About my father and me: exile and return            Ruth Leonards

Between 1993 and 2005 I worked as a librarian at the Makor (now Lamm) Library, which had begun a program called Write Your Story to help people write and publish their autobiographies. In 1998 when their first anthology was to be published, the library staff were asked to contribute in order to fill out its contents. I wrote the story below at that time and have not changed it since.

 Cleveland, Ohio, has been home to a vibrant Jewish community since the turn of the century. In fact, by 1920 Jews represented 9% of the population; they currently number about 60,000. I grew up in the comfortable middle-class suburb of Cleveland Heights, where my siblings and I walked to the local primary school and attended the nearby Presbyterian Church. Our neighbours were Catholics, Lutherans and Methodists, as far as I knew. I never questioned the absence of our father at church every Sunday; after all, he had two jobs, was studying for his MD and was hardly around anyway.

I don’t remember hearing anything about Jews until I was ten. My paternal grandparents, who lived in Montreal, had sent me a Queen Elizabeth doll on the occasion of her coronation. After writing the requisite thank-you note, I asked my mother for their first names and address. She told me that their last name was not Leonards, like ours, but Rabinovitch, which was a Jewish name. My father, she said, had changed it when he went to university because his future would be better if he didn’t have a Jewish-sounding name. I don’t remember thinking anything very much about this seemingly startling piece of information. It had no effect on my daily life and I certainly never contemplated asking my father about it.

Only years later did I learn anything more of my father’s mysterious Jewish origins. I would learn that he was the elder of two sons, always his mother’s favourite and the focus of the ambition born of her Russian immigrant experience in the Jewish area of Montreal. Although he gained entry to McGill (the premier English-speaking university) under the Jewish quota as Jacob Rabinovitch (needing to score 25% higher than non-Jews), he soon saw that he would never be accepted in the ‘right’ circles with his name. Getting his mother (clearly the decision-maker in the family) to agree was apparently not too difficult and he thus became Jack Leonards, his middle name being Leonard, with the ‘s’ added to give uniqueness.

When war broke out in 1939 he was completing undergraduate studies in science. He set his sights on a future in the United States, where research opportunities existed and the draft thus far did not. Virginia Polytechnic Institute offered him scholarship money and over the next two years he got master’s degrees in chemistry and nutrition and began dating my mother. They married in late 1941. Somehow my father kept his bride ignorant of his background and his mother unaware of his marriage. They moved to Cleveland, where my father was to gain his PhD in biochemistry and where his deception was revealed. His brother, sent by his mother, arrived on the doorstep to be greeted by his unknown sister-in-law and two nieces. I never learned of his mother’s reaction to this news.

We visited my grandparents in Montreal on several occasions in my childhood. They lived in an ‘apartment’, not in a house like us. I remember cooking smells that were unfamiliar to me, though I don’t remember what we ate. We went to a place where bagels were being made; I do remember the delights of eating the warm rolls, as we called them. Uncle Izzy had a dry goods store, where my sister and I were given new dresses. My mother later told me that my sister had overheard our grandparents speaking a different language. When she asked our father what they were speaking, his reply was ‘French’! My father’s work as a professor in biochemistry and as a research physician brought him into close contact with members of the Cleveland medical community, many of whom were Jewish. At a party one night, my mother later recounted, a friend approach them saying, ‘Come on, Jack, I’m Jewish and I know you are too. Why don’t you just say so?’ My father’s response was to grab his wife’s hand, saying, ‘Come on, Betty, we’re leaving,’ and turn his back on an astonished friend.

When I was twelve, my father had to move out of the house. He had a ‘drinking problem’ and his increasingly intolerable behaviour was making our lives miserable. His departure was a relief to us all. My own relationship with him had always been fraught with fear and discomfort. I stayed out of his way; when asked, I did what he wanted with complete compliance. I hated the corporal punishment he inflicted on my three brothers and admired the way my older sister stood up to him in support of our mother. My own cowardice was a source of shame to me. I avoided seeing my father in the ensuing years, although he made some effort to re-establish a relationship with me. I told him that I was ‘busy with my own life.’ I was not to revisit my paternal grandmother until I was close to thirty and in the process of converting to Judaism.

Free of the anxiety of my father’s presence, I launched into a very successful high school career. Cleveland Heights High School gathered students from four junior high schools, three of which had very high percentages of Jewish students. I came from the one that had none (that I knew of, anyway). At Heights, everyone got along very well – we just didn’t socialise outside school hours; interfaith dating was uncommon. In my senior year I briefly went out with a Jewish boy, but his parents pressured him into returning to his Jewish girlfriend.

After graduating, I was awarded a four-year scholarship to a small liberal arts college in Ohio. My freshman class boasted one black and one Jew! My Jewish friend from high school wrote letters from Harvard, so when I finished up in Boston after graduating, he looked me up. We were married a year later. At his parents’ request, we went to see a rabbi, who might have agreed to marry us if only I hadn’t burst into tears at the suggestion. I could not contemplate the hurt it would inflict on my mother and on her four maiden aunts who had nurtured us all after the ‘dreadful’ way things with my father had turned out.

We lived a kind of non-aligned university life, my husband and I. The only taste of Jewish life I experienced was our yearly trip to Cleveland for Passover. I don’t remember a Haggadah being opened, though we may have spilled a few drops of wine. What I’ve never forgotten are the verbal exchanges, their volume and animation, which I would have called serious fighting but which my in-laws somehow treated as perfectly normal. In my home such behaviour would have been considered disrespectful and impolite. Yet I could see that this family shared an open affection and acceptance that I greatly admired. Nonetheless, five years later I walked out of that marriage and into the arms of my second Jewish man.

This time the question of converting was my own initiative. I remember my thinking centring around the importance of finding a sense of community for myself, as I was approaching the age of thirty. I also believed that my attraction to Jewish men pointed towards a need to establish a link with my father through his past, as I was not very interested in him in the present. I also sensed the importance of making the commitment to Judaism for my future parents-in-law, both survivors of Russian work camps during the Holocaust. The mechanics of the process in Toronto were expeditious and painless: weekly classes (with a written exam at the end), a connection with a Jewish family (cousins of my partner) and immersion in the mikvah.

Before leaving for Australia in 1974, I visited my father to say farewell and to discover his reaction to my becoming Jewish. When I told him, he looked away, telling me that he’d been to Australia for medical conferences, where he found the telephone service total inadequate and where he couldn’t even book a plane ticket after 5 pm. I never saw my father again. He died five years later, aged 59, never having achieved his lifelong ambition of winning a Nobel Prize. At the memorial service we held at his home, colleagues told us they believe he could have, if only …

Converting to Judaism took six months; becoming Jewish took at least ten years. In 1985, on a visit to the U.S., I realised that everything about my mother’s home and lifestyle seemed foreign (goyish is what I really thought) to me. What took another ten years to learn was that I could not turn my back on the first 30 years of my life, on the American Protestant values that persisted despite my best efforts to ignore them. I had not denied my origins, as my father had; instead I denigrated or dismissed most aspects of my background. The process of learning to accept and integrate my past has been not only a challenge but also full of ironies. In 1991 I returned to Cleveland for the 30th anniversary of my high school graduation. I felt immediately at home, as the predominantly Jewish gathering could have been a wedding or bar mitzvah in Melbourne. I even danced with my first husband. A few years ago I began going to shul on Shabbat, which in my marriage we had never done, but which I see as akin to my attending church as a child – only the day and venue have changed.

My father’s self-imposed exile, despite its tragic side, also had its ironies. After his death the Cleveland Jewish News ran his obituary! He might have denied his being Jewish, but the community claimed him. His daughter in Australia can say Kaddish for him. Surely we never fully understand the paths our lives take, but I have come to believe that my parents’ choice of my name was more than a simple coincidence.

Inner City Jew by Justine Sless

I am a fabled Jew of the North, of the red lipstick wearing, Radio National quoting, back yard chook owner variety. I am conversant in acronyms, grant writing idioms and the bureau speak of the not for profit sector from my day job and I can wax lyrical for hours about the perils, pleasures and pitfalls of doing stand up comedy, but the language of orthodoxy sometimes leaves me flummoxed.

The tenets of doing stand-up comedy for me are; fear, failure and humiliation. Laughter from the audience is strangely secondary to being able to control all three tenets at once.

When I go to the synagogue I love as an Inner city Jew, my lack of understanding about Orthodoxy feels similar; but private, without a spotlight glaring down on me and my palpable discomfort inhaled deeply by the audience.

I go to the shule in the city, not because it saves me the schlep of a Southside shule, where I know that there are more liberal options, but because I feel like it is my spiritual homeland, because it’s old and calming and the Rabbi and his wife, despite my complete lack of understanding about so many things are warm, friendly and welcoming.

Like the time I go to shule, to an event promoted in the small magazine posted out to me as a ‘spine tingling event,’ a night of nights.

As I approach the throng gathered outside I know that the greeting isn’t ‘Good Shabbos’ but maybe it’s ‘Chag sameach’, then someone nods and says ‘Good Yontif.’

‘Good Yontif’ I reply. That’s the greeting for tonight’s event: ‘Good Yontif.’

I climb the stairs with other women, the paint is peeling in parts and the walls are thick, cold and very, very old.

I look around as everyone does, to check out who is there.

The Rabbi begins talking. The men are doing that thing they do, seemingly in a private space, but so publicly; swaying and moving their lips silently.

I feel vaguely foolish and gauche, wearing a turquoise sweater, printed skirt and a red scarf, many of the women are dressed in black and some, including the Rabbi’s wife are in white.

Around me there are writers, philanthropists, gallery owners, sons of men who have been barmitzved there, wives and husbands who have been married in this, the oldest synagogue in Melbourne. They appear to know precisely what to do, say and wear.

One of the Rabbi’s sons is taking a book from where the Rabbi stands. I have not even bothered to get a book, because I know that my eyes will only scan the pages. I want instead to just feel the words and not have to flick through the pages, never sure if I am on the right one or not.

Another of the Rabbi’s sons runs into the now packed shule, he is around 6 or 7. This is his life, the rituals, his father speaking, praying and swaying amongst people. The young boy doesn’t look bored, but open and accepting.

I think of my own two children, 2 girls aged 10 and 17. If they were here, they would be sighing and asking when it will all be over, so that they may get back to their screens and to the spaces that they understand.

The open look on the Rabbi’s son’s face makes me think about respect and it makes me wonder which of the Rabbi’s boys will become a Rabbi themselves, and which of them might throw their hands up and reject it all.

I look at the Rabbis wife, she is slim and beautiful, and she always looks happy. I wonder if she is happy because she need not look any further, because this is her life and she is satisfied with it. I wonder is she is happy because she has chosen this life, or maybe it has chosen her. I think about what that must be like, if she grew up knowing that she would marry a Rabbi, the rituals and traditions grounding her in someway and offering a deep and nourishing meaning to her life

Sometimes I catch my reflection in a shop window and so often I don’t look happy, because I am always striving to be better, busier, more competent, more involved. More, more, more and so very rarely just being. So when I am silent in the shule that night, and on other nights, just watching and following and never quite understanding, it is a stillness that brings me calm and in a strange way contentment.

I can sing ‘Morning has broken, like the first morning’, I can recite ‘The Lord is my Shepherd, and I want to follow.’ I can sing ‘All things bright and beautiful,’ but I cannot sing this song on this night of Yom Kippur. My schooling in North East England was entrenched in the Church of England, Judaism was not there in that space, ever.

The rituals continue. I am still and calm. The Rabbi begins to tell us about this ancient night of prayer and song.

Everyone laughs as the Rabbi describes his son hitting his own chest so hard as he said the sins out loud, that he fell over.

We are asked to repeat the sins and hit ourselves on our chests: not to gossip, not to over eat, to be kind and good.

I wish there was one to say don’t worry, just relax unless you’ve been taught this stuff from birth then how can you know it all?

As the scrolls are brought upstairs after the men have kissed and touched them, I am afraid that a spotlight will suddenly shine upon me and highlight my lack of understanding.

The lady next to me pushes chairs aside and pulls me by the arm:

‘You must’ she says, ‘it’s only once a year, you must touch the scrolls. I am a project engineer I can make this work.’
She gestures to the young man carrying the scrolls. I touch the silken cloth, I sit down quickly, feeling embarrassed that a fuss has been made.

Then the songs and words and the rituals begin to soothe once more. I am still, because this place connects me deeply with my past: to my family, to those who perished in camps, to those who have come for thousands of years before me. The  Hebrew writing that I do not understand is like a set of symbols that has been the warp and weft in my world, but never enmeshed into a landscape that I can truly understand.

I watch the Rabbi and his wife greet the congregants as they leave. They look like a new bride and groom, thanking well-wishers on their nuptials.

‘It was lovely,’ I hear people say, ‘such a lovely evening.’ Like they have been to the theatre, or out to dinner.

We spill out into the wet night, moving back into our own worlds, my sense of fear, humiliation and failure ebbing like the sound of fading laughter.

“What Will We Think” By Dr Howard Goldenberg

What will we think

When we look back?

How will we change

And be changed?

 

I

My little minyan,

Suspended;

Ancient prayer,

Older than the Era,

Ended.

Have we ever before –

Before the Roman,

Or before Inquisitor

Or in the camps –

Ceased to foregather?

 

I’ve bewailed Jerusalem

Alone, in the outback,

‘How, sitteth the city alone’,

I sang.

I can do that again.

 

But one hundred notes

Of the shofar –

Abraham’s horn,

The horn that shook

The mount in its smoke –

Who will hear

From so far?

And how do we atone

Alone?

 

And we want to atone.

We asked, Who by fire?

And the fires replied:

Thirty four.

We asked, Who by water?

And the floods spoke:

Two – in Queensland.

And we asked, Who by plague?

And the plague is still counting

And the aged dead are mounting.

Even ‘though we prayed,

Cast me not off

In old age.

II

On the Eighth Day

Of Solemn Assembly

God said,

Kasheh le’hipared:

He said, He’d miss us.

I haven’t missed God:

From my deeps,

(my particular deeps)

I have called Him,

And I have felt Him close.

 

But I have missed my minyan –

‘We few, we happy few,

We band of brothers’ –

My minyan,

Where we treated God

As we treated one another –

As a brother.

 

 

The prophet said –

He, of the broken heart,

Forsaken, cut off, alone –

‘I will betroth thee

For ever;

I will betroth thee

With righteousness

And with justice

And with compassion;

I will betroth thee

With faithfulness,

And you will know Hashem.’

Shavuot

According to the Kabbalah, all humanity heard, in some form, the Divine Voice at Mt Sinai. Each soul experienced that sound according to their inner receptivity.


The long days of making our way through this wilderness of sparse rocky terrain and the nights sleeping on its harsh gravel floor are behind us. At last we have arrived at our appointed place on the plain at the base of another mountain, reaching our goal just as the sun begins to set. The large mountain range ahead of us turns golden as the rays of the sun filter their last ounce of the day’s allotment. Before the moon begins its nightly climb through the indigo sky, bright stars slowly appear – one by one – gradually and silently filling the velvet night with familiar silver images of light.

Looking around, there are others who have travelled far, survived the rigours of change and who, at last, have begun to recognise the importance and wonder of being brought to this place. We have been told to wait, here, at the base of the mountain, for a few days. Palpable anticipation fills the air as our curiosity grows.

At night the silhouette of the mountain range becomes somewhat electric; a sharp line of light defines its shape against the blackness of the sky. The desert sands and rocks on which some of us stand and some of us rest are warm, and seem to hum and tingle.

Over the next two days, wispy clouds gently appear from nowhere and glide across the blueness towards the apex of the mountain, drawn to it like a magnet. During these days we easily find fresh water. We bathe, wash our clothes and get our campsite in order. As we go about our daily tasks, the mountain top becomes ringed by more clouds and we can no longer see the sharp edge between earth and sky.

We huddle together, looking towards the peak which has disappeared beneath cloud. Our group has become silent – watching, waiting and tentatively receptive.

Without warning, on the third day, from the middle of the clouds, deep sound reverberates while beams of light flash out in all directions. At first, individually and as a group, we murmur about the magic of it all and some begin to shake with fright.

It’s pretty clear that we are experiencing something awesome and way beyond our simple understanding. The ground at our feet rumbles and seems to vibrate, the clouds change to thick smoke and the flashes of light and thunder continue.

After an indeterminate time, it all settles. The air clears and only a few pale clouds remain. From where we huddle, I see a bright light coming from the clouds. As we all watch, this light seems to become stronger and brighter filling the entire valley.

Looking to the mountain slopes we see our Group Leader carrying something in his arms make his steady way toward where we wait. The word goes around that he’s been given something important to assist us as we continue our wandering towards the Holy Land of our dreams.

The talk in our group shows we know we’ve been witness to a special moment, something that we will, forever, tell our children and grandchildren no matter where our travels take us.

Fay Abromwich
May 2020

All We Have is Now by Justine Sless

All we have is now
 
The certainty that the sun will rise and the sun will set
 
My friend Bron says via text
‘history and nature are both demanding our attention.’
 
The beauty of the rows of freshly baked goods at The Village Baker.
 
Turning my gaze away from the emptied supermarket shelves.
 
The flights are all cancelled – not going ‘home to see my mum now’
-but we pledge to  sit at opposite ends of the earth – drink  a cup of tea ‘together’ and talk – every day.
 
The cicadas
The birds – always the birds-
The insects buzz
The trees grow
 
 
Why wont Scott Morrison send the children home?
 
Borders are closed – just like that bookstore that failed
In that case it was Borders is closed
 
The canals are cleaner in Venice
 
 I cut up a chicken for stock -(as a jew the certainty of a good tasting broth matters) I cut up the chicken – it was small and expensive- bought from the a near empty butchers shop – it had no rib cage –
 
 
The memories of all those times, in bars, on planes, in foreign cities, piazzas, markets, cheeses and beers in Amsterdam.
 
The traffic still goes by
 
The light creeps across the balcony – over the seedlings in pots of my mothers favourite flowers – they will take three months to grow –
But
All
We
Have
Is
Now…
 
For more from Justine please visit: http://justinesless.blogspot.com/?m=1
 

Passover, Plagues and COVID 19 by Dr Leon Piterman

As we approach Passover 2020 it is , as always , time to reflect on the meaning and significance of this important festival. We are familiar with the symbolism that Passover offers . The power struggle between a humble , stuttering individual ( Moses) representing an enslaved and impoverished community and the great Pharaoh, almost certainly Ramses11, representing the all powerful Egyptian State and Empire . The quest for freedom and finally the exodus and its trials and tribulations on the way to a land supposedly “flowing with milk and honey”, are well known. It is easy to contextualize the lessons learned from the chapter Exodus in the Bible to events that have occurred since that time ,around 1300 BCE, including some in our own life time. The French Revolution, the Bolshevik Revolution, the American Civil war the fight for Black rights, Gay rights, the World wars and ongoing conflicts all involve a struggle often by an oppressed class against an oppressor . Class struggle is ubiquitous whether it involves a trade union fighting for the rights of workers against large and small corporations or at a national level in the form of civil unrest seen recently in Hong Kong or in civil wars including Lebanon, the Balkans and Yemen,

As we prepare to sit down or Zoom down at the traditional sedar meal and read the Haggadah restricted by social and physical isolation we are in the midst of the greatest plague in our lifetime, COVID 19, which is affecting hundreds of thousands, soon possibly millions, and killing thousands. So when the time honored question “ ma nishtana halayla hazeh?”, “why is this night different” , is asked , the answer is quite simple: COVID 19

In terms of plagues it seems appropriate to examine the 10 plagues, highlighted if not celebrated in the Haggadah and their influence on shifting the balance of power in Egypt , and the potential for COVID 19 to bring about a shift in political power and social transformation in this country and elsewhere, particularly in western usually capitalist democracies.

There is no doubt that the Pharaohs and Egypt benefitted economically from the 400 years of Hebrew slavery, if indeed that period lasted so long. One can understand the unwillingness of Ramses 11 to part with free labour. No different to the experience in the American South or our exploitation of cheap labour in Bangladesh. So when Moses turns up waving his rod demanding the release of some 40, 000 or more slaves and their families, threatening to bring God sanctioned disaster upon Egypt if the demand is not met, it is hardly surprising that he is treated with scorn and derision. The magic trick of turning his rod into a serpent did not impress. Many historians, archeologists and other scholars treat Moses as a mythical character, but even so this does not diminish the significance and the symbolism of the myth nor the importance of freedom from slavery. I would posit that slavery may not always be externally imposed .We may be slaves to our own fears , beliefs and habits. In the midst of COVID 19 fear is certainly enslaving many of us.

However , I want to focus on the nature of the 10 plagues and test their veracity in terms of contemporary knowledge and then examine their impact on Egyptian leadership and life in Egypt in comparison to other well documented plagues, as well as the plague of COVID 19 .
Reading the Haggadah one is left with the impression that these so called plagues occurred sequentially over a relatively short period of time, brought Ramses and the leadership to its knees until they finally let the Hebrews go. Even going along with the myth this is highly unlikely. The bible tells us that Moses lived to 120 years then died on Mount Nebo in view of the promised land. We are told that the Hebrews wandered in the desert for 40 years, so Moses was 80 when this nomadic journey began. His first attempt at convincing Pharaoh occurred he was around 40 so there was a long period between the first attempt and the final response. Ramses 11 reigned for 67 years so there was a lengthy period of interaction between Moses and Ramses 11 , at least 40 years. During this time it is quite likely that many environmental , ecological and medical disasters may have occurred which were interpreted by the Egyptians as punishments from their own gods not Yaveh. Moses may simply have turned up after the event and said “ Nu , I told you so.”

Taking the 10 plagues individually we can relate our own experiences , many contemporary to these events which the Bible and the Haggadah call plagues. I have listed these below:

1 Water turned to blood and death of fish . In periods of drought, rivers dry and in many places will assume the colour of red mud, the colour of sand which forms the bed of the river. We only have to look at our own Murray Darling disaster with loss of millions of fish to relate to this plague.
2 Frogs . Let’s not go beyond our own cane toads
3 Lice . Outbreaks regularly occur in schools and lice permanently exist in circumstances of deprivation.
4 Wild animals and flies. Destruction caused by foxes, rabbits , fruit fly.
5 Pestilence of livestock . Foot rot, mad cow disease
6 Boils . School sores , impetigo, flesh eating bacteria
7 Thunderstorms, hail, fire . Floods in the North of Australia, bushfires in the South
8 Locusts. Regular outbreaks in crop farming
9 Darkness, solar eclipse
10 Death of first born. This is the first plague which directly reports the loss of human life and is attributed to Pharaoh softening his attitude as he lost his son. It is more difficult to contextualize this. First born sons are more likely to have pyloric stenosis , but this sounds more like an infective process maybe measles or meningitis .

Whatever the cost paid by Pharaoh in releasing the slaves , it seemed to have very little impact on the status of Ramses 11, Egypt or its empire. Ramses reigned from 1279 – 1213 and lived to 90. The Empire remained a force until the reign of Cleopatra 69-30 BCE when it fell to Roman occupation.

So in the case of Egypt, plagues did not account for mass loss of lives and did not lead to economic and social disruption .
This was not the case with the Great Plague of Athens in 430 BCE which killed 100,000 , possibly as result of typhus or typhoid, and ultimately led to the destruction of Athenian democracy.

Nor was it the case with the Bubonic Plague in London in 1667 or the Spanish Flu in 1918-20 which resulted in 500,000,000 affected and as many as 50 million lives lost. Both had dire social and economic consequences.

So as we go through the Haggadah and our sedar meal in relative solitude , possibly for the first time in history, what is it we should contemplate ? We need to find meaning in the stories and symbols that Passover offers.

We are currently living in a form of captivity ( it could be worse) isolated physically and socially as never before. It is easy to sink into emotional and mental captivity through loss of hope , loss of purpose, loss of meaning , loss of income and fear of loss of a future as well as fear of death.

However , captivity seldom lasts forever. Although we should give some thought to those less fortunate than us who have been in captivity for years through some form of state sponsored suppression. And I include those refugees on Manus and Nauru in that category .

We are slaves captured by an unseen and hitherto unknown enemy. A global pandemic of this magnitude has never been seen. However , we know that despite the suffering and loss of lives , this will end. But at what social and economic cost. This may be seen as a Kuhnsian crisis and such crises are followed by revolution( not usually violent) and a new order or new paradigm. It is important to give some thought to the possible scope and shape of that new order socially and politically . What will our society look like in Australia when a 4 billion promised surplus is turned into a 300 billion deficit in a matter of weeks.

How will we deal with our fellow man and woman who has no job, no home, lost family members? Will we be more humane, less spendthrift, more benevolent? Will our society become more egalitarian? Will there be chaos or even revolution?

Let us make the most of this compromised Passover but let us not dwell on the mythical issues presented in Haggadah alone without thinking and exploring their meaning in April 2020 and the options that confront us when this nightmare is over.

Leon Piterman
April , 2020