look to You for good news,
And You give them their bread in good time.
You open up Your hand – here I open my closed hand, enacting the gifting of food –
And You satisfy the want of all that lives

I want the child to share my sense of wonder, of providence, however unevenly it might fall.
Grandson takes my face in his hands, brings his face close. Closer. His lips touch mine. He holds my face a little longer.
I contemplate Dickenson’s telegrammatic:
Prayer is the little implement
Through which Men reach
Where Presence—is denied them.
They fling their Speech
By means of it—in God’s Ear—

Grandson is in no rush to return to Lego and the other urgencies of his life. He sits while I entertain Tennyson:
More things are wrought by prayer than this world dreams of.

What does Saba pray for? He prays because he can, because he needs to.
Another kiss and grandson descends. Thank you Saba.

I am left to wonder whether a grandchild might be the answer to the prayer I sent to God’s Ear and never knew it.