Circles and cycles
Circles and cycles
Myth, reality and challenge in the Australian Jewish family
Marlo Newton with Helen Light
For The Jewish Museum Of Australia
The myth of the Jewish family: whether stereotyped by a comedian like Woody Allen or a story teller such as Sholem Aleichem, we have a clear-enough idea of what is thought to be the typical Jewish family. It is nuclear and matriarchal. The father either runs his own business (in the secular world) or studies all day in a Yeshiva (in the religious world) and the mother lives in the house, emerging mainly to buy food. Her role is the all -embracing/suffocating arbiter of family life:
A mother gives her son two ties for his birthday. To show his appreciation, he wears one to dinner at his mother's house. 'What's the matter, the other one you didn't like?
The myth of the Jewish family rests on the notion of a strong family in the centre of a united community.
The family unit, not the individual, is the atom of Jewish life. The very first positive commandment in the Torah is, 'Be fruitful and multiply'. Our heritage demands that we replicate until our offspring become, as God promised Abraham, 'as numerous as the stars of heaven'. While this theory may be troubling in a time of overpopulation, the commandment is clear.
Moses Maimonides, in his famous work Guide to the Perplexed, suggests that the purpose of marriage is to create social bonds, since people who are related tend to help and support each other more than those who are not. Jews, he says, should be seen as one family, 'a single tribe that is united through a common ancestor -even if he is remote - [and] because of this [they] love one another and have pity on one another; and the attainment of these things is the greatest purpose of the Law'.
The single life is not an option, and Judaism has no tradition of celibate clergy. Marri age is recommended as the ideal state for everyone:
Rabbi Tanchum stated in the name of Rabbi Hanilai: any man who has no wife lives without joy, without blessing and without goodness ...
There are prescribed roles for every family member, particularly for Jewish women. As women's primary responsibilities centre around raising children, they are exempt from positive time-bound commandments. This means that women do not, for example, have to attend the synagogue to pray three times a day, and so are not part of the quorum of ten men required for public prayer. This 'exemption' from certain commandments is meant specifically to allow women to devote their time and energy to raising a Jewish family and securing a Jewish home. Feminism has made much of the difference between the ideas of 'exempt' as distinct from 'excluded' -but Jewish law really does emphasise a domestic role for women. The three commandments that are specifically assigned to women rather than men revolve around the home: women are responsible for candle lighting on the Sabbath and during festivals; for remembering the destruction of the Temple by burning a portion of dough when baking bread; and for safeguarding the purity of the family by keeping laws which regulate marital relations.
The iron-clad customs of traditional Judaism ensure that the home, where a woman spends the bulk of her time, is the centre of family life.
However, the myth of the traditional and close-knit family has never really matched reality. Our most revered patriarch, Abraham, abandoned one son, Ishmael, to the wilderness, and was prepared to offer another, Isaac, as a sacrifice. Rebecca schemed to ensure the older brother's blessing for her younger son , Jacob; and his son, Joseph, was kidnapped and sold into slavery by his brothers. Even in Fiddler on the Roof, the nostalgic reworking of the tale of Tevye and his daughters by Sholem Aleichem, children disobeyed their parents and went their own way, one even going so far as to marry a non-Jew. In every era, Jewish families have been both close-knit and fragmented, both observant and assimilated, both intact and divided.
Halacha - Jewish law -is unusual amongst major religious systems in recognising the frail reality of marriage and the impermanence of some human relationships. In Talmudic law it is possible to divorce, to practise contraception, even for a woman to demand sexual fulfilment from a partner!
Divorce is allowed for various reasons, including what we would term today irretrievable breakdown of the relationship. For a woman to be free to remarry, a husband must provide a “get” -a bill of divorce. While this was progressive in biblical times, it is a sad truth that, today, withholding a ‘get” is a primary means of emotional and physical blackmail.
Contraception is not encouraged, because of the commandment to increase and multiply, but it is allowed when pregnancy and childbirth would seriously endanger the health of the mother. While most Australian Jewish families are small, implying the general use of contraception, religious families take the commandment to 'be fruitful' to heart, ensuring large families to safeguard Jewish continuity.
The challenge of transmitting the values of Jewish life to the next generation is the key issue for modem Jewry. 'Family' as a Jewish value has been a cornerstone of Jewish thinking in every era. The emphasis on the family as a moral centre and core unit of society is in marked contrast to societies which extol national allegiances on the one hand or absolute individualism on the other. The question for the modern Jewish family is how to reconcile the appeal of secular society with the values of Jewish life. The modern world provides a significant threat to Jewish continuity. In part, this threat is the result of positive changes for Jews.
Assimilation into secular society, while always possible, was not as complete before the modern era. In the last fifty years we have seen that the acculturation of Jews into secular society and their acceptance within that society is both feasible and attractive.
Mrs Ginsberg has been trying to become a member of an ultra-smart golf club . When her husband dies and leaves her a lot of money she changes her name to Lonsdale-Gordon, has elocution lessons, takes advice in etiquette, gets a nose job and eventually becomes a member. For her first dinner there she wears a splendid new gown. A passing waiter accidentally pours soup all over her. Horrified, she stands up and yells 'Oy Vey' and, looking around her, adds, 'Whatever that may mean
In Australia, the presence of eleven Jews in the first fleet ensured that Jews have been present from the very beginning of European settlement. In this country Jews are not alien intruders but part of the landscape. Our most notable retailer -Myer-began as a Jewish general store in the goldfields. Our most famous general, Sir John Monash, was Jewish, as were two governors-general, Sir Isaac Isaacs and Sir Zelman Cowen. This ease of absorption into general society (with the exception of a few reactionary golf courses), and the relaxed attitude towards religion in this country, have made the task of keeping the Australian Jewish family a definitive entity a difficult one. In a culture where Saturday sport is a religion, how does the synagogue compete? And in a landscape of tolerance for minorities and acceptance of multiculturalism, what barrier can or should a Jewish family erect against a child wanting to marry outside the faith? What arguments can they rustle up for 'marrying in'?
In addition to the lure of assimilation is the rise of individualism. 'What I think', 'What I need ', 'What I want', is paramount. It is unfashionable to think first of what is best for the family or for the community. This individualistic view of the universe, coupled with the rise of the rights of children, poses an undeniable threat to family cohesion.
A major change in family life for all communities, however, is the rise of feminism.
Traditional family life rested on women's work in the home. Industrialisation takes men and women into the same work environment. Work is tied to economic freedom and with earning-power comes choice. Women today are likely to be at least as educated as men -although perhaps with less access to learning in traditional Jewish law –and well able to earn a living without relying on a male. People are marrying later and having fewer children. If these trends continue they will provide an additional challenge to Jewish family life. The Jewish community in Australia has particular characteristics that influence the likelihood of its survival. Firstly, it is a post-Holocaust community. Per head of Jewish populations outside Israel, we have the densest concentration of Holocaust survivors in the world. Following the Holocaust, Jewish communities here have put a strong emphasis on Jewish day-school education, support for Israel and vigilance against anti-Semitism.
This stance, which began as a defiant response to the decimation of Jewish life and culture, has evolved into a sacred charm against the spectre of assimilation. It is believed that years of Jewish education will foster pride in Jewish heritage and knowledge of its traditions. Similarly, support for Israel will forge a bond with the Jewish homeland and link the destiny of Jews in Australia to Jews all over the world. As tradition holds, 'All Israel [Jews] are responsible for one another '. And relentless vigilance about anti-Semitic comments or literature prevents the seed of racism from spreading its insidious way through this generally tolerant and indulgent society.
Each wave of migrants-British, German, Polish, Hungarian, Israeli-has added its distinctive version of Jewish life to the Australian mix. In the last ten years Jews from the former Soviet Union and from South Africa have added their versions of Jewish family life, which will doubtless have an impact on what becomes of Australian Jewry.
A challenge of a different order complicates the notion of family in the Jewish community and exerts considerable pressure on it. Because most of our members were twenty-or thirty-year-old migrants in the post-war years, our community is ageing at double the national rate. Today, with many women working and the old family structures changed, much concern is directed at how best to care for the growing numbers of elderly people who once would easily have been incorporated into the extended family.
With these challenges in mind, what safeguards are there for Jewish family life in Australia in the next century? Essentially, two responses are emerging in the community to the rising tide of modernity: denial and redefinition.
The first response attempts to deny the impact of modernity. Jews who choose to live as though there were no such thing as G-string bikinis or Saturday banking erect high walls between themselves and the rest of the world. If you are a member of the 200-family Adass community in Melbourne, for example, and wish your child to attend the Adass school, you are not permitted to own a television. Education is strictly controlled, and children are raised to obey their parents and marry early. Rebellion is almost unheard and numbers are supplemented by inviting marriage partners from Israel or the United States.
The second choice, of refracting Judaism through the prism of modernity, accounts for almost all the other kinds of Australian Jewish practice.
At the extreme end of the spectrum, the Jewish Secular Humanistic Society separates Jewish observance from Judaism, in the belief that culture and language are enough of a binding force for Jewish continuity.
The Australian and New Zealand Union of Progressive Judaism interprets Jewish law as an always-evolving response to the conditions in which Jews find themselves. Accordingly, progressive congregations around Australia have women rabbis, English components to the prayer services and other innovations unacceptable to the traditional mainstream.
Still other Australian Jews, probably the majority, would describe themselves as largely non-practising followers of the Jewish tradition. They might meet as a family on Friday night, but spend the rest of the Sabbath at the football .They might visit Jewish Museum, subscribe to a Jewish journal or newspaper, or play for a Jewish sporting team, but would feel no impulse to attend synagogue regularly. Most would describe their Judaism as a feeling of belonging to an identifiable ethnic group. It remains to be seen whether this middle ground of identification by sentiment can be effectively transmitted to the next generation.
The process of living an Australian Jewish life begins, and ends, with the doing of Jewish things. Whether this is as tenuous as meeting as a family once a week, or as strong as living one's life by the 613 commandments of the Torah, it is the participation in Jewish communal life that counts.
Family and not the individual is the core of this life. 'We are not only the children of our own time and place, but also of our parents' time and place' (Moshe and Tessa Lang) .How we choose to live as Jews affects our children, who are the sum total of the choices we make for them as well as the choices they make for themselves. It will be fascinating to see in what ways the Australian Jewish family meets the challenge of the new century. Might its Jewishness become so dilute as to be indistinguishable -or can it continue as a unique expression of Jewish life?