Fanning the Flames: My Portrait of My Grandfather just published on Biostories.com

Featured Essay

Fanning the Flames

by Shira Sebban

“How are you, Saba?”

“I? I am old.”

This question and answer routine would be repeated each morning like a familiar ritual when we would ring to check on the “Old Boy” as he was affectionately known, who still lived alone in a flat nearby.

I assume he appreciated our concern, although he never said so. Still we need not have worried … not then. Relishing the solitude that enabled him to read, think and write—so long as it was interspersed with alternate dinners at his son’s and daughter’s homes each evening—he was keen to preserve his autonomy for as long as possible.

Until well into his eighties, Saba (Hebrew for grandfather) would continue his exercise and diet regime, doing daily sit-ups and stretches, taking afternoon naps, munching on carrot and celery sticks, and preserving prunes in jars, which took up almost all-available bench space in his kitchen, be it at home in Melbourne, Australia, or wherever he was living overseas. I can still recall our family kitchen in London, filled to overflowing with my grandfather’s preserves, his snores emanating from the tiny bedroom next to the one I shared with my sister.

Not to say, however, that he lacked a sweet tooth. He could whip up a mean trifle and revelled in long smorgasbord lunches at fancy hotels, where he would indulge in chocolate éclairs and other treats, acknowledging his diabetes by popping a sweetener into the habitual tea with lemon he drank after every meal.

Lemons were so important to him that when he was asked to look after us as teenagers while our parents were overseas, he would dutifully arrive each evening for dinner and promptly disappear outside to water the lemon tree, which he believed would prevent the fruit’s skin from thickening. In the morning, he would depart for the peace and quiet of his apartment again, where he could spend the day in undisturbed contemplation.

Classical music was his constant companion, be it tapes he had made himself or the local classical music public radio station, with which he had a love-hate relationship, railing against the “moaning and groaning of illiterate so-called contemporary composers.” In one letter to the station, he urged such composers to test their claim to have popular support within the open market rather than “bludge on the public purse and coerce the people to listen to their incompetent noise-making.”

He was also partial to international melodramas, often joining the family in front of the television after dinner, when he would walk around jangling keys and loose change in his pockets during particularly tense moments. Keen to avoid confrontation whenever possible, he would burst into song—usually the old Russian folk tune Ochi chyomye (“Dark Eyes”)—whenever a family disagreement arose, which did not involve him.

Every so often, craving intellectual companionship, Saba would pack a bag, sling it over his shoulder, and head off overseas to Europe, his old home in Israel, or the United States, where cousins, who had survived the horrors of the Holocaust, were scattered. He would visit each in turn, and they would host family dinners in his honor and write him letters in English, Hebrew, Yiddish or Polish when he was back in Melbourne, sharing how they had delighted in his company.

During these trips, which could last several months or sometimes even years, he would commune with philosophers and historians at academic institutions in London, Boston, or Tel Aviv or on long walks through the Austrian Alps, even though he himself had not had a formal secular education and, to the envy of his grandchildren, had never even sat an exam.

He strove to cultivate a personal relationship with us from a young age too, asking for letters from each of his six grandchildren while he was overseas. If we were remiss in writing, he would remind our parents that we owed him a letter, and he liked nothing better than to respond to our questions, the more philosophical the better. I revelled in his attention—especially on the rare occasions when I was fortunate enough to join him on his travels—and placed him on a pedestal: my wise Saba could do no wrong.

Blessed with an inquiring and incisive mind, an insatiable desire for knowledge, and a photographic memory, he would peruse erudite tomes on a wealth of subjects in second-hand bookstores, sending crates of books back home, where he would autograph and catalogue them as part of his own library or distribute them as gifts to family and friends. As he explained in a letter to his daughter, “I will at least leave an inheritance, not in diamonds and jade, but in books, which were costly to me not only in money but in time and effort.”

I treasure that inheritance today, my study’s shelves arrayed with books my Saba gave me. The one I value most is his personal copy of The Book of Jewish Knowledge, an encyclopaedia of Jewish learning from the 1960s, which he presented to my husband and me during his last visit to our home, scraps of paper still marking the pages most important to him.

When bestowing a book as a gift, he would always include an inscription, ranging from a birthday wish or expression of love to an elaborate desire for social cohesion. The dedication on our last gift reads: “Wishing you success and a humane understanding of the kindness and social variety of others. Best wishes from an old octogenarian. Saba.” For he strongly believed that everyday human relations should be conducted with empathy, truth, and love.

During his travels, he would occasionally purchase a work of art for himself or as a gift. He thought that while art appreciation is subject to individual taste and values, “striving to enjoy art in all its forms” helps “a civilized person to cultivate a taste for aesthetics and so foster an understanding of beauty.”

As he wrote to my parents after buying them an antique Tibetan Buddha in Spain, “Art objects should serve as a means to inspire the most lofty thoughts. But should a collection serve only as an accumulation of wealth or to show off, to my mind it is wrong.”

The patriarch of the family, Saba would preside over gatherings, regaling the table with such passions as the problems of justice and of individual freedom within the rule of law. I recall many festive dinners where the extended family would gather around the long dining room table with my grandfather at the head expounding his views. No two dinners were alike, as he could be relied upon to present his arguments from multiple angles.

Fundamentally, he believed we all face a personal choice between leading an autonomous life of rationality, integrity, and dignity in the human world of ideas or a life of emotion, imitation, and subservience in what he termed “the domesticated animal kingdom.” As he wrote to a friend, “Does a man act out of rational argument or is man an animal whose elected shepherds know best what is good for him?”

Alternatively, he might have been keen to discuss what he had read that particular day which, given his eclectic interests, could range from a biography of Galileo Galilei, or the writings of Bertrand Russell, to biblical commentaries on Abraham, Moses, or Samuel, various newspaper articles, which he would mark for others to read, or even an account of the Shakers, a utopian Christian sect, some of whose former American settlements he visited and whose virtual demise fascinated him. Even while on an otherwise disappointing holiday in Tahiti, he derived enjoyment from reading daily doses from a volume of Albert Einstein’s essays, which he had happened to pick up at the Sydney airport.

Anyone brave enough to attempt an answer to what Saba meant as a rhetorical question would usually be met with a resounding “no” or, far less frequently, an “oh” in agreement (both words pronounced with a short ‘o’ sound) and a lengthy, passionate exposition of his views. Yet he did not lack for sparring partners.

“How do you know that you know?” “What do you mean by God?” Influenced by the late eminent philosopher of science, Sir Karl Popper, whose seminars Saba attended at the London School of Economics in the 1960s and who later became a life-long friend, Saba emphasized the importance of having a skeptical outlook on life and of continuously questioning one’s premises.

In contrast to his own childhood experience within an ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in Poland, he argued that parents do not have the right to impose religious beliefs on their children, as such convictions are open to doubt and “It is up to parents to guide the young ones with unquestionable honesty.” At the same time, he believed that an agnostic is still free to maintain traditions as an expression of cultural and communal adherence. He continued to attend synagogue fairly regularly into old age, always ensuring he had a book to read discretely during the rabbi’s sermons.

He vigorously opposed the use of force in disciplining children, arguing that physical punishment may “influence the child to look at the world as a society where reason is not a way of life, only force is the language of grownups. The child does not accept the beating as a consequence of being wrong, but rather reflects that grownups beat children because children are weak and cannot fend for themselves.” He was speaking from personal experience, his own father having used force against him. I never recall Saba raising a hand against anyone. For him, the power of persuasion depended on one’s choice of words.

Self-deprecating and able to converse with young and old alike, he cultivated a multitude of friends around the world. Academics and thinkers enjoyed the free exchange of ideas in his company, while students wrote him letters of appreciation for helping to clarify their thinking or correct their theses. People generously opened their homes to him and upon his departure, would write, requesting another visit. He maintained a rich correspondence with many who broadly admired his values and ideas, as well as the freedom of his chosen lifestyle, which he described as that of “a man divorced of daily responsibilities.”

Nevertheless, Saba always considered himself an outsider, and although his vocabulary was highly sophisticated, he was particularly unsure of his written English expression, writing drafts of important letters and texts, which were often corrected by his daughter.

He advised those around him to do our best to enrich our lives with, what he termed, “mental-spiritual interests.” As he wrote to my teenage sister and me: “Very soon, your holidays start and you have a swimming pool, books, a piano, cello and violin, what a rich life in front of you!” Whenever his children or grandchildren would ask his advice on our future studies, he would steer us in the direction of a great body of thought such as Science or Philosophy and encourage us to be creative and aim for excellence. He set an example by striving to learn mathematics at the University of Illinois in his fifties.

Yet, he remained highly critical of academia, which he considered to have largely degenerated into “coercive systems of education,” staffed by incompetent “charlatans” who felt immune from scrutiny. Careers were not as important to him as the sheer love of learning, although he certainly emphasized the need to work, which he averred to have learned from his father. In later life, he would often tell stories of his father—the last Jew to have a full religious burial in the central Polish town of Zdunska Wola—acknowledging that he had instilled in his children a love of Jewish learning, as well as an appreciation for the importance of being responsible for oneself and one’s actions. As Saba explained, “self-reliance and self-respect are important for self-fulfilment, which is the difference between man as a person and man as a domesticated animal.”

My grandfather always remained true to his principles—until, as he put it, he lost his “I”, Alzheimer’s disease ultimately robbing him of whom he was as a person. In my mind’s eye, I can still see him sitting in the middle of his room, endlessly twisting a Rubik’s Cube around in his hands. Up to that time, however, he lived 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.” Integrity, autonomy, and family were among the values he held dear and are now those I strive to instil in my children.

Saba was my mentor and anchor, who showed me that I could do anything to which I set my mind. He 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. My children may not have the privilege of growing up in his company, but they can still benefit from the rich and courageous legacy he left behind.

Shira Sebban is a writer and editor based in Sydney, Australia, who is passionate about exploring the challenges life throws at us through her writing. A former journalist, Shira previously taught French at the University of Queensland and worked in publishing. She has served on the board of her children’s school for the past 12 years, including three terms as vice-president. Her work has appeared in online and print publications, including Eureka Street, Jewish Literary Journal, The Forward, Australian Jewish News, Alzheimer’s Reading Room, and Online Opinion. She is currently working on a series of creative nonfiction stories based on her mother’s diary, which the family only discovered after her death. You can read more of her work at: shirasebban.wordpress.com.

In My Mother’s Footsteps

Tuesday, 29 March 2016

I recently experienced an amazing coincidence in Jerusalem. It is an honor for my latest piece to be published on the great philanthropy expert Danny Siegel’s blog in the Times of Israel. With gratitude to his exceptional student and philanthropy consultant in his own right, Arnie Draiman

 

This is a guest post, written by Shira Sebban of Sydney, Australia, who had arranged with my Talmid Muvhak(“Exceptional Student”) Arnie Draiman, to take her and her family to meet the Mitzvah heroes and see the magic that happens when we do.

It is no ordinary building. Not for its residents, nor for me. Yet, at first glance, the three story cream apartment block looks like any other in its central Jerusalem neighborhood – apart from its ramp and lift.

The Apartments complex has long been renowned for enabling adults with severe physical disabilities to live independently within the community. Unique in Israel, the project allows people in wheelchairs to reside privately in their own apartment, with a second bedroom available for a caregiver should they so choose. A large communal room and wheelchair-accessible garden provide opportunities to socialize, while a specially equipped van and driver are on hand to take residents to and from work, shopping or to appointments.
On a recent Tzedakah Adventure Tour led by philanthropy consultant Arnie Draiman, my family was privileged to meet with Shalheveth founder, Miriam Freier – one of Danny Siegel’s Mitzvah Heroes – and to tour the complex with director David Eliav, being introduced to several residents and visiting their homes. So popular have the apartments become – the waiting list is now very long – that additional funding is being sought for another facility.
Before its transformation, Miriam told us, the building at 36 Shimoni Street, in the “Rassco neighborhood” had been a dilapidated apartment block owned by the Jewish Agency, the only such building in the area.
Rassco – built by, and named after, the public Rural and Suburban Settlement Company – and the Jewish Agency rang a bell for me. Hadn’t my late mother stayed in the Jewish Agency-owned Anglo-Saxon Hostel in Rassco when she first arrived in Jerusalem in 1955?
I only knew this because it is detailed in her diary, a non-descript navy-bound volume, which my sister and I had found stashed away in a drawer while sorting through our mother Naomi’s belongings after her death in 2013 following a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease. Indeed, so precious has the diary become that I have since embarked on a journey of discovery, exploring Israel of the 1950s in order to recreate stories from my mother’s vivid experiences recounted on its now yellowed pages filled with her distinctive script. While her handwriting may be familiar to me, the young passionate woman revealed by her words is a stranger with whom I am still becoming acquainted.
While in Israel to celebrate our youngest son Jonathan’s bar mitzvah, I had planned to visit several of the sites mentioned in my mother’s diary. I managed to tour the upmarket cultural, leisure and shopping center of Sarona in Tel Aviv, originally a German Templer agricultural colony, which by Naomi’s day, had become Hakirya, the central government and military compound where she would frequent the library. I also surveyed the bronze, haloed Madonna on the roof of Jerusalem’s Terra Sancta College and explored the renovated First Railway Station, now a cultural and entertainment center: my mother would usually travel by train between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem where she attended classes at the Hebrew University, then located in the ornate, neo-classical surrounds of the Franciscan-owned College in leafy, affluent Rehavia.
The Anglo-Saxon Hostel, however, was not on my list. I already knew from my research that it had provided tastefully furnished accommodation for professional immigrants, offering breathtaking views of the Jerusalem Hills, a communal dining room and maid service. I had even seen a photo of it from the 1950s when it was brand new, standing alone on a recently constructed and completely deserted street without a tree or blade of grass in sight. Surely the hostel was long gone, I had assumed, surveying the now crowded, built-up neighborhood. But that was before I discovered Shalheveth.
Trembling with excitement, I stood on the entrance steps leading down to the street up which my mother had once hauled her heavy suitcase alone, abandoned by the taxi driver, who had blatantly overcharged her for the then two-hour trip from my grandmother’s home in south Tel Aviv. I took photographs of the stairwell, down which she would have tiptoed, after a night spent illegally at the hostel on an uncomfortable mattress without sheets after she had officially moved out, only deciding to return briefly when her possessions had not arrived at her new student abode.
We spent the rest of that inspiring day, the eve of Jonathan’s bar mitzvah, meeting some of Arnie’s (and Danny’s) other Mitzvah heroes, including Judy Singer of Matnat Chaim, Israel’s foremost kidney donation organization, who had donated her own kidney to a complete stranger in 2013. Since 2009, around 280 such low-risk, live transplants have taken place in Israel, where hundreds of people remain on the waiting list, kept alive by dialysis, which severely impacts their quality of life. Every year some die while waiting their turn, hence the urgency of Matnat Chaim’s work in combating the severe kidney shortage by encouraging more voluntary donations. Judy’s altruistic attitude certainly left a lasting impression on us.
We also visited Alice Jonah, who has helped established a supportive and dignified community for elderly Russian immigrants residing at the Diplomat Hotel, the five-star resort-turned absorption center. Some of the residents, including a pianist and a former opera singer, put on a concert in our honor, and I will never forget the charming and joyful 89-year-old lady, so elegant in her full black skirt, bounding up to us in between song-and-dance numbers, beaming from ear to ear, to tell us in stilted Hebrew about her seven great-grandchildren.
We met Moran Shelly of Shachen Tov (Good Neighbor Association), founded and run by student volunteers, who distribute thousands of food baskets to needy families across Israel, as well as organizing clubs for youth at risk, tutoring centers, and mobile coffee shops for the isolated.
The day ended with a visit to a woodworking and art workshop at Shutaf, which provides informal education programs for young people with special needs. Started in 2007 by dynamic mothers Miriam Avraham and Beth Steinberg, who could not find an appropriate program for their own children and so decided to create their own, the organization offers inclusive after-school activities and holiday camps where young people with disabilities have the opportunity to socialize with their more able-bodied peers.
Over the past five years, Arnie Draiman has led our family on three Tzedakah Adventure Tours, each coinciding with the bar mitzvah of one of our sons. We have distributed toys to sick children at Shaarei Tzedek Hospital, visited the border patrol unit in the Old City of Jerusalem that supports soldiers’ families in need, met with Ruth Schlossman, who having narrowly escaped a terrorist attack herself, decided to establish Gift of Comfort, providing massage and alternate healing therapies to survivors of terror. We have talked to toyshop proprietor Aryeh, who on his own initiative helps individuals in need, and with Robbie Sassoon, director of the Crossroads Center, where more than a thousand at-risk, English-speaking teens come for help each year.
In so doing, we have strived to teach our sons what becoming a Bar Mitzvah is all about, enabling them to learn from the example of Israelis working to make the world a better place. To be able to combine this with my own journey of discovery involving my mother’s past, has been a true privilege.
Shira Sebban is a writer and editor based in Sydney, Australia, who also serves as vice-president of Emanuel School, a pluralistic and egalitarian Jewish Day School. You can read more of her work on her blog.

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

Monday, 7 December 2015
Another story from my mother’s diary has been published
← Rescuing The Past
December 7, 2015 · 7:00 am
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

Sordid Beauty

Thursday, 20 August 2015

After we lost our mother, my sister and I discovered her diary in a desk drawer. Her diary entries read like a film script, inspiring me to bring them back to life as stories. Today the Australian Jewish News has published one of them, “Sordid Beauty”. You can also read another story from the diary here http://jewishliteraryjournal.com/creative-non-fiction/blood-in-the-market/

Garishly painted faces leered at Naomi as she scurried nervously down Jaffa’s dark, unpaved lanes. She shuddered as strange, shadowy figures darted urgently past the workshops, factories, stores and cafes, where the smoke of nargilehs mingled with a heady aroma of spice and perfume. Police seemed to be on guard everywhere.

Passing a police car, she noticed some prostitutes sitting in the back, mostly young girls in skimpy clothes. “They were waiting to be taken to the station and charged,” she would later note in her diary. She had known of course that prostitutes, both Jewish and Arabic, had long been plying their trade in brothels on the roads between Tel Aviv and Jaffa, but this was the first time she had been so close to the action and her discomfort was evident.

“Let’s go!” she urged her companions.

Reluctantly, Aliza nudged Motke, raised her eyebrows and shrugged wryly. “You’re not much of a Sabra anymore, are you?”

The evening had not been meant to end this way. Aliza, fun loving and capricious as ever, had been keen to hear Aris San, a 17-year-old, short Greek singer, who had recently arrived from Athens and was already making quite a name for himself. Motke had been only too happy to oblige, driving the women to the well-known Arianna nightclub.

The sharp metallic sounds of the bouzouki wafted through the thick, sweltering May night air as they approached the Salonican Jewish-owned Arianna, the bastion of Greek popular music in Israel. Constructed on the ruins of an Arab building, it was not far from Jaffa’s old central bathhouse, which had been converted into another nightclub known as the Hamam.

“The Arianna looks very ordinary from the outside,” Naomi would subsequently record, “but is situated in beautiful surroundings by the sea and close to mosques, towers and ruins of a house – charming indeed”. A few years later, by the 1960s, the Arianna would have become a favorite haunt for army officers and members of the Mapai Government, the forerunner of Israel’s Labor Party. The crowds, which would line up around the Jaffa Clock Tower to get in, included such luminaries as Major General Moshe Dayan and his wife Ruth, who would go there to dance on a Friday or Saturday night.

For Naomi, however, the spell was broken. The chaotic commotion of Jaffa was too much for her. Perhaps Aliza was right … she had become too Australian. At any rate, she preferred Jaffa by day. Hadn’t she and her cousin Miriam battled through the bustling maze of winding alleys just over a month ago to visit the home of the late War of Independence hero Yitzhak Sadeh? She recalled stopping at the end of the street now known as Zichron Kedoshim to see the house that had belonged to the first commander of the Palmach, the elite strike force of the pre-state underground Jewish army, the Haganah.

Perched near cliffs, with panoramic views, it had been easy to picture the charismatic Major General-turned writer, nicknamed HaZaken (The Old Man) while still only in his fifties, hosting his disciples and fellow warriors, Yigal Allon and Yitzhak Rabin, in the enormous, blossoming garden, with stairs leading down to the sea. Naomi could even visualize the goat that Sadeh had kept tethered to a tree in defiance of then new Israeli laws.

His room was just as he had left it in 1952 – a modest bed and wooden desk, books and photographs, many of him in action against the Egyptians, a collection of military maps and guns, swords and daggers amassed during his military exploits – all as you would expect of one of the founders of the Israel Defense Forces.

That had been a wonderful afternoon, Naomi thought, remembering how they had earlier visited Tamar, lingering over tea and luxuriating in the stunning surrounds.

Tamar had been most hospitable, and the large garden around her Arab limestone villa overlooking the azure sea far below was exquisite, the hilly lawn carpeted with the purple and yellow wildflowers so typical of the Mediterranean coast. Shaded by pine trees and cooled by sea breezes, the stone slabs and fountains taken from the recent excavations in Ashkelon had glistened in the sunny Friday stillness.

“A most ideal place to live,” Naomi would later pronounce. Indeed, situated south of Old Jaffa, Ajami – the neighborhood where Tamar resided – had been founded as a small, wealthy, upper middle class residential settlement by Maronite Christians in the late 19th century under Ottoman rule.

Since the establishment of the Israeli State, however, the roughly 4000 Arabs who had remained in and around Jaffa were now concentrated in Ajami, where many buildings had been demolished. Meanwhile, Tamar’s family had been among the thousands who had settled in homes vacated by the 70,000 or so Arabs who had fled or been displaced.

Ultimately, Ajami would rapidly deteriorate to become a cramped and dilapidated home to the destitute, both Jewish and Arabic … facts that Sabra-turned-outsider Naomi seemed blissfully unaware of during her visit on that day in 1957.

*******

My sister and I never expected to find Naomi’s diary. It was only when we sorted through our late mother’s possessions after her death in July 2013 following a battle with Alzheimer’s disease, that we came across the non-descript, navy-bound volume, seemingly long forgotten in a desk drawer.

The diary reads like a film script, relating the experiences of a young woman I did not recognise in the Israel of the mid-1950s. After almost a decade’s absence, she had returned to her birthplace from Melbourne, only to discover that she had become somewhat of a stranger in her own land.

Now, nearly 60 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. For 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.

A former AJN journalist, Shira Sebban is a Sydney-based writer and editor. She also serves as vice-president of Emanuel School. Her work has appeared in online publications including the Jewish Literary Journal, Jewish Daily Forward, Eureka Street, Times of Israel, The Jewish Writing Project, Alzheimer’s Reading Room and Online Opinion. You can read more of her work at shirasebban.blogspot.com.au

Finding Happiness

Sunday, 15 February 2015

My take on the Jewish view of happiness has now been published

February 13, 2015 – 4:52 am

By Shira Sebban:
I recently surprised myself by turning down a rare opportunity to attain what I had long considered to be my dream job. Having compromised my career for motherhood for many years, I had often compared myself to those I consider high achievers, judging myself as coming up short.
Yet here I was saying no. For weeks I had toyed with the proposal, feeling flattered. At last, I felt needed by someone other than family and community. I could contribute to society at large. After all, my children were older now and surely able to cope. Doubts lingered, however. The job would be all consuming. Was this really what I wanted?
Then the realisation hit me. I rather liked my life. True, I had to juggle work and family and never got the balance quite right. But I suddenly saw how much I cherish the time I have to write and the precious hours I spend with my children, who are growing up so fast, not to mention the importance I place on my voluntary work. I was not prepared to sacrifice any of them for another job, which I now recognised was no longer even my dream vocation.
That realisation has been a major step in my finding happiness. Not necessarily the emotional state of happiness, which Hugh Mackay in his 2013 book, The Good Life, dismisses as “the most elusive and unpredictable of emotions,” but rather happiness in its original sense, meaning to flourish.
While Mackay doesn’t like using the word “happiness,” lest it be confused with its modern, more selfish meaning of how you may feel at a particular moment, I don’t see any problem in striving to discover “the happy life,” becoming fully and meaningfully engaged in whatever is on offer.
Like many of us, I have often thought that what really matters is what makes us happy. We’re all going to die some day and few will long be remembered. So why not make the most of life? Indeed, didn’t the Americans think so highly of the pursuit of happiness that they enshrined it as an inalienable right in the Declaration of Independence?
Rather than seeking external factors such as pleasure, wealth, or honour, Mackay argues that we should aim to live “the good life,” by which he means being motivated largely by compassion, treating others according to the Golden Rule of how we would like to be treated ourselves.
“We ought to pursue goodness for its own sake… No one can promise you that a life lived for others will bring you a deep sense of satisfaction, but it’s certain that nothing else will.”
In contrast, observant Jews seem able to find an opportunity for growth and meaning in every good deed they do and each bit of wisdom they acquire, apparently experiencing true happiness along the way. No wonder the 2011 Gallop survey found that religious Jews are amongst the happiest in the US!
Those ultra-Orthodox Jews who identify as Chassidim go further still, promoting spirituality and joy through Jewish mysticism. As Rabbi Shloma Majeski explains: “Their radiant life and energy stems from their profound spiritual awareness and absolute clarity of direction. These are people who live for a purpose and derive vitality from it” (The Chassidic Approach to Joy).
In other words, doing good can make you happy and when you’re happy, you do more good. So happiness is actually a moral obligation.
Indeed, Rabbi Zelig Pliskin, who calls himself a “student of joy,” has an answer for the mother of young children, who is unable to pursue her career as planned. In his book, aptly titled Gateway to Happiness, he maintains that caring for family is an “act of kindness” of the highest order since it usually goes unappreciated. By making the effort to remind herself how meaningful her God-commanded work really is, the mother will overcome her frustration and find true happiness. Oh to have that level of faith!
But what about the doubters or non-believers among us? Don’t we deserve the prospect of finding peace of mind and happiness too? Bertrand Russell thought so, maintaining “the happy life is to an extraordinary extent the same as the good life.”
As a child, my family urged me to find an interest in life to sustain me. Indeed, my grandfather lived as if on an insatiable intellectual quest, telling me, “life is full of exciting curiosities, joy and deep feeling for the world’s mysteries.” My family’s view of life involved plenty of struggle towards a noble cause – a view Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has identified as a form of happiness in Judaism: “the happiness that comes from challenge … there is fulfillment … passion … and moments of exhilaration.”
Today my children are taught a broader idea of happiness. Influenced by positive psychology, their teachers get them to identify their “signature strengths,” which they are to use to lead engaged and meaningful lives. This reflects the ancient wisdom: “Raise a child according to their way” (Proverbs 22:6). In other words, you need to concentrate on what works for you. As 20th century philosopher Rabbi Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler said, “Every man was created with a unique personality, strengths and challenges… and therefore everyone has a unique slice of heaven that is completely their own.”
My children are also taught gratitude. As the Talmud says, “Who is rich? The one who appreciates what he has” (Ethics of the Fathers 4:1).
Developing positive relationships is another area of focus. After all, we are social creatures who need connection through family, friendship and community. Surely such “social happiness”is crucial to a society’s survival. In fact, the principle to “love your neighbour as you love yourself” (Leviticus 19:18) has been called the most important in all of Judaism and the earliest form of the Golden Rule.
I certainly intend to continue focusing on relationships, finding meaning and purpose through work and community, and hopefully savouring many emotionally happy moments along the way.

A Passionate Life: Portrait of My Grandfather

Monday, 1 December 2014
My latest article on my grandfather, who led an amazing life and was the patriarch of our family

Portrait of Saba

Painting of my grandfather, Berl Dov Gross, by Polish-French artist Jacob Markiel (1911-2008)
DECEMBER 1, 2014 · 7:00 AM

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