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.

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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

For the Joy of it

By Shira Sebban – posted in Online Opinion Monday, 24 June 2013

Whatever happened to learning for the sheer joy of it? To embark on a quest out of curiosity and to savour the journey, motivated by a deep love of learning?

As Christopher B Nelson, president of St John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland, has said: “The reward of learning simply for the sake of learning itself is a kind of fulfilment we call happiness. And this happiness is something we should want for all … students” (www.acenet.edu).

Yet, today, knowledge is becoming more “commodified”. You can get a degree in almost anything, from professional nannying and auctioneering to clowning, paranormal studies and UFOs, and every institution seems to be at pains to tell you how useful your studies will be in helping you advance along a rewarding career path.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that, as Seinfeld would say. Obviously, we all need to earn a living, and it certainly helps if you can do so in a meaningful and enjoyable way, especially after paying considerable sums of money preparing for the privilege. Indeed, job fulfilment is ostensibly more important to Gen Y (aka Millenniums or Millennials) than it has been to any previous generation. Nevertheless, learning for learning’s sake seems to have little to do with the whole process.

I recently attended a Year 10 subject selection night at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) with my teenage son, where we discovered more than 300 degrees on offer – students can nominate up to nine they would like to study – each accompanied by a list of associated career opportunities.

Amongst the myriad of documentation we collected was a Parent Information Guide, which told us in bold yellow print: “It’s time for your child to leave high school behind and take their first steps towards a rewarding career”. Studying at UNSW, it maintained, could “give them the best launchpad into the rest of their lives”.

No mention of love of learning here. The closest we got was a paragraph in the parent guide, encouraging us to ask our children what subjects they “enjoy” as a way of helping them to discover “degrees that match their abilities”. Meanwhile, we were bombarded with statistics about how UNSW graduates “are in high demand from employers” and “are in the top 5% for median starting salaries”.

While career paths for the more practical degrees, such as actuarial studies or optometry, are quite evident, others are far more vague. Those interested in an Arts degree, for example, of which I myself am a proud holder, are told: “Students in the humanities and social sciences learn a wide range of skills that open up many career opportunities. No other course of study provides you with the same combination of broad intellectual growth, skills development in research and analysis, the ability to communicate effectively and the capacity to think critically about the global environment we live in.”

Certainly all most valuable skills to acquire. Although not pointing to specific jobs, the desire to appear useful and therefore attractive to potential Arts students is obvious. And with good reason. In 2012, only about 76 per cent of new bachelor degree graduates from Australian institutions had found full-time employment within four months of completing their tertiary studies (www.graduatecareers.com.au). In other words, one-in-four students had not, and guess who they were most likely to be?

Nothing much seems to have changed in that regard since I graduated more than 20 years ago: Arts, and for that matter, Science graduates are often compelled to search long and hard for meaningful entry into the Australian work place, with many employers favouring more obvious and practical skills, such as those offered by a medical, accounting or engineering degree. There is even a Know Your Worth chart measured by how many burgers a young graduate can buy with their starting salary! Newly fledged dentists are in first place with more than 21,000 burgers, leaving those humanities graduates fortunate enough to find employment languishing in their wake on a paltry 12,000.

I can still recall the days when as a newly married, 20-something graduate, I moved from Melbourne to Brisbane. Armed with a French Honours degree with a major in philosophy, I was keen to find work, only to be met by the blank stares of my prospective Queensland employers. How I wished I lived in the more open-minded United Kingdom, where philosophy graduates were sought after banking employees! As it was, unless I wanted to be a teacher or agreed to leave my husband and move to Canberra to take up a job in the public service, there seemed little hope for me.

Today, philosophy at my alma mater, the University of Melbourne, is a shadow of what it used to be and has merged with history. Indeed, many subjects, particularly from the liberal arts, are disappearing precisely because they are no longer attracting students in large numbers, at least not the all-important, full-fee-paying international ones, and so are no longer seen as financially viable. Gender Studies, for example, is gradually being eliminated from many Australian universities, as are various history courses, religion, linguistics and foreign languages, the number of which being taught has more than halved over the past decade.

As renowned philosopher Raymond Gaita has said so eloquently, “Some essential disciplines of the humanities and the sciences – philosophy and (even) physics, for example – have become mendicants for a respected place in institutions that should honour them, but honour instead the study of hospitality and gaming” (“To Civilise the City?” Meanjin, May 2012).

Since ancient times, the liberal arts – traditionally encompassing grammar, rhetoric and logic, mathematics, geometry, astronomy and music – were seen as the very bastion of learning for learning’s sake, providing a good grounding for life. The epitome of such a well-rounded education were “polymaths” or “Renaissance men or women” – those deeply knowledgeable, highly skilled and multi-talented, yet still modest, individuals, as personified by Leonardo da Vinci. As the accomplished Italian Leone Battista Alberti (1404-72) said, “a man can do all things if he will”. He was speaking with a certain authority, having been a priest, author, architect, artist, linguist, poet, philosopher, scientist, mathematician, inventor, horseman and archer!

While certainly not in the same league, my grandfather was a kind of Renaissance man. Although he never had a formal secular education, and much to my envy, never even sat an exam, he was blessed with an inquiring and incisive mind, an insatiable desire for knowledge and a photographic memory. A laundryman by trade, he worked hard to become established before devoting the rest of his life to reading, thinking, discussing, writing, appreciating music and art, and travelling.

The patriarch of our family, my grandfather would preside over gatherings, regaling the table with such passions as the problems of justice and of individual freedom within the rule of law. 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 the Italian Renaissance “father of science” Galileo Galilei or the writings of the 20th century philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell to biblical commentaries on Abraham, Moses or Samuel, various newspaper articles, which he would mark for others to read – our house was piled high with them – 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 Sydney airport!]

Careers were not as important to my grandfather as the sheer love of learning, although he certainly emphasised the need to work to secure financial independence and be responsible for oneself. Indeed, 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 in all our endeavours. He himself set an example by striving to learn university-level mathematics in his fifties.

When I was choosing my university subjects, I enrolled in a philosophy major as a matter of course. It was just what our family did. Without my grandfather’s influence, I may never have even been exposed to Socrates and Plato or wrestled with the ideas of 18th century Scottish moral philosopher David Hume. That is not to say that they were always well taught. But at least I had the opportunity to encounter them.

Today it is certainly harder, albeit impossible, to be a Renaissance man or woman. Bombarded with data from all directions, many of us are suffering from “information overload”. Socrates was ostensibly humble enough to admit more than 2000 years ago that he “knew nothing, except just the fact of his ignorance” (Diogenes Laertius, Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers 5: 32). How much more true is that today!

As knowledge increases, we tend to sub-specialise even more, with new experts springing up in a range of fields that were unknown just a few years ago, from windfarm or fuel cell engineers, app designers and social media managers to Zumba teachers and carbon credit traders. And yet Gen Y will be expected to retrain for up to five different careers in a lifetime.

One of the aims of the school my children attend is for them to develop the skills to become “life long learners”. I hope they come to appreciate the value of a good education, one that encourages them always to keep their mind open, reading widely, constantly being exposed to new ideas and experiences and discovering joy through learning. Obviously to do so successfully, they will need that most precious commodity, time. Hopefully, however, they won’t need to wait until retirement before getting to explore what they’ve always dreamed of doing. I’m encouraging them to discover and pursue their passions now and to keep on chasing them for the rest of their lives.