Monday, 1 December 2014
Painting of my grandfather, Berl Dov Gross, by Polish-French artist Jacob Markiel (1911-2008)
Monday, 17 November 2014
Doing good and being happy
Shira Sebban | 18 November 2014
I recently surprised myself by turning down a rare opportunity to attain what I had long considered 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 now older 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. But 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, however, 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, people of faith seem able to find an opportunity for growth, spirituality 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 Gallup survey found that the very religious are amongst the happiest in the US!
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.
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 former Commonwealth Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks has identified as a form of happiness: ‘the happiness that comes from challenge, … a life that has its setbacks … there is fulfilment, 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.
My children are also taught gratitude. As the ancients explained, ‘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. 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.
Shira Sebban is a Sydney writer and editor who is vice-president of the Board of her children’s school.
Wednesday, 1 October 2014
My first creative non-fiction piece has just been published in the Jewish Literary Journal. It is based on my mother's diary.
With a terrible cry, the young man let go of the knife and fell to the ground, blood oozing from his throat.
Naomi froze in horror in the late spring morning sun, jostled by the bustling market around her. A boisterous crowd was starting to mill about the young Arab trader, now stretched prone in the dirt, surrounded by Israeli police.
He had slashed his own throat; that much was clear. But why?
Moments earlier she had passed by an old Arab basket-seller being arrested. Her ears still rang with his yells of protest. Bystanders had explained that he was allowed to sell his products in the main street, but not in the shuk itself.
Normally her Sunday shopping expedition to Shuk HaCarmel (the Carmel Market) was a highlight of her week. She would linger over the colorful, long alley of stalls packed tight with hundreds of vendors on both sides, each vying for attention, hocking their wares by seeing who could shout the loudest. Dazzled by the array of spices, pastries, and other culinary treats, she would stop to purchase the fruits and vegetables her mother had requested, slipping in an extra juicy peach or crisp apple for herself.
Now she noticed two officers wheeling away a cart full of vegetables.
“They’re taking it to the police station!” someone shouted.
Apparently the young trader too did not have a permit to sell in the market.
Her routine shattered, Naomi made her way through the dusty, dry streets of south Tel Aviv to her mother’s home, where she was staying during her visit to her birthplace. She had not finished her shopping but her heart was just not in it anymore.
“I cannot say who is right or wrong,” she later wrote in her diary, “but I do feel that something must be very wrong for such a thing to have occurred. You don’t cut your own throat just for the pleasure of it, or as an idle demonstration.”
Her thoughts were interrupted by the cries of a watermelon seller. “Avatiach al a sakin!” (“Watermelon on the knife!”), he shouted from his perch atop his horse-drawn wagon, challenging potential customers to test the ripeness of the fruit. At least she would bring home something fresh for lunch, she thought, as he sliced off a red glistening portion for her.
Tensions had been rife between the local populations of downtown Tel Aviv and Jaffa long before that memorable Sunday in May 1957. Indeed, Shuk HaCarmel owed much of its growth to the Arab riots particularly of the late 1930s, which were held in protest against Jewish immigration and land transfers. As a result, Tel Aviv’s Jewish population had tried to end its commercial dependence on Jaffa. The violence had continued in the years before the establishment of the State of Israel, Arab snipers shooting at Jewish shoppers from the nearby Hassan BekMosque, the well-known Ottoman-style building, which still adorns the road to Jaffa by the Mediterranean Sea.
Naomi’s family, like many others, had been personally affected by the riots. Her father Berl’s laundry in Jaffa was burned to the ground, leaving him struggling to support a wife and two young children without a source of income.
According to family legend, he had no option but to go down to the harbor, where he had found one ship departing for South America and another for Australia. It was July 1938, the eve of World War II, and fortunately, he had chosen 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, his wife Chana was forced to resort to housecleaning to feed her children.
It was late 1946 before Naomi, by then a teenager, had finally been chosen to make the weeks-long journey to Australia by herself. Now, some ten years later, she was back, living with her mother – the only member of her immediate family still in Israel – in the sunny, whitewashed house her father had built in the south Tel Aviv suburb of Shechunat Brenner. She traveling each week to Jerusalem, where she had won a research scholarship to the Hebrew University.
Having changed considerably during her decade-long absence, the shy and reserved teenager blossomed into an attractive and bright 20-something woman, fluent in English, armed with a Commerce degree, and schooled in Australian social mores and customs. Nevertheless, she had never been able to recover completely from the fears and instability of her childhood, recalling as if it were yesterday, the sirens in the middle of the night, at the first sound of which she and her family would rush to their cousins’ apartment in downtown Tel Aviv, further away from the center of the action.
Now, as she unlatched the low front gate and entered her mother’s simple but neat front yard, the grass freshly mowed and the lemon tree bursting with fruit, her mind wandered back to an incident that had occurred just over a year earlier, in April 1956, which she had also recorded in her diary: “Some people spread panic, saying five Arab terrorists were caught in the market next to us. I was really scared, as that would have meant we were all in real danger. Radio programs didn’t mention anything – probably somebody’s imagination. Still, to be on the safe side, we closed all windows and shutters, bolted doors and stayed inside – horrible feeling.”
That had been a particularly anxious time, when the newspapers were full of alarming reports about shootings and attacks. On one day alone – 7 April 1956 – an Israeli woman was killed when attackers threw hand grenades into her house in Ashkelon in southern Israel; two kibbutz members died when their car was fired upon; and there were other attacks on homes and cars in which one person was killed and three others wounded.
Disheartened, Naomi had written in her diary: “Had some very disturbing news concerning the killing of citizens by Fedayeen-Arab groups. It is a horrible feeling being stabbed in the back when one is least aware.”
Four days later gunmen opened fire on a synagogue filled with children in the farming community of Shafir in southern Israel, killing three children and a youth worker and wounding five, including three seriously.
By “Fedayeen” – a term that has since fallen out of use – Naomi meant Arab terrorists, who infiltrated Israel to strike targets in the years after the establishment of the new State. At their peak, four years earlier in 1952, there had been about 3000 such border incursions, ranging from property destruction to murder.
Hastily, Naomi tried to dismiss the memories, striving to quell the familiar anxiety stirring in the pit of her stomach. She would not tell her mother about this morning’s events in the market. It would only frighten her and life was hard enough… How she wished her Australian papers would come through so her mother could finally leave Tel Aviv and join the rest of the family!
Meanwhile, she brightened, they would go to the movies. A new comedy was showing at the Mograbi Cinema. And perhaps tonight, she would accept Yaacov’s invitation and join him for the munitions exhibition? Even though she was not really interested in ammunition…
My sister and I never expected to find Naomi’s diary. Indeed, for many years, we did not even know of its existence. A non-descript, navy-bound volume, it had been stashed away in a drawer of the massive wooden study desk at which our late mother had worked for so many years. Perhaps she had simply forgotten writing it? Or perhaps she had chosen not to share her youthful passions and agonies, hopes and fears with her daughters… We will never know.
I had long abandoned any hope of uncovering more details of my mother’s past, her memories having been gradually extinguished by Alzheimer’s disease, which had afflicted her for the last decade of her life. Now, nearly 60 years later as I turn the diary’s yellowed pages filled with her distinctive script, I feel grateful for the opportunity to discover her anew, albeit in a younger form, becoming acquainted with the person she once was before I was born.
At the same time, and especially in the wake of the most recent deterioration in relations between Israel and Gaza, it is sobering to read a personal account of the early trials and tribulations, anguish and vulnerability of the new State of Israel.
The ravages of disease had prevented my mother from recounting her memories long before her death last year. Her diary provides a portrait of her, as I never knew her: a young woman dealing with fears and insecurities so foreign to me. It provides the key to unlocking a part of her past with which I was unfamiliar, a past that I thought had been lost forever.
Shira Sebban is a writer and editor based in Sydney, Australia. A former journalist with the “Australian Jewish News,” she also serves as vice-president of Emanuel School, a pluralistic and egalitarian Jewish Day School. Her work has appeared in online publications including “Jewish Daily Forward,” “Times of Israel,” “Jewish Writing Project,” “Eureka Street,” “Alzheimer’s Reading Room” and “Online Opinion.” You can read more of her work at shirasebban.blogspot.com.au
Sunday, 20 July 2014
Monday, 16 June 2014
Monday, 9 June 2014
On the eve of Shavuot, I gave a speech at my synagogue, at the request of my rabbi. Here is the transcript:
Where has our humanity gone?
“Were you not refugees all over the world? … I live here like a dog. Without any rights… And no one treats me like a human being.” (From “Reflections of a Refugee” by Yardena Schwartz, http://www.ryot.org/african-refugees-marching-streets-israel/545185)
“How long am I going to stay in here? Five years, six years … no one knows. Honestly, my life is like a hell in here… it’s a torture for children … We are looking for freedom … honesty, justice and safety. We are not criminals. We are same people like you.” (From “Interview from the Inside” by GetUp and ChillOut, “Out of Sight In Our Minds”, http://outofsight.org.au)
Two brave voices speak out – the first, an Eritrean asylum seeker in Israel, the other, a young asylum seeker detained by the Australian government on Manus Island.
As an Australian Jew, I am ashamed by the treatment of asylum seekers in both Australia and Israel. I watch bewildered as the two countries I love descend further in what I really believe is a harsh morass of immorality. Where has our humanity gone? Weren’t many of us, or our families, refugees once too?
On a trip to Israel in January, we found ourselves in the middle of a protest march in Tel Aviv, involving thousands of African asylum seekers. It marked the beginning of a three-day national strike – the largest such demonstration ever held in Israel (you may have seen it in the media at the time) – and was really the first time that the plight of African asylum seekers was brought to national attention in Israel.
Sadly, as an Australian, their treatment is only too familiar to me, being reminiscent of what has been happening to asylum seekers who attempt to arrive by boat here – with one difference: Australia tends to lock up its boat people, who are not free to protest on the streets.
True, the Israeli government is now authorised under an amendment to what is known as the Infiltration Prevention Law to detain asylum seekers for up to a year without trial – it used to be three years until the Supreme Court intervened – in the remote Holot “Open” Detention Centre in the Negev. They can then be placed in indefinite detention until the State decides it’s safe to deport them. Detainees have to present for roll call three times a day and are not allowed out at night.
Nevertheless, the Australian system is more severe still, with hapless boat people detained in harsh conditions on the now infamous Manus Island or Nauru, with no hope of ever being settled here. In the past few weeks, the first asylum seekers to be granted refugee status on Nauru have been released into the community there and given five year visas, after which they are to be permanently resettled in a third country, which could end up being a country like Cambodia – among the poorest in Asia – if a resettlement deal between Australia and Cambodia is signed as expected.
All officialdom seems to agree that such treatment is necessary to deter further boat arrivals. Moreover, since December, boats have been turned or even towed back to Indonesia, and I quote, “when it is safe to do so”. As a result, our government proudly proclaims that it is well on the way to achieving its popular promise to “stop the boats” all together, with the added advantage, it boasts, of having slashed the number of asylum seekers reaching Indonesia too.
Yet, as pointed out by Indonesian presidential advisor and former long-time foreign minister, Dr Hassan Wirajuda, and I quote, “who can guarantee that next year they will not try again because the root causes, like conflicts, war, poverty, push people to migrate”?
Isn’t that why our families chose to leave their birthplace too? What about our grandparents or parents, who left Eastern Europe or North Africa, in quest of a better life elsewhere?
While Australia has now seemingly succeeded in blocking the arrival of boatloads of asylum seekers, the Netanyahu Government’s erection of the US$400 million fence on the Egyptian border in 2012 has practically ended the entry of African asylum seekers who, since 2006, had been making the often harrowing trek from war-torn, dictatorial, famine-ridden Eritrea and Sudan.
Everyone knows that Israel was founded by and for refugees and that Australia too has benefited tremendously from their contribution. True, by world standards, numbers of asylum seekers to both countries are now low: Israel is contending with about 55,000 African asylum seekers – less than one percent of Israel’s population – while in 2012-13, just over 24,000 asylum seekers arrived in Australia by boat.
Contrast this with the more than 45 million people worldwide – an 18-year high – forcibly displaced due to persecution, conflict, violence and human rights abuses, including more than 15 million internationally displaced refugees and close to a million asylum seekers.
Overwhelmed by the sheer enormity of it all, it can seem easier to bury our heads in the sand. But haven’t we been taught that to save a single life is as if we had saved the entire world?
The Australian government claims to be acting out of kindness: unseaworthy boats have to be stopped to prevent unscrupulous people smugglers from taking advantage of the desperate, luring them to their deaths. After all, the statistics are stark: more than 1000 people have perished at sea, while the lives of more than 6000 children have been put at risk.
Moreover, what about the 13,750 protection visas – down from 20,000 last year -- on offer to those whose places under Australia’s humanitarian programs have been “usurped” by “self-selecting asylum seekers”, those so-called “queue jumpers”, who, or so the argument goes, are really “economic migrants” with enough money to buy a place via people smugglers?
The Australian government’s military “Operation Sovereign Borders” brands such “maritime arrivals” as “illegal”, just as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accuses African asylum seekers of being, and I quote, “illegal infiltrators looking for work” – despite the fact that the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, to which Australia and Israel are both signatories, clearly recognises the right to seek asylum from persecution no matter how you arrive (article 31).
Denied legal status, neither country allows those asylum seekers still able to live in the community, albeit provisionally, basic civil rights, such as the official right to work. Issued with only temporary visas and denied any chance of family reunion, a poverty-stricken underclass is being created under our eyes.
And yet, until recently around 90 percent of boat people have ended up being recognised as refugees in Australia. In another cruel move, the government has decided that refugees who arrive by boat will no longer be eligible for a permanent visa. Meanwhile, in Israel, only 0.2 percent of Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers have been granted refugee status, despite the fact that many more of their countrymen have been recognised as such elsewhere.
While Israel’s principle of non-return prevents sending individuals back to a country where their lives or freedom are at risk, the Israeli Government has begun using cash inducements to fly asylum seekers – ostensibly “voluntarily” although with the threat of indefinite detention hanging over their heads – home or to third countries, notably Uganda and Rwanda, where there are no clear guarantees that their security and freedom will be preserved.
Being cruel to be kind? Or rather, out of sight, out of mind?
Of course we cannot expect every asylum seeker to end up in Israel, Australia, or another first world country. Moreover, one day, circumstances may even improve so they can return home. Meanwhile, however, there must be another option to indefinite prison or ultimate deportation for those requiring protection. Surely the ends never justify the means.
Indeed, a recently released report by the Israeli State Comptroller calls on the Netanyahu Government to, and I quote, “guarantee adequate treatment of foreigners and especially the needy and weakest among them”. The report continues: “This action is also necessary considering the values of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, the Jewish heritage of treating the underprivileged including the foreigner among us, and the international law of immigration, refugees and human rights.”
As Jews, we are constantly reminded not to mistreat strangers because we ourselves were strangers in the land of Egypt … and Poland … and Algeria ... So why not, particularly on Shavuot, when we read the Book of Ruth with its central theme of chesed or loving kindness, work towards a humane resolution of this global crisis, which respects the inherent dignity of our fellow human beings and treats others as we would like to be treated ourselves?