SUMMER STORIES, III   The Fruit of the Vine

Here I am, alone among the thirty thousand-odd residents of Broome, the sole shomer shabbat*. For this evening’s sabbath meal I have challah, (the delicious plaited loaves of brioche), I have candles, I have cooked a delicious meal for four, (which I’ll eat unaided). But something’s lacking, the kosher grape juice for kiddush. I left it in the city and here in Broome neither Woollies nor Coles stocks kosher supplies. But they do sell grapes.  

 

 

No problem. Buy grapes, squeeze grapes, chant the kiddush, drink juice! I purchase green grapes, sweet and tasty; and purple grapes, great bursting spheres, less sweet but full of character. I’ll include both and create a rose. My technique will be the ancient one: crush the grapes underfoot in the old-fashioned way, with but a single variation: to create a tinea-free beverage, enclose grapes in a sealable bag, zip it locked, drop bag into a steel bowl and trample. Simple, yes? No. These grapes are tough. They’re putting up a fight. After a good deal of trampling I haven’t burst a single one. There they lie, those green pearls, gleaming insolently up at me. I tramp harder, engaging my heels now. No good. Intact still, my green foe lies unjuiced, defiant, at my feet.

 

 

It’s personal now. 

 

 

I try my luck with the purple. Those spheres, their skins looking stretched to breaking, should be easily persuaded. But no, stubborn atheists these, like their cousins in green. I clench a fist and regard its hard, cruel bones. I hoist the footbowl, place it on a bench top, rest my knuckles on the plastic bag and lean down hard. Something gives. Encouraged, I push down harder. More movement, a slipping. Anticipating free fluid, I look down. No juice, just grapes in a bag of plastic…and air! That’s the problem, I’ve been bouncing these demons inside their cushions of air! I unzip the ziplock, deflate it and apply my shoulder, my steeled upper limb, my fist, and I push down and rotate as I push. Now, now is my foe giving way. But the fight remains dour. Grape by grape they split, and grape by squeezed grape they yield their life’s juice.

 

 

 

Fifteen minutes pass. Both grape and grapist are sweating now.  After thirty minutes I have collected half a small glass of pale silvery juice and a similar volume of pinkish nectar. The two combined become a translucent rose. Violence grudgingly rewarded, a victor feeling strangely compromised. How did grape-squashing become a moral test? How did I fail it?  

 

 

 

Absent-mindedly I pop a green grape into my mouth. My tongue pushes the little balloon up against my bony palate. A little further pressure and the skin gives way. Sweet juice flows and my molars engage and grind the pulp. In midgrape my mouth stops its motion. Now I have it: this grape, like all the grapes of my life, had to be forced. Ostensibly a mild soul, have I hidden my innate violence in silent acts of mastication? Certainly a cruncher, an audible biter down, one whose apples snap loudly as I sunder them, who is it who bites thus? And what is it that bites me?

 

 

 

Might there be another way? There is another way, I know it, I’ve seen it. My mother, God rest her gentle soul, never burst a grape. Mum enjoyed grapes but brutality never occurred to her. Instead she’d peel a grape, slide it into her mouth and suck it to sweet oblivion. 

 

 

 

 

*Shomer Shabbat, one who honours the Sabbath, one who guards it and makes it holy.

Walking with my Father*, after all this Time

Most Saturdays I walk with my father. Saturday is shabbat, when I go to shule (synagogue) in the morning and walk home alone afterwards. It is this walk that I take with Dad. It works like this: services at the shule of my choice finish around noon-thirty – precisely the time my family will be gathering at home. No-one wants to risk coming between a Goldenberg and her food at meal time; too dangerous. So just a few moments before the congregation sings the concluding hymn, Adon Olam, I duck out of shule and hurry homeward.

 
When it comes to a prayer or a song a Goldenberg is not one to short-change his Maker. So, striding like my father before me, I sing that song as I walk, feeling anew the melody I sang with my father through our decades of shule-going together. In fact, Dad and I shared two different melodies to Adon Olam, one of them quite beautiful, the other even lovelier – or should I say – slower, sweeter, more expressive of longing. We loved them both, I love them still, and so I sing – first one of the two, then the second.
 
When I was a timid child I attached myself devoutly to the final lines of this song:
Into His hand, I entrust my soul
While I sleep and when I awaken;
And while ever my soul remains with me –
The Lord is with me – I will not fear.
 
But of course I did fear. First I feared the wolves and the bears that would come for me in my bedroom from the grim tales of Europe; later I felt afraid of snakes, of adults who shouted at me, of the world. I felt safe with Mum and with my dreadnought father, and – more perilously – with my risk-taking brother Dennis. I did a lot of fearing and I seized needily at the comforting closing line of Adon Olam. I’d sing it to myself when I walked alone in the dark.
 
***
 
Dad sang sweetly, his light tenor voice rising high above the circumambient baritone drone of fellow worshippers. He’d look intent as he sang, for music spoke to Dad more truly than words. Dad always claimed he didn’t like poetry, but he loved song. Music reached Dad in his secret places of abiding anxiety, it inspired him and carried his hopes, his love of life, his belief in beauty.
 
It was late in Dad’s life that he surprised me, speaking once of Adon Olam: Whenever in my life I’ve felt afraid, that last line has come to me. As a child I’d sing it to myself when I was walking alone in the dark.
 
Now a man walks home alone. Approaching threescore and ten he walks, still vigorously, as his father walked. He sings softly as he walks. Adon Olam swells in his throat. His voice slows to climb the penultimate arc of old melody, he holds that high note, then allows his voice to fall, to slide peacefully, into peace.

The man walks home alone but never alone.
 
· *’Walking with my Father’ was a chapter title in my first book, ‘My Father’s Compass’ (Hybrid, 2007). That memoir recorded my life with my father that had ended with death at a great age, a few years earlier. It was that book in which I first went public with my (possibly regressive) ancestor worship.

Concussed

The phone call comes at 3.30 on the last afternoon of term. An unfamiliar voice speaks: ‘I have your boy here. He came into the shop and collapsed.’
The woman’s voice is concerned, competent: ‘He wants to get back onto his bike and ride home but I won’t let him.’ The woman gives the address, a shop on busy Centre road, Bentleigh.
 
The mother of the child calls the boy’s father, cannot contact him, drives towards the place in Centre Road. The heavy Friday afternoon traffic races, stops, starts, unpredictably. The mother suppresses her urge to speed, shakes her head: ‘What if he’d collapsed in this traffic!’ Alone with her fear, she calls her father, doctor to the injured boy. She gives her father the bones of the story, adding: ‘He told the lady in the shop he was hit in the head earlier today. She says he’s talking but he’s not making sense. He couldn’t remember my number. Didn’t know the password to his phone. She rang the school and they put us in touch… I’ve nearly arrived. I’ll call again once I’m with him. ‘Bye.’
 
At 3.50 the doctor’s phone rings. His daughter’s voice, the boy’s, an unfamiliar woman’s voice, traffic sounds, snatches of conversation – ‘Dad, I’m with him now. He’s awake. He’s seeing double… Yes, thanks, in the back here. Sorry Dad, the lady who’s been looking after him is helping me get the bike into the car. He lost consciousness a couple of times. What does it mean that he’s seeing double? And he wants to vomit?’
 
Forty-eight hours earlier the doctor saw a boy in Resuscitation at the Royal Children’s Hospital. The boy had been hit by a car. He lay on a trolley, his body a gangle of bones, on his face a large bruise and the dopey smile of a child with no memory of the car that hit his head. The doctor-grandfather spends a lot of time with injured children in Emergency Departments. The doctor knows what double vision means, he knows what vomiting means. The grandfather in the doctor avoids the question, asking some of his own: ’Has he had a head injury?’
‘Yes Dad. A kid at school swung his locker door open and belted him in the head. He went to sick bay for an ice pack. After school he rode to the shops.’
The boy’s voice pipes, indistinctly, the phone set on speaker. ‘Saba, when I look at anything I see two of everything.’ The child slurs the words.
‘What part of your head did the locker hit, darling?’
‘What do you mean, Saba?’
‘Was it the front or the back or the side?’
‘Are you joking, Saba?’
‘No darling. What part of your head was it?’
‘Above my ear, a bit in front of it.’
 
Just in front of the ear, in the temporal region, runs a vulnerable artery which shelters behind skull bone thinner than elsewhere.
The doctor instructs his daughter to drive directly to Monash Medical Centre which is not far distant.
‘I don’t know the way, Dad.’ The father-grandfather-doctor is notorious for his lack of sense of direction. He directs the daughter, hoping. ‘I’ll call Emergency at Monash, darling, so they’ll expect you… Take a book with you. You’ll be there for hours.’
‘Dad, he’s just vomited. Now he’s falling asleep. Does that matter? Do I need to keep him wake?’
‘Try to keep him talking, darling.’
The grandfather speaks to the child: ‘Darling you’ll go into the hospital and they’ll look after you until you’re better. Then they’ll let you go home. You probably won’t be staying in the hospital.’
‘Saba, what will happen to me?’ The voice quavering:’ Will I be alright?’
‘Dad, where will I park?’
‘Drive straight to “Ambulances Only”. At the moment you are an ambulance.’
 
At 4.10 the doctor calls Monash, asks to be connected to the Consultant in Emergency. A young voice, informal: ‘Emergency, Preeti speaking.’
‘Hello Preeti, I’m sending you a child with concussion. I’m his GP. Are you the consultant?’
‘Yes.’
The doctor briefs the young voice. She listens, asks a couple of questions, says, ‘Thank you. We’ll be expecting him.’
‘Thank you, Preeti. I’m quite concerned… He’s my grandson.’
 
When the doctor’s phone rings the time is 4.40. It rings as he’s hurrying to the toilet to pee, the third time in twenty minutes. He stands still, commands his bladder to wait.
‘Dad, I dropped him and they took him straight in. Doctor Preeti was waiting. I’ve just come back, I had to move the car. My phone’s about to die.’
‘Darling, Shabbat is about to start. But I’ll answer the phone if you ring. Someone will lend you a phone. If you need me, call me, even though it’s Shabbat.’
‘’Bye, Daddy. I love you.’
 
The old man puts the finishing touches to his Shabbat table. His wife is away, visiting their Sydney daughter and Joel and Ruby.
He covers the loaves of challah, races to the bathroom, showers, dresses, recites the Afternoon Prayer, racing the setting sun. He finishes, checks the time, realises he’s just too late to light the Shabbat candles: he won’t make fire on the Sabbath. Ordinarily he won’t use the phone. During Shabbat he’ll allow the phone to ring, enjoying freedom from the i-tyrant, celebrating the sample of paradise that is the Sabbath. But tonight he’ll answer it.
 
Darkness falls. The old man recites his Evening Prayers, rich with poetry from the mystics of Safed and the Golden Period in Spain. The dying of the day, the passing of the workaday week, the beauty of the sung hymns, all these have always found him susceptible; since childhood the eve of Sabbath makes him prey to tender feeling.
 
He looks across at the table, set for two. He recites the She’ma Yisrael prayer, inserting, by old family custom, an improvised prayer. He prays: ‘ Heal the boy and all who love him.’
 
The old man sings the hymns, he welcomes the Ministering Angels, he praises his wife – “A woman of Valour, who can Find? Her Price is above Rubies” – then he sings the Kiddush dedication, drinks his grape juice, washes his hands and sits to break bread. Before him, chicken soup with noodles and kreplach, four salads, slow cooked lamb shanks, potatoes. He eats alone, wolfing the feast he prepared for two. His elder daughter won’t be finished at the hospital until very late.
 
The food is good. He’d made a great effort for this meal with his daughter. He eats and gives thanks. Afterwards he reads. He reads three newspapers then opens the political biography a friend gave him. Deprived of sleep as he always is by Friday, he doesn’t expect sleep will come quickly tonight.
 
At 8.00 the front door opens. His daughter enters and they embrace. The boy is well. He’s back home with his brothers and his father. Surprised by her early arrival, the doctor listens to his daughter: ‘Dad, they asked him questions, they checked his eyes and his pulse and his blood pressure again and again. They tested his balance. He improved and they let us go. They said once four hours had passed the danger was much less. They timed it from when he collapsed in the shop.’
 
While the mother speaks the father prepares a salad to replace the four he wolfed. The child-mother eats with relish. ‘I’m sorry I spoiled our meal, Dad.’
She toys with the lamb shanks that come cold to the table. ‘Dad, I can’t eat any more. It’s been a big day.’
Father and daughter look at each other. No words are spoken, none needed; each knows the content of the other’s mind. The father looks away, knowing without looking how his child’s lip trembles and her eyes fill.
 
A minute or two of quietness, then the daughter smiles: ‘By the time we were leaving ED his speech was perfectly clear. He was saying he wanted junk food. Then he said, “Let’s ring the kind lady in the shop and thank her.”’

Where Do We Come From, What Are We, Where Are We Going?

This blog has spent the Passover period training for the Boston Marathon. Training has consisted exclusively of that intensive form of carbo loading which is the consumption of loads of matza. As matza is highly constipating carbo unloading has presented a challenge. Reminiscent of Martin Luther, who struggled mightily with his bowels, the Passover observer passes little.

In short I have been busy: as a result the blog has followed the admirable maxim of the ancient Sages of the Mishna: “Do much, say little”.

Shortly the blog will have much to report: of a visit to sit at the feet of another Ancient Sage, Dr Paul Jarrett, 95-year old surgeon of Phoenix Arizona; of fetching myrrh to Jack, the new babe born unto us Goldenbergs in San Francisco; of drinking GOOD COFFEE ! in New York City!!! (at ‘Little Collins’, my nephew’s celebrated joint on Lexington Avenue); of learning the latest in neuroscience from Joseph John Mann at Columbia Presbyterian; of Shabbat observing in New Rochelle; of entraining to Boston on the Sunday; and on Monday 20 April of observing Patriots Day in Boston.

On Patriots Day much is afoot in Boston, when this Athens of the United States becomes Sparta. The public holiday commemorates the ride of Paul Revere and the start of the American Revolution. (I refer to Boston as Athens as an incubator of wisdoms but also as the place of Gauguin’s masterwork, ‘Where do we come from, what are we, where are we going?’ That painting and its title encapsulate the entire enterprise of human storytelling.
The painting is strategically located in a gallery situated directly across the road from Dunkin Donuts [Aussies must indulge the local spelling] where the donuts are certified kosher. But I digress.)

gauguin.org.au

For us runners Boston is THE marathon. More broadly, Boston, most humane of cities, hosts the most charitable of marathons. The event admits both the athletic elite and the footslogger, those who qualify by their speed over 26.2 miles and those who qualify solely by fundraising. I belong to the fundraising sluggards. This will be my fifth Boston, a further opportunity to put my feet to the service of the good. Unavoidably we come here to evil: in my old home town of Leeton a bride who loved the colour yellow is murdered unaccountably one week before her wedding day; in Boston bombs explode the innocence of thirty thousand runners and one million natives. Three die, two hundred and sixty four injured – many grievously – survive.

And I ask myself: Where do we come from, what are we, where are we going?

The small town of Leeton turns out to honour lost youth: multitudes gather in the park wearing yellow; married women hang their bridal gowns on front fences; on the victim’s planned wedding day brides all around the country add a dash of yellow to their apparel.
In Boston the city grieves, runners shake their heads, and return to the marathon with intent. Among them is one Gillian Reny.

“The Gillian Reny Stepping Strong Fund at Brigham and Women’s Hospital will support life-giving breakthroughs in limb reconstruction, bone regeneration, orthopedic and plastic surgery, and skin regeneration. Established by the family of Gillian Reny—a young, pre-professional dancer who was critically injured in the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings—the fund will fuel cutting-edge research and clinical programs in three areas:

Stepping Strong Research Scholars
: The Research Scholars project has two components: using stem cells to advance bone regeneration, and developing better methods to regenerate skin and heal wounds to reduce the suffering of amputation.  

Stepping Strong Trauma Fellowship
: The Trauma Fellowship will train the next generation of trauma surgeons in advanced techniques for treating acute and complex traumatic injury. Fellows will gain proficiency in surgical management, rehabilitation, limb reconstruction, and scar management.

Stepping Strong Innovator Awards: 
To inspire innovative research in areas including limb regeneration, limb transplant, advanced stem cell technology, orthopedic and plastic surgery, and bioengineering, BWH will offer Innovator Awards through an annual, competitive, request-for-proposal process. These awards will fund high-reward projects by our best and brightest physician-researchers.”

This is the good for which my feet will run on Monday April 20. This, like the wearing of the yellow, is the good that transcends evil. This is the good to which you can contribute. Go to:

Africans in my Lounge Room

Trudy ushered them in, the two-and-two-thirds doctors from Africa. Tall, beautiful and young, each greeted us in perfect Hebrew: ‘Shabbat Shalom’, a peaceful Sabbath. Three smiles of perfect teeth lit our room on a rainy Saturday afternoon.

First and oldest was Tom, thirteen years a doctor, eight months in Australia on a Bridging Visa. Next came Afia, with 18 months’ experience in Ethiopian hospitals and I don’t know how much time in refugee camps. She too holds a Bridging Visa. Last and youngest was Oprah, the vulgar fraction: she has completed four years of medical studies in the Congo. Her birth country is Rwanda. I did not prosecute her with enquiry about her double expatriation. Like the other two, Oprah subsists in Australia at the pleasure of the government. That means the kindness of Mister Morrison.

All three understand fully they can be evicted from this land of asylum at which ever moment Mr Morrison’s kindness might run out. As none of the three came by leaky boat they have the right to work. If they can get work. Trudy brought the three to us to help them find work. I had invited two august medical friends, superbly connected senior people in their fields.

We sat down and talked. Tom outlined his situation. In his early thirties, married, experienced in hospital medicine and a recognized expert in immunisation in third world countries, he is permitted to work here as a doctor only under supervision. At present this distinguished professional works as a medical menial, washing incontinent bodies in a place for the aged. Tom makes no complaints about the red tape, he is grateful to be here, willing to go anywhere – to the outback, to the western suburbs – he just wants to use his training. Can we help him find work? This expert in immunisation – he is just back from Geneva, where he was summoned by the WHO to a conference – with his rich experience of tropical disease would be a gift to a hospital or a tropical medical school or an immunisation project or in policy in any of our tropical zones.

Afia, aged twenty-seven, came to Australia by invitation, to attend the recent world AIDS conference. She applied for asylum with her husband, a chemical engineer who is also looking for work. They too will go anywhere. Afia wants to be a GP. I pictured our large communities of people from the Horn of Africa with Afia as the needed human bridge of cultural understanding to bring these many to safety. I saw the many Aboriginal communities crying out for GP’s.

Oprah has been here for a few weeks. Trudy has given her shelter. Oprah wants to become a nurse. In this country nursing is university course and monumentally expensive. However asylum seekers can pursue TAFE studies at no cost. Oprah managed four years of a medical degree; nursing will not be beyond her grasp. She’d be able to train as a State Enrolled Nurse at TAFE and from that platform gain employment and support herself while studying at Uni. I work with numerous African nurses, highly appreciated in the outback, where the barriers between the African and the whitefella are as nought compared to the gulfs all must cross in indigenous health.

There was little talk of the revolutions, the wars, the massacres; there was scarce mention of refugee camps; there was no complaint, no sense of entitlement, no pity of self, no cries for the families left behind. None of the three had met the others until Trudy brought them together on Saturday and coached them in the Hebrew greeting on our doorstep. Afia, Oprah, Tom, three islands in this distant country, three shimmering humans simply happy to be here, eager to work, to stand up, to make their way.

Theirs is an old, old Australian story. I saw the Reffo, the New Australian, the Boat Person, the Gold Rusher, the survivor of the Shoah, the Balt on the Snowy Scheme, the student from Tiananmen Square. I saw my wife’s mother, a child fleeing Danzig in 1938, I saw my Grandpa arriving here alone, aged thirteen, a stowaway escaping the Ottoman police in Palestine.

There we sat – three young Africans, three old Australian doctors and one good citizen. An atmosphere quietly joyful, of welcome guests meeting grateful hosts, a current flowing back and forth of appreciative respect. A meeting, in short, of human people.

The next morning my wife and I happened to have three guests for brunch. One of the three, an old friend, works with survivors of torture; the second is a classmate from medical school whom I knew is a shy blonde, now President of the World Psychiatric association; the third is her husband, a distinguished gastroenterologist, now practising in Addiction Medicine. Our refugee advocate friend, his face ravaged, spoke of the horrendous week just past in which the Minister of All Prerogatives (Mister Morrison) sold the freeing of 103 detained children in exchange for numberless others, both adults and children. These others are offshore, in another country, beyond the borders of Australian conscience.

My wife and I told our brunch friends of the Africans in our loungeroom. Five Australians, all thoroughly unexceptional in our impulse, in our wish to help, spoke with eager seriousness of people, places, organisations, of contacts, of opportunities and of need. Nothing new, nothing unusual transpired. Five Old Australians, descended from New Australians, animated by memory and self recognition, each saw ‘mon frère, mon semblable’. I read in Sunday’s paper of the endless tides of Libyans escaping likely death, arriving in Italy where the locals, quite overwhelmed, yet see what our Morrisons and Abbotts and Gillards and Shortens will not: they see the human face and they give the arrivals succour.

In the few days since this human weekend I have tried to reach beyond my customary postures of anger and self-righteousness, to grope for understanding of my hard Government, of my soft Opposition, of my fearful fellow citizens in the electorate. I can only surmise that, somehow, at some time, my representatives and my fellow citizens have lost something they used to see – the image of the self in the face of the other.

An afternoon in the loungeroom with guests like mine might change everything.

Singing Man

Walking to shule early on a shabbat morning in spring, walking along, swinging along, here’s my neighbour approaching, walking along, swinging along, along with Jarrah his handsome, brainless hound.
‘Hello Hugo.’
‘Hello Howard.’
We discuss the terror raids. A Sydney paper runs the headline: SYDNEY UNDER SEIGE. I wonder aloud about a climate of alarmism. Hugo trusts the government to protect the people. I trust any government to protect itself. We agree to disagree.
‘Bye Hugo.’
‘Bye Howard.’

Walking long, swinging along Meadow Street, swinging towards the park, there’s a man ahead of me, singing. He’s walking along, singing along, singing aloud, singing with sunny uncaring, his ears clasped by headphones. A brown man, tall, a head of tight dark curls, his voice ringing out in the swinging morning.
I walk behind and I wonder. What is this singing, what the tongue, what type of singing? Some droning, drawn-out notes, long phrases, thick gutturals: might be mid-eastern, might be something different..
I swing faster, draw alongside, address the singing man; ‘What are you singing?’
The singing man smiles, stops his singing, removes his earphones. ‘Listen’, he says, his accent unemphatic, possibly sub-continental. He clasps my ears with his ‘phones. Soft rushes of sibilant sounds – unaccompanied percussion – fill my ears.
‘That’s not the music, that’s just the rhythm, the backing. I make the music, my song…’
‘Is the song your own? Do you compose it?’
‘Yes.’ Another smile. “I will record it in a sound studio, make a tape and try to sell it.”
‘What are you singing about?’
‘A beautiful girl, so beautiful she shames the sun.’
‘Will you sing it for me?’
The man smiles, replaces his earphones, bursts into song, full-throated, and we swing together along Meadow Street. The singing man creates waves of sound, rhythmic, patterned. I can discern the lines, pick out sound rhymes.
It is lovely.
‘Will you translate for me?’

‘” Do not go out ino the sun, my beauty,
Do not go into the sun;
If you go into the sun, my beauty,
The sun will look pale,
You will shame the beauty of the sun”‘

‘Thank you. That is beautiful.’
‘Thank you.’

We swing together along Meadow Street. When we reach the corner, I say goodbye. ‘Good luck with your song.’
I turn the corner, heading for the park and for shule beyond.
The man calls to me, ‘Have a good shabbat.’

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.