Category Archives: Australian Jewry

Pages from My Mother’s Diary: A Bus Trip to Ashkelon

By Naomi Gross (Tel Aviv, Israel) and Shira Sebban (Sydney, Australia)

My sister and I never expected to find the diary of our late mother, Naomi Gross. Indeed, for many years, we did not even know of its existence. It was only when we sorted through our mother’s possessions after her death in July 2013 following a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease, that we came across the non-descript, navy-bound volume, stashed away and seemingly long forgotten in a drawer of her writing desk.

The diary reads like a film script, relating experiences in the Israel of the mid-1950s of a young woman whom I did not recognize. After almost a decade’s absence, she had returned to her birthplace from Australia, where she had gone to join her father after World War II, only to discover that she had become somewhat of a stranger in her own land.

At the same time, and especially in the wake of the most recent deterioration in relations between Israel and the Palestinians, it is sobering to read a personal account of the early trials and tribulations, anguish and vulnerability of the new State of Israel.

Now, nearly sixty years later, I have decided to bring the yellowed pages filled with my mother’s distinctive script to life once more, recreating stories from her diary, which has become one of my most cherished possessions.

 Shira Sebban

*******

There was not a soul in sight. Surrounded by orange groves, my mother expressed her growing unease, “recalling some unfortunate encounters workers had with Arab infiltrators some months ago.”

I picture her, as she was then, an attractive and bright 20-something student, alone – except for her cousin Miriam – in the hot afternoon stillness. She would have been unable to get the image of those poor workers out of her mind. What if she was attacked too?

The infamous date of 4 October 1956 must have been etched in her memory. Only six months previously, five Israeli construction workers had been killed in an ambush in broad daylight on a desert highway near the Dead Sea, just a few hours away from Ashkelon.

Why on earth had she agreed to visit the South in the first place? It had been sheer madness to try to walk to the 5000-year-old site of ancient Ashkelon from the beach cafe, and they were still two kilometers away from the excavations.

The term, “infiltrator,” with its connotations of menace and evil, has recently been revived to refer to African asylum seekers to Israel. Its origins date back to the early 1950s, when numerous attacks on Israeli settlements culminated in the 1954 “Prevention of Infiltration Law,” which defined Palestinians and citizens of surrounding Arab states, who entered Israel illegally, as “infiltrators,” punishable by law, especially if armed or accused of crimes against people or property.

How many incidents had there been in the past 18 months since my mother’s return to her birthplace from Australia after almost a decade’s absence? Five people had been massacred in the previous two months alone: on 18 February 1957, two civilians had been killed by landmines next to Kibbutz Nir Yitzhak on the southern border of the Gaza Strip; on 8 March, a shepherd from Kibbutz Beit Guvrin, not far from Ashkelon, had been murdered in a nearby field, while just two days prior to her excursion, on 16 April, two guards had been killed at Kibbutz Mesilot in the North.

No, she decided firmly, she and her cousin would have to miss out on seeing the Neolithic excavations recently undertaken by French archeologist Jean Perrot; it just wasn’t worth the risk. They would then have joined the disorderly, long queue catching the Egged bus back to Tel Aviv. The two-hour trip would be a nightmare, she thought as they boarded, jostling in the narrow aisle against laborers standing cramped two or even three abreast after a hard day’s work.

It had not been as overcrowded that morning, when at least she had managed to find a seat next to Miriam. They were taking every opportunity to spend time together, renewing the strong bonds of their childhood friendship. Born and bred in Tel Aviv, Miriam was eager to inspect recent developments undertaken by the new State, remaining ever hopeful that her enthusiasm would somehow rub off onto her more-worldly cousin.

A high-pitched voice rang out above the din of the other bus passengers:

“Whose idea was it to throw Joseph into the well?”

“Was it Judah?”

The tentative reply was met with squeals of laughter.

“Wrong! You lose a point.”

My mother turned. “The seats behind us were occupied by four Yemenite girls, 15-17 years old, probably recent arrivals to the country,” she subsequently noted in her diary. “Full of joy of life, laughing and continuously talking in squeaky voices, cracking small black seeds and throwing shells on the floor of the bus. They were conducting a biblical quiz concerning the story of Joseph and his brothers in a childish manner, heavily taxing their minds and enjoying it tremendously.”

She was recalling the rescue mission, Operation Magic Carpet, which had airlifted most of Yemen’s 50,000 Jews to young Israel between June 1949 and September 1950 in what had been the first wave of Jewish immigration from the Muslim world.

The exuberance so evidently displayed by the girls would have contrasted sharply with the largely discontented demeanor of most of the other passengers. She glanced out the window and found the land “flat and uninteresting,” the monotony of the green fields “relieved here and there by red and yellow spring flowers.”

Ashkelon itself had been a disappointment – “An old Arab town with one main street containing the shops,” she would write, “now occupied mainly by migrants.”

That “old Arab town” was al-Majdal Asqalan, established under Ottoman rule in the 16th century. A commercial and administrative center, it had been part of the area occupied by the Egyptian army during the War of Independence, when its Arab population, about 11,000 strong, had largely fled, ostensibly temporarily, to nearby Gaza, before the town itself had been captured by Israeli forces in early November 1948. Less than two years later, the remaining Arab population, which had been confined to a fenced-off “ghetto,” had been transferred mostly to Gaza.

Meanwhile, demobilized soldiers and new immigrants, including survivors from the displaced persons camps in Europe and Jewish refugees from Yemen, Iran and Iraq, had been moving into what was Israel’s first development town. After several name changes, it had officially become Ashkelon in 1956 – only the year before my mother’s visit with her cousin. They had not lingered long, boarding another bus for the ten-minute ride west to the recently incorporated seaside township of Afridar.

Touted as a South African-style garden city, Miriam had long wanted to visit Afridar, which was being built on a large tract of land granted to the South African Zionist Federation by Labor Minister Golda Meir. Even its name sounded exotic, an amalgam of “Africa” and the Hebrew word, “darom,” meaning “south.” But as her description reveals, my mother had found the town center frankly uninspiring: on the right was a cinema, while on the left stood “a museum, library, health center, city municipality, all in one building. Likewise there is a row of about ten shops, comprising the entire shopping center, also a café. There is a tall tower with a clock at its top, and there, at the bottom, is the information bureau.”

The buildings, she conceded, were quite attractive, constructed of “colored bricks, with a somewhat oriental touch,” and “surrounded by lawns and flowers,” although multiple official notices forbidding visitors from walking on the grass spoiled the overall effect.

Looking for a place to have lunch, I picture the two women entering the information bureau.

“Welcome to Afridar,” the official behind the counter – clearly a new South African immigrant – would have intoned in stilted Hebrew. “This is the first modern neighborhood of Ashkelon, and the first, and up to now, only Anglo-Saxon settlement in Israel!”

“It’s impossible to utter any genuine impressions or opinions in front of the local people,” my mother would later record in her diary. “They will bite your head off as they can’t take any criticism. Still, the overall impression is a poor one, which might change with the enlargement of the place.”

She described the sea from a distance as appearing “beautiful, very blue and calm.” Small single- and two-family homes with red tiled roofs, arched front balconies, and spacious private gardens dotted the broad dirt road, an occasional old, rickety bus ambling past. Upon closer inspection, however, she expressed her disappointment as “the shore was poorly looked after, the sand none too clean and quite uninviting,” the only saving grace being the “most beautiful purple, yellow and orange wildflowers” growing in abundance.

At that time, the coastal dunes were quite deserted, save for two buildings, one a hotel and the other a café, which stood closer to the edge of the sandstone cliff running along the beach. The hotel was none other than the Dagon Inn, which had been established in 1954 by the Government-owned Afridar Development Corporation. Sharing the name of the Philistine god Dagon, whose temple Samson knocked down in biblical times, the Inn was one of the South’s first hotels, its then 16 vacation cabins even attracting the Prime Minister himself, David Ben-Gurion.

Its sole neighbor, Café Maurice, had proved to be the perfect place to have lunch, which was ” beautifully prepared and exquisitely served,” my mother wrote, although “the bill was tremendous – 12 lirot for both of us, which was very high for Israel, but perhaps worth it.”

“The place belongs to my parents,” the waiter had told the women in response to their compliments. “They’ve been in Israel for ten years – lucky for me as I was kicked out of Egypt last month.”

“What were you doing there? Your English is excellent,” my mother noted.

“Thank you, I speak five other languages as well. I studied hotel management in Switzerland and then owned some big hotels in Egypt. It was a great lifestyle – working six months a year and travelling around the world for the other six. But it’s all over now – I left with 20 pounds to my name. I’m leaving for Brazil soon. Prospects look good there. Israel’s a lovely place for idealists, but it’s got nothing much to offer me. Even if you have great talents to share, the country can’t cope yet.”

The waiter was part of the “second exodus from Egypt” after World War II, an expulsion that lasted for around 20 years, reaching its peak in the wake of the 1956 Sinai Campaign. Of Egypt’s once 80,000-strong, multicultural Jewish community, 34,000 would immigrate to Israel, the rest leaving for France, Brazil, North America, the United Kingdom and Australia. Forced to leave their property behind, many of these largely middle-class refugees were deported with little more than the clothes on their backs, their travel documents stamped “One way – no right to return.”

On the trip back to Tel Aviv, a frail, elderly lady had squeezed onto the bus, complaining of a sick heart, but no one was prepared to give up their seat. Huddled in the aisle, my mother and Miriam must have watched in disbelief as the mother of a little boy, nonchalantly sitting next to her, vociferously stood her ground, to the loud protestations of those around her.

“I paid for his ticket! He doesn’t have to get up for anyone!”

In a vain attempt to block out what my mother described as the ensuing “lively discussion,” peppered with frequent swearing, the cousins strove to share their impressions of the day.

“Miriam was most enthusiastic with all she saw,” my mother wrote. “Perhaps patriotism makes one so. As for me, I couldn’t work up a spark of enthusiasm or particular pleasure. Pity, I seem to be missing something vital.”

For other stories based on my mother’s diary see: http://jewishliteraryjournal.com/creative-non-fiction/blood-in-the-market/ and http://shirasebban.blogspot.com.au/2015/08/sordid-beauty.html

Shira Sebban is a writer and editor based in Sydney, Australia. A former journalist with the Australian Jewish News, she previously worked in publishing and taught French to university students. She now serves as vice-president of Emanuel School, a pluralistic and egalitarian Jewish Day School. Her work has appeared in online and print publications including the Jewish Literary Journal, Jewish Daily Forward, Australian Jewish News, Times of Israel, Eureka Street, Alzheimer’s Reading Room and Online Opinion, as well as The Jewish Writing Project. You can read more of her work at shirasebban.blogspot.com.au

 

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A Passionate Life: Portrait of My Grandfather

by Shira Sebban (Sydney, Australia)

“Retain integrity without succumbing to authority.”

So my beloved Saba advised me on my 18th birthday. “Don’t let anyone interfere with your endeavors to develop an independent way of thinking,” he told me. “Think first; afterwards argue or act. Don’t lose your countenance under duress.”

Saba (Hebrew for grandfather) was my mentor and anchor, who encouraged me to strive for excellence and showed me that I could do anything to which I set my mind. He taught me to be humble, ethical and empathic and encouraged me to stand up for what I believe in and not be afraid to admit I had made a mistake, learn from it and move on.

After all, that was the way he always behaved. Saba underwent many transformations in his long life, from Jewish scholar to Zionist rebel, laundryman, world traveler, benefactor, thinker, writer and friend to many. He lived throughout as if he was on an insatiable intellectual quest. As he wrote to me, “life is full of exciting curiosities, joy and deep feeling for the world’s mysteries”.

Saba was the second son born to an Ultra-Orthodox family of textile manufacturers and fur merchants in the central Polish town of Zdunska Wola near Lodz. He was named Berl Dov Gross – one of about 50 Berls in the Gross family! His birth date was given as 16 December 1906, although a question mark always remained over that date, the family joking that he had changed it to make himself slightly younger than his future wife Chana.

His mother died while giving birth to him, and his father then married her younger sister, who sadly would not prove to be a good stepmother to Saba and his older brother. This second union would produce three more sons and a daughter, all of whom were to perish in the Holocaust. Indeed, Saba’s father would be the last Jew to have a full religious burial in Zdunska Wola.

Years later, a study of local Jewish cemetery records would reveal that Saba’s mother had actually died in 1905, proving the family’s suspicions to be correct all along.

He had had good reason to make himself younger than he really was, helping him to escape Polish military service and immigrate to the then British Mandate of Palestine in 1925 – one of only a few members of his extended family to escape the subsequent reign of Nazi terror.

For many years, Saba would beg his family to flee, but no one would listen. Tragically, when they later turned to him to help them escape, he was no longer in a financial position to do so. It was a heavy legacy, which he bore stoically but did not allow to hamper his zest for life and all it had to offer.

The family belonged to the Gerrer Hasidic movement, then probably the largest and most important Hasidic group in Poland. While Hasidism generally promotes spirituality and joy through Jewish mysticism, the Gerrer Hasidim emphasize religious study and the objective service of God. Forbidden to learn anything but sacred texts as a child, Saba nevertheless managed to sneak secular books under his bedclothes, learn violin, and even find a tutor to teach him mathematics and other worldly subjects.

Although he rebelled against his religious upbringing, it would stand him in good stead in later life, enabling him to cite Jewish textual sources with ease. He would often recall being taken as a young boy to another town to meet the Rebbe or leader of the Gerrer Hasidim, describing a crowded room where he and other boys literally hung from the rafters to see what was happening.

As an adolescent, Saba became a member of a local Zionist movement and announced his desire to join the pioneers in Palestine. His father would only agree on condition he enter into an arranged marriage. His bride Chana was from the nearby city of Lodz, and the young couple was married in 1924 and left the following year for Tel Aviv. Chana’s parents and sister also decided to follow their lead and move to Palestine, only to make the fateful decision to return to Poland when their money ran out soon afterwards.

Arriving in Tel Aviv without a trade, Saba learned about textiles and proceeded to combine study, both secular and religious, with work. He and Chana would come to have two children, Naomi (my mother) and Moshe. A generous man, Saba was happy to share the little he had with those less fortunate. His strong individualist moral convictions and sense of justice, however, also placed him on a collision course with the powerful Histradrut or Labor Union, finally resulting in him returning his membership card.

He set up his own laundry business in Jaffa, but it was destroyed by fire during the Arab riots of the late 1930s, which were protesting against Jewish immigration and land transfers. Thus, the family was left without a source of income, but as Saba would later reflect in a letter to a friend, he would come “through the hardest years of 1929-39 unscathed, not having bowed at any time to any person”.

According to family legend, Saba had no option but to go down to the harbor, where he found one ship departing for South America and another for Australia. It was July 1938, and fortunately, he chose the vessel heading for Melbourne, promising his young family that he would send for them as soon as he could.

War, however, was to intervene, and it would be several years before he could afford to purchase even one ticket for a family member to join him. Meanwhile, back in Tel Aviv, Chana was forced to resort to housecleaning to feed her children. Having arrived in Melbourne without a word of English, Saba worked hard whenever he was able. When unemployed, he spent his time reading in the public library and listening to records in a local music store. He would then, at times, feel obliged to spend his meager income on classical music records instead of food.

Eventually, he managed once again to establish his own laundry business, sweating over hot machines and lugging heavy sacks of laundry up and down stairs. A recent letter from the daughter of one of my grandfather’s former employees vividly describes the tough work and conditions: “It was extremely hot in the summer and freezing cold in the winter. No such thing as heating or cooling and the dust from the washing was thick on all the beams… They were happy times but you had to work for what you got.”

After the War, Saba was finally able to bring his family out to Australia, starting with his teenage daughter Naomi. By then, he had begun to travel overseas, and over the years, he would visit exotic places before it became fashionable to do so, such as Ceylon (Sri Lanka), the Pacific Islands and even Dutch Guiana (Suriname) by freighter, maintaining a travel schedule that would exhaust someone half his age. He reveled in the adventure of being an independent traveler of modest means, although as he grew older, the advent of mass tourism with its package tours and controls disillusioned him considerably.

In 1946, he spent the entire year in China, shortly before Mao Zedong came to power, only returning to Australia when his family and friends lied to him that his factory had burned down. While in Shanghai, he assisted European Jewish refugees with their emigration to Australia. In Melbourne too, he would help newcomers from Poland and Israel to become established.

He and Naomi enjoyed a warm relationship and were well matched intellectually, spending long hours in discussion. Saba was a handsome man, and many, upon seeing her on his arm, found it hard to believe they were father and daughter.

Eventually, his son Moshe joined Saba in the laundry, and by the late 1950s, had taken over management of the business. Chana by then was living in Melbourne too. Although separated from Saba since 1938, they never officially divorced. He had a home built for her in Tel Aviv and continued to support her in Australia. For the rest of her life, Chana would live with Moshe and his wife Yona, helping to raise their growing family.

Now free to focus on his intellectual pursuits, Saba moved to London for a while, where he eventually set up house with a Hungarian-Australian artist. The relationship would last for some years during which they traveled widely, but by the late 1960s, it was over, although they remained friends.

Fascinated by the ancient world, Saba spent about thirty years studying Israelite society and in particular, Abraham and Moses. The result was his book, Before Democracy, in which he attributed the Israelites’ survival to their tribal way of life based on family and individual responsibility. He controversially argued that their transition to a centralized monarchy was an ill-conceived and retrograde step “but a stone’s throw away from despotism”.

Reluctant at first to have his life’s work published, Saba preferred, as he wrote to a friend, to “preserve my integrity and end my life as an individual who refrained from partaking in the rat race of publish or perish”. He ended up, however, battling unsuccessfully to have the book published for several years. Finally offered a contract, he withdrew his work before it had seen the light of day, refusing to make the major changes the publisher required.

In the end, he never found the “daring publisher” he hoped for, and the family ended up self-publishing the book, although sadly, by the time it appeared, he was too ill to appreciate it fully.

Saba endured several bouts of ill health, which on occasion left him scarred, but not beaten. He was like a cat with nine lives, rebounding from each episode with renewed vigor. Eventually, however, he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease – the same illness, which tragically, would later come to afflict Naomi too. “I am losing my ‘I’,” he told his daughter, by which he meant he was losing what made him whom he was as a person.

My last memory of my brilliant Saba is of him sitting in the middle of his room, endlessly twisting a rubix cube around in his hands. He passed away on 8 July 1994. To this day, I still regret that I did not learn more from him about my Jewish heritage while I had the chance.

Almost ten years earlier, he had given me a pair of silver candlesticks from Israel as a wedding gift, fondly expressing the hope that I would remember him each time I lit the Sabbath candles.

Every Friday evening and on numerous other occasions, I remember him as my beloved Saba, my teacher and my friend, from whom I learned to question, to reason and to explore. In my mind’s eye, he remains the invincible hero of my youth, strong and independent, hoisting his bag onto his shoulder and striding away, as he did when we bid each other farewell at the airport for the last time.

May his memory be a blessing.

Shira Sebban is a writer and editor based in Sydney, Australia. A former journalist with the Australian Jewish News, she previously worked in publishing and now serves as vice-president of Emanuel School, a pluralistic and egalitarian Jewish Day School. Her work has appeared in online publications including the Jewish Literary Journal, Jewish Daily Forward, Times of Israel, Eureka Street, Alzheimer’s Reading Room and Online Opinion, as well as The Jewish Writing Project. You can read more of her work at shirasebban.blogspot.com.au

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Unlocking the Past

by Shira Sebban (Sydney, Australia)

We did not expect to find the diary. A non-descript, navy-bound volume, it had been stashed away in a drawer of the massive wooden study desk at which our late mother had worked for so many years. Perhaps she had simply forgotten writing it? Or perhaps she had chosen not to share her youthful passions and agonies with her daughters… We will never know.

I had long abandoned any hope of uncovering more details of my mother’s past, her memories having been gradually extinguished by Alzheimer’s disease, which had afflicted her for the last decade of her life. Now, as I turned the diary’s yellowed pages filled with her distinctive script, I felt grateful for the opportunity to discover her anew, albeit in a younger form, becoming acquainted with the person she once was before I was born.

Written in English in the mid-1950s, when a postgraduate traveling scholarship had taken her back from Melbourne, Australia, to her birthplace of Israel for two years, the diary provides a glimpse of what life was like then for a single, 20-something woman. Attractive and bright, she was courted by a host of mostly unsuitable admirers, although occasionally, one would become the focus of her hopes and dreams. After all, as she notes, her mother had advised her to “secure a future” for herself, urging her to work hard to accomplish her purpose: in other words, “get married”.

Part-travelogue and part-social commentary, the diary reads like a film script, the vividly portrayed characters flitting in and out of various settings. One moment my mother is at a party or concert, describing the dating scene: “Noticed some very good looking men in the audience. Wonder where they usually hide.” The next, she is on a crowded bus, discussing the four young Yemenite girls seated behind her: “probably recent arrivals to the country. Full of joy of life, laughing and continuously talking in high pitched voices, cracking small black seeds and throwing shells on the floor of the bus.”

A picture builds of what life was like in what was then the recently established State of Israel. Many of those she meets are keen to move elsewhere, believing there is more opportunity overseas. A certain unease lurks behind the pages too, and on one occasion, she even has to identify a suspect at the police station after an elderly woman is raped across the street from her home. More often, however, she is scared to walk alone in isolated areas, having heard about “some unpleasant and unfortunate encounters with Arab infiltrators”.

The term, “infiltrator”, with its connotations of menace, danger and evil, has recently been revived to refer to African asylum seekers to Israel. Its origins date back to the early 1950s, when there were several attacks on Israeli settlements, resulting in around 100 casualties and culminating in the “Prevention of Infiltration Law” of 1954, which defined those citizens of surrounding Arab states, as well as Palestinians, who entered Israel illegally, as “infiltrators”, punishable by law, especially if they were armed or had committed crimes against people or property.

Emotions certainly ran high within Israel itself too. On a morning walk through the Carmel market near the family home in south Tel Aviv, my mother describes police arresting an “old Arab who was selling baskets… He was yelling his protests. Bystanders said he was allowed to sell his products in the main street, but not in the market.

“Further on I heard terrible cries, saw a young fellow who had slashed his own throat in protest at having had his cart full of vegetables taken to the police station. Apparently, he too had no permit to trade in the market.”

I had long known that after leaving Israel, my mother had undertaken an epic sea voyage to Italy, also visiting Paris and working in London before deciding to make her way to Montreal, where she would ultimately meet her future husband and my father. Until now, however, I had thought that those often-recounted stories had been buried with her. So imagine my delight to discover that the diary also contains a record of the first part of the journey she undertook by ship from the northern Israeli port of Haifa to Venice via Greece and then on to Milan by train.

Penniless, she could only gaze longingly at the elegant Italian shop window displays, but could “afford nothing no matter how cheap the prices were”. Arriving in Milan and not wanting to stay on her own, she was on the verge of boarding the night train to Paris with nothing to eat bar a box of biscuits, when she finally managed to contact the aunt and uncle of one of her best friends in Tel Aviv, who invited her to stay with them. Successful furriers, my mother writes, they had “made a name for themselves”, their shop frequented by “a good class of clientele”, including members of the aristocracy and movie stars.

Although most of the numerous names that appear in the diary remain unfamiliar to me, the family name of my mother’s good friend stood out. Hadn’t I gone to school with a boy of the same name?

It so happens I had been reminded of that particular family at the beginning of this year – before we discovered the diary — while on holiday in Israel, when I had learned that Michael, my old school friend, was staying in the same hotel. We spent some time catching up and also exchanged contact details.

Now, as I turned the pages of the diary, I realized that the characters so vividly depicted by my mother included various members of Michael’s extended family. My mother’s friend was Michael’s aunt, meaning the Milan furriers must have been his great aunt and uncle. I sent an email to Michael, who immediately put me in touch with the Italian branch of his family and all was confirmed. Even better, his elderly and frail aunt in Tel Aviv could still remember my mother and recalled the deep friendship between various generations of our families.

As it transpires, our familial ties date back at least a century to Poland via Tel Aviv and on to Australia: A tale of friendship and support, harking back to the days of our great grandparents, with the diary key to piecing together the puzzle of just how we are connected.

The ravages of Alzheimer’s disease had prevented my mother from recounting her memories long before her death last year. Her diary provides a portrait of her, as I never knew her: a young, passionate woman searching for intelligent companionship and the man of her dreams. It provides the key to unlocking a part of her past with which I was unfamiliar, a past that I thought had been lost forever.

Shira Sebban, a writer and editor based in Sydney, Australia, worked as a journalist for the Australian Jewish News. She previously taught French at the University of Queensland and worked in publishing. She also serves as vice-president on the board of  Emanuel School, a pluralistic and egalitarian Jewish Day School. You can read more of her work at: http://www.onlineopinion.com.au/view.asp?article=13636, as well as https://jewishwritingproject.wordpress.com/category/australian-jewry/ and http://shirasebban.blogspot.com.au/

 

 

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Building Community with Soul

by Shira Sebban (Sydney, Australia)

I can no longer live a meaningful life without my Jewish community. My teenage son calls it an addiction. But my love for my community does not stem from mere habit, nor am I guided by compulsive need or blind infatuation. On the contrary, it has taken years of soul searching and trial and error to find the appropriate community where my family has been able to take root, grow and contribute.

Since ancient times, philosophers like Aristotle (Politics, 1.1253a) and more recently, Spinoza (Ethics, IV, prop 35) have argued that we are social animals. As Rabbi Hillel famously said, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I?” (Ethics of Our Fathers 1:14) In other words, “All Israel are responsible for one another” (Babylonian Talmud, Shevuot 39A, Sifra Bechukotai 7:5).

The Talmud actually defined the type of society where scholars were allowed to live: The chosen city had to include a beit din (law court), an honest charity fund, a synagogue, public baths and toilet facilities, a mohel (circumciser) and a surgeon, a notary, a shochet (ritual slaughterer) and a teacher (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 17b). As Rabbi Jill Jacobs, Executive Director of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, has explained, “in order to be a suitable place to live, a community must provide for all its members’ spiritual and physical needs” (www.myjewishlearning.com).

Yet, it was not until my own father’s death ten years ago that my longing for such community became so urgent. I had once asked him whether he would wish to be buried in the same cemetery as his parents and extended family in Toronto, Canada. “We should be buried within the community where we live,” was my father’s reply. By that time, he had been residing in Melbourne, Australia, for more than 30 years.

He was espousing the teachings of both Rabbis Hillel and Tzaddok, who urged us not to separate ourselves from the community (Ethics of the Fathers 2:5, 4:7). Indeed, Judaism teaches that those who are not prepared to feel their community’s pain and help out when the going gets tough, will not enjoy comfort in the good times either. As the Talmud warns, “The man who secludes himself from the community, which is in distress, shall not see the prosperity of the community” (Ta’anit, chapter 1).

A midrash goes even further, maintaining that removing yourself from the community is like overthrowing the world. It tells the story of the dying Rabbi Assi, who was depressed because although he had been a great scholar and kind and generous man, he had not been involved in communal matters or disputes. As he told his nephew, “I might perhaps have been able to render some service, had I not kept to myself but taken upon me the burden of communal affairs” (Midrash Tanhuma, Mishpatim 2).

When my father died, I did not know where to turn. Although we had belonged to various Orthodox synagogues in the past, my husband and I had not been able to find a spiritual home since moving to a new city some years earlier. As a result, we had flitted from one synagogue to the next, sampling a different one on each Jewish holiday but not feeling “at home” in any of them.

Nevertheless, I was touched when one of the rabbis, whom I had met in the course of my search, rang several times to see how I was faring. When upon my father’s first yahrzeit (anniversary after death), the same rabbi offered me his synagogue for a memorial service, we finally made up our minds to join his congregation – after such generosity on his part, we believed it was the least we could do.

That sense of welcome, warmth and support through both tough and good times remain major factors in why we renew our membership each year. Judaism ensures that mourners do not grieve alone, stipulating that Kaddish, the prayer for the dead in which God’s name is sanctified, only be recited publicly in the presence of a minyan (ten Jewish adults – the minimum number required for community). Celebrations also become more meaningful when enjoyed together in community.

As our sons have grown older and undertaken preparation for their Bar Mitzvah, our family has come to attend synagogue every Shabbat. Our shule of choice is Conservative (Masorti): Integrating tradition with modernity, it allows us to sit together as a family instead of banishing me behind a mechitza (partition to separate men and women).

This egalitarian ethos is particularly important to me as I do not have any daughters and would otherwise be sitting apart from my husband and sons. Nevertheless, it was several years before I felt comfortable being counted in a minyan and agreed to be called up to the Torah. Not that there was ever any pressure on me to do so – our synagogue accepts a certain variety of Jewish practice.

It also gives us the freedom to question and acknowledges our right to consider different interpretations and viewpoints. As Robert Gordis, chairman of the Commission on the Philosophy of Conservative Judaism, has explained: “Pluralism is a characteristic not only of Judaism as a whole, but of every Jewish school of thought that is nurtured by the spirit of freedom” (JTS: Emet Ve’Emunah: Statement of Principles of Conservative Judaism, 1988, Introduction p14).

In addition to my synagogue, the Jewish day school my children attend is another pillar of my community. Pluralistic and egalitarian too, it welcomes students of all backgrounds, who come together in mutual respect and are encouraged to work for tikkun olam, making the world a better place. So committed have I become to this philosophy that I decided to volunteer for the School Board when my oldest son was in first grade and have remained actively involved ever since.

According to Rabban Gamliel, the son of Rabbi Judah HaNassi, “Those who work for the community should do so for the sake of heaven” (Ethics of Our Fathers 2:2). In other words, the early rabbis were urging us to be ethical when we undertake communal work. As Rabbi Yehudah Prero explains, “We must act with pure intentions, with no ulterior motives” (“Community – Then, Now, and Forever, www.torah.org/learning/yomtov/holocaust/no3.html).

Humility is also an important factor: The Talmud not only regards leaders as the “servants” of the community (Horayot 10a), but also stresses that they should always carry “a basket of reptiles” on their back so that if they “became arrogant”, they could be told to “Turn around!” (Yoma 22b). In other words, never forget that family skeleton hidden in your closet!

Recognizing the frailties of human nature, the ancient rabbis resorted to divine reward and punishment as a means of encouraging ethical communal leadership: those who cause others to do wrong will not be “given the opportunity to repent”, while those who lead others to do good will be credited with their community’s merit (Ethics of Our Fathers, 5:18).

Sure, as Rabbi Yitzchak Blau has pointed out, the rabbis did not think it fair that communal leaders should enjoy heaven while their followers rotted in hell, but is there really no hope of redemption for those who lead others down the wrong path? Here scholars disagreed, with some arguing that while God would not help the wrongdoers, they were still free to repent on their own. In contrast, the medieval scholar and physician Moses Maimonides is much more damning in his assessment: for him, there is truly no hope of salvation for such wicked leaders (Hilchot Teshuva 4:1, http://blog.webyeshiva.org/teshuva/inights-in-pirkei-avot-the-implications-of-causing-others-to-sin).

Admittedly, such threats have little effect in this day and age when many of us don’t even know whether we believe in God. Nevertheless, it is still possible to contribute altruistically to and derive meaning from community based on religious civilization. Conservative (Masorti) Judaism recognizes this position as valid: “One can live fully and authentically as a Jew without having a single satisfactory answer to such doubts; one cannot, however, live a thoughtful Jewish life without having asked the questions” (Statement of Principles of Conservative Judaism, p17).

My oldest son has commented that without faith, a prayer service is just “a group of strangers singing together”. Yet, I have certainly discovered a sense of inner peace, spiritual uplift and intellectual stimulation through regular attendance at synagogue services and communal celebrations like the Pesach Seder.

To quote the writer Alain de Botton: The “relevance” of such religions as Christianity, Judaism and Buddhism “to the problems of community are arguably never greater than when they … remind us that there is also value to be had in standing in a hall with a hundred acquaintances and singing a hymn together … or in sitting at a table with neighbors and partaking of lamb stew and conversation, the kinds of rituals which, as much as the deliberations inside parliaments and law courts, are what help to hold our fractious and fragile societies together” (2012, Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion, London: Penguin Books, p50).

De Botton – who was born Jewish but describes himself as a committed atheist – argues for the removal of religion’s “supernatural structure” before it can help solve “many of the problems of the modern soul” (pp311-312).

My soul, however, does not need to be quarantined from the full gamut of my religion in order to thrive. Indeed, I am quite happy to keep on exploring the laws and customs of my heritage and culture, practicing rituals and contemplating ideas from within Judaism. All I need is my community.

Shira Sebban, a writer and editor based in Sydney, Australia, worked as a journalist for the Australian Jewish News. She previously taught French at the University of Queensland and worked in publishing. She also serves as vice-president on the board of  Emanuel School, a pluralistic and egalitarian Jewish Day School. You can read more of her work at: https://jewishwritingproject.wordpress.com/category/australian-jewry/ http://www.onlineopinion.com.au/view.asp?article=13636  and at http://shirasebban.blogspot.com.au/

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Caring for My Mother: Burden or Responsibility?

by Shira Sebban (Sydney, Australia)

I am my mother’s advocate. Together with my sister, I manage her household, supervise her caregivers, pay her bills, and run her errands. Most importantly, we champion her rights, providing her with a voice at a time when, tragically, she can no longer stand up for herself due to the decade-long ravages of Alzheimer’s disease.

My mother used to be my role model and my best friend. Passionate, strong, courageous and intelligent, she was a brilliant scholar and a loving parent and grandparent, the person I could turn to for advice and companionship at any time.

Now the tables have been completely turned. The child who started out entirely dependent on her mother has matured to become the one on whom her mother depends.

Since my mother has been afflicted by illness, I constantly feel her absence like a gaping hole in my life. She may still look like my mother and remain physically near, but mentally and spiritually, she is no longer there for me.

When someone has Alzheimer’s, there is plenty of time to say goodbye. Deterioration occurs slowly, with changes almost imperceptible at first and then becoming only gradually more noticeable. Alzheimer’s is a cruel illness, as my late maternal grandfather noted, telling my mother when, sadly, he was in the throes of the disease himself, “I am losing my I,” by which he meant that he was losing what made him whom he was as a person.

Moreover, gradually much of the world forgets its sufferers. Many friends stop writing or visiting; it is almost as if people are too embarrassed and don’t know how to deal with someone who can no longer respond except with a smile, a look or a touch.

Yet, already in the third century, Talmudic Rabbi Joshua ben Levi had pointed out that just as the fragments of the first set of tablets of the Ten Commandments shattered by Moses were placed in the Ark of the Covenant along with the new tablets, so too should we “be careful” to respect “an old man who has forgotten his knowledge through no fault of his own” (Babylonian Talmud: Berakoth 8b).

Even earlier, the second century BCE Jerusalemite scholar Ben Sira wrote in his Book of Wisdom: “My child, help your father in his old age, and do not grieve him as long as he lives. If his understanding fails, be considerate. And do not humiliate him when you are in your prime” (3:12-13).

We are taught that we are meant to “honor” and “respect” our parents in the same way as we revere God as partners in the creation of life. Yet, the first century sage, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, acknowledged that this Fifth Commandment was the hardest of all to obey (Tanhuma Ekev 2). As Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Emanuel in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Dr Albert Micah Lewis says, this Commandment  “teaches that even though this kind of caregiving may not feel natural or even fair, it must be provided”(Person H.E. and Address R.F. (eds) 2003, That You May Live Long: Caring For Our Aging Parents, Caring For Ourselves, URJ Press, New York, p10).

Judaism values behaviour over thoughts and feelings. The Talmud lists the actions we need to perform in order to fulfil the mitzvah (good deed) of respecting our parents. “What is honor? Giving food, drink, dressing, covering, leading out and bringing in, and washing face, hands and feet” (Tosefta Kiddushin 1:11). In other words, children are required to ensure that their parents’ basic needs are provided.

While most Jewish sources insist upon children personally caring for their parents themselves – and with the right attitude – the medieval scholar and physician, Moses Maimonides, made an exception for children with parents whose minds were severely affected: “If the condition of the parent has grown worse and the son is no longer able to endure the strain, he may leave his father or mother, go elsewhere, and delegate to others to give the parents the proper care” (Mishneh Torah: Hilchot Mamrim 6:10). Chosen caregivers, however, must be able to cheer the patient up (Regimen sanitatis: The Preservation of Youth: Essays on Health, chapter 2).

Long ago my sister and I promised our mother that we would never put her in a nursing home. And we have honoured that promise, convincing her early on to move to the same city where we live and striving to ensure that she continues to reside with dignity in her own home. As card-carrying members of the “sandwich generation,” we have chosen to juggle her needs along with those of our own young families.

While that may not be the right decision for everyone, it has certainly proven to be the correct option for us, and we are fortunate to have had the freedom to be able to make that choice. Our mother can no longer thank us, but I know that she is grateful. Before she lost the ability to speak, she was expressing her gratitude to everybody who helped her, and I am sure she would still be doing so today if she could.

The debate over whether children should provide for their elderly parents from their own income or whether parents need to fund their own care also dates back to ancient times. Scholars were seemingly divided, with rabbis of the Jerusalem Talmud advocating that even poor children must raise the funds to support their impoverished parents (Jerusalem Talmud, Kiddushin, 1:7). As Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai said: “’Honour your father and mother,’ even if you have to go begging in doorways” (Pesikta Rabbati 23). Rabbis of the Babylonian Talmud, on the other hand, maintained that the parents should provide the money, while the children should give their time (Babylonian Talmud, Mas. Kiddushin 31b-32a).

Maimonides argued that only when parents had no money were their financially independent children obligated to support them according to their means, and could even be coerced into doing so by a Bet Din (rabbinic court of law) (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Mamrim 6:3).

If the children have money but refuse to spend it on their parents, Jewish law allows them to use funds they would otherwise have given to charity, but immediately “curses” them for “humiliating” their parents: (Babylonian Talmud, Mas. Kiddushin 32a). Others go further and compare such a refusal to murder, maintaining that such a comparison is warranted by the fact that the two Commandments, to honor one’s parents and not to murder, follow each other (10th century Midrash, Tanna Devei Eliyahu).

Broadcaster Sandra Tsing Loh said earlier this year on National Public Radio’s Talk of the Nation that the “daughter track is far more open-ended [than the mommy track] and has no rewards at the end except for death” (29 February, 2012).

No rewards?

Even though I would give anything to have my mother back again as she once was, I know that caring for her has taught me to be kinder and more patient, especially in the last few years, when I no longer know if she even recognises me. Sometimes being patient is a struggle in the flurry of everyday life, as I force myself to slow down to my mother’s pace, watching as she chews each mouthful of the meal that has been prepared for her.

As Rabbi Laurie Zimmerman of Congregation Shaarei Shamayim in Madison, Wisconsin, has said, “just by her being, she teaches us the highest form of compassion” (8 October 2008, “Aging and Caring for Elderly Parents”, http://www.shamayim.org/). Renowned Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, one of the founders of the Jewish Renewal Movement, has wisely advised: “You may just want to sit and hold the hand of the parent with Alzheimer’s. Communicate on the inside. Something is going to happen in the silence. There is a being behind the brain” (September 2012, “From Age-ing to Sage-ing,” Front Range Living, http://www.frontrangeliving.com/family-health/rabbi-zalman.htm).

Indeed, even though she has forgotten her language, my mother often tries to communicate when she sees me. The other day, one of her longtime caregivers told her she was leaving to return to her homeland. “She looked at me,” the caregiver said, “and I knew she understood.”

Caring for my mother has also given me an opportunity to set a good example for my children, teaching them to be decent human beings. As my 11-year-old son said, “We owe it to our parents to look after them in their old age. They care for us when we are young and then it becomes our turn to care for them.”

If everything else fails, fear can be a strong motivator, as is understood by the Torah: “You shall rise before the aged and show deference to the old; you shall fear your God: I am the Lord” (Vayikra (Leviticus) 19:32). Respecting our parents is the only Commandment accompanied by a reward, which can also be read as a veiled threat: “Honor your father and your mother, as the Lord your God has commanded you, that you may long endure, and that you may fare well, in the land that the Lord your God is assigning to you” (Devarim (Deuteronomy) 5:16; see also Shemot (Exodus) 20:12).

Not only should our fear of God influence how we treat the elderly, but we should also behave towards others as we would like to be treated ourselves. Indeed, on Yom Kippur morning, we pray “Do not cast us off in our old age; when our strength fails, do not forsake us!” (from Psalm 71:9). According to Rabbi Harold Kushner, “if we show honor and respect to our parents when they are old, we will be fashioning a world in which we will not have to be afraid of growing old, a world in which length of days will indeed be a reward and not a burden” (Foreword, xvii to Berrin S. (ed) 1997, A Heart of Wisdom: Making the Jewish Journey from Midlife Through the Elder Years, Vermont: Jewish Lights Publishing).

Meanwhile, I feel rewarded that I am providing my mother with a good quality of life from which she still derives some enjoyment.

Yes, despite everything, she still gets some joy out of life. Contrary to popular misconception, advanced Alzheimer’s sufferers are not vegetables. Although the illness may cocoon them from feeling the full brunt of life’s emotions, they still experience pain and pleasure, peace and agitation. My mother continues to appreciate good food, especially dark chocolate, music, flowers, massage and the warmth of the sun. She may be confined to a wheelchair, but she is not confined to her apartment, attending an adult day care program twice a week, going on outings and visiting with her family.

She is still a human being – even if she has lost her “I”.

Shira Sebban, a writer and editor based in Sydney, Australia, worked as a journalist for the Australian Jewish News. She previously taught French at the University of Queensland and worked in publishing. She also serves as vice-president on the board of  Emanuel School, a pluralistic and egalitarian Jewish Day School. You can read more of her work at: https://jewishwritingproject.wordpress.com/category/australian-jewry/ http://www.onlineopinion.com.au/view.asp?article=13636  and at http://shirasebban.blogspot.com.au/

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Making the Most of Life

by Shira Sebban (Sydney, Australia)

Like most of us, I usually try to avoid thinking about death. Its seeming finality – the enormity of the thought that we are never coming back – is not something I have ever managed to face and comprehend fully no matter how hard I try. Instead, heart thumping, courage faltering, I usually come to a screeching halt just before plunging over what seems like the looming precipice beyond.

Yet, on the ninth anniversary of my beloved father’s passing and just a few days after attending the funeral of my dear friend Shimon, I find myself drawn to musing about death and to be able to do so more calmly and rationally than ever before.

Selfless and discreet, Shimon was a caring man, a listener, who preferred not to speak about his own trials and tribulations and devoted much of his life to helping others through his nursing work and later as the hospital chaplain for our synagogue. Listening to the rabbi’s eulogy for Shimon, I felt uplifted and a sense of inner peace soothed my soul – just as my friend would have wanted.

I do not normally derive comfort from a Jewish funeral service. Nor are you meant to. The tearing of relatives’ clothing over their hearts to symbolize their pain, recital of prayers – “You return us to dust… the best of … years have trouble and sorrow; they pass by speedily, and we are in darkness” (Psalm 90) — and the harsh thud of earth shoveled onto the coffin, all serve as a wake-up call to those who grieve.

In addition to honouring the deceased, mourners are required to confront the reality that not only have they lost their loved one, but that their own lives are finite: “Teach us to number our days that we may attain a heart of wisdom.” (Psalm 90) Indeed, this is the source of the Jewish tradition of wishing mourners “a long life” – not because we would be so heartless, as I once thought, as to desire that they live for a long time without their loved one but because we hope they will enjoy “long days” from which they will derive meaning and purpose, striving to make the world a better place.

My mother would often quote a passage from the Talmud, which is traditionally recited for a man at a Jewish funeral: “It is not your duty to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.” (Tarfon, Pirke Avot, 2:21)

At Shimon’s funeral, the rabbis recited a beautiful poem, “Life is a Journey,” by the late Rabbi Alvin Fine of San Francisco’s Congregation Emanu-El, which provides a realistic summary of the fallible human condition. Failure certainly does not preclude meaning:

“From defeat to defeat to defeat, until, looking backward or ahead,
We see that victory lies not at some high place along the way,
But in having made the journey, stage by stage, a sacred pilgrimage.” (from Gates of Prayer, published by the CCAR)

Perhaps I have become more aware of death because I have been writing the life stories of my late grandfather and of my mother, who is now sadly in the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s disease. In the course of this journey, I have been fortunate to have been able to trawl through a treasure trove of family letters, some dating back as far as the 1930s – snippets of social history, which regrettably, with the advent of email and the Internet, come to an end around the year 2000. It is sobering to realise that I will not be leaving the same legacy for my children.

Written in English, Hebrew, Yiddish and even occasionally Polish, these letters have crisscrossed the globe. Desperate letters in Yiddish from a sister in Lodz, Poland, in 1935 to her sister, my late grandmother, in Tel Aviv; hundreds of letters in Hebrew, which followed my mother’s journey from Tel Aviv to Melbourne, Australia, in the late 1940s and back again, and then on to London and Montreal a decade later and back to Melbourne once more in the late 60s; and letters in English spanning four decades from my Canadian father’s family in Toronto to their brother in Melbourne and from my adopted Melbourne “aunt” and close family friend to my mother,  providing vignettes of what life was like for Australians in the 1950s and 60s.

In perusing these letters, each preserved in its original envelope, what quickly becomes clear is that no matter what advances technology may bring, fundamentally little has changed: human beings still experience joy and suffering, success and failure, complain about the economy, celebrate births and marriages and bemoan divorces and deaths among family and friends. Life continues – whether you are there to witness and experience it or not. As the ancient Book of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) teaches: “there is nothing new under the sun.” (1.9) “One generation passes away, and another generation comes; And the earth abides for ever.” (1.4)

So much toil and trouble, fuss and bluster, anguish and elation. Yet, after we are gone and our contemporaries have also vanished with the passing years, what remains? For the creative few, a contribution to knowledge they may have made; a book they may have written; artwork they may have produced. For those with means, a legacy in bricks and mortar or a charitable foundation to which they may have contributed. For the vast majority of us, the living legacy of our children, grandchildren, and possibly even great-grandchildren, as well as photos and other memorabilia and perhaps sayings or traditions handed down from generation to generation.

My late father was a quiet man. On the first anniversary of his passing, the rabbi likened him to the Ancient Israelite tribe of his Hebrew namesake Issachar, whom Moses exhorted to rejoice quietly “in your tents”, in contrast to fellow tribe Zebulun, who was to be happy “on your journeys”. (Deuteronomy, 33:18)

In his own discreet way, my father did whatever he could to care for and support his family. He would do anything for the ones he loved and he was everything to us. To him, home and family came first, and I will never forget how on the day he died, he urged me to leave his hospital bedside and return to my husband and young children because “they need you”.

My father stood like a pillar at the centre of our lives. We were all accustomed to depending on him, and when he died, we felt his absence keenly. In the days and months that followed, I could not help but ask myself how it would have bothered anyone if he had been allowed to continue driving through the streets, helping to lighten the load of his family and friends?

At my friend Shimon’s funeral, the rabbis also quoted from Ecclesiastes:

“Kohelet wrote: ‘The eye never has its fill of seeing.’ (1.8) … God, be now with those whose hearts are broken because, whenever parting comes, it comes too soon.”

Unfortunately, such words of comfort were missing from my own father’s funeral and shiva. The rabbi went to great lengths to urge the family not to respond to the embraces of friends at the funeral; he only agreed to attend shiva once at my parents’ city apartment; and when at his request, my mother, sister and I came to the synagogue each evening during shiva to recite Kaddish, we found the main sanctuary cold and dark, with the men comfortably ensconced in the small, cheery annex used during the week. The annex did not have a mechitza (partition to separate men and women), and so the men insisted that we file into the main sanctuary and sit in the row closest to the annex, the windows of which were opened so that we could hear the prayers.

Until my father’s passing, I had been fairly sure that there was nothing after death. Although I keep a traditional Jewish home and had spent years studying philosophy, I could not seem to accept the idea of “eternal life” and “everlasting peace” in the “world to come”. Yet, when I lost my father just a few hours after spending the night tending to his needs in hospital, I began to question my former apparent certainties. How was it possible that my father could be there one minute and gone the next? What had happened to his persona, to the essence of who he had been, to his soul?

Ecclesiastes teaches:  “And the dust returns to the earth as it was, but the spirit returns unto God, who gave it.” (12.7) Today, while I am still not sure whether or not I believe in God, I draw comfort from praying that my father’s “soul be bound up in the bond of everlasting life” and I strive to honor his memory through my actions.

As Rabbis Sylvan Kamens and Jack Riemer wrote in their poem, We Remember Them, also recited at Shimon’s funeral:

 “As long as we live, they too shall live,
for they are now a part of us,
we remember them.” (From Gates of Prayer)

Shira Sebban, a writer and editor based in Sydney, Australia, worked as a journalist for the Australian Jewish News. She previously taught French at the University of Queensland and worked in publishing. You can read more of her work at: http://www.onlineopinion.com.au/view.asp?article=13636  

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