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We welcome visitors to our magnificent synagogue, for services and to view the stunning building built in 1930.

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"A Night in the Synagogue"

David Trakhtman
February 22 2023 at 7:18 PM
 

"A night in the Synagogue" Let me share with you a wonderful experience I have had last Shabbat. Having been hired for a Bar Mitzvah catering gig at Melbourne's oldest congregation, I ended up spending the night, sleeping on self-inflatable mattress and a sleeping bag in the rabbi's office. Admittedly, this wasn't exactly "a private villa" kind of experience I developed a taste for in the previous month of traveling as a private chef. So, I had to make up for it somehow... with the power of imagination within the wood-panelled walls and under the dome of the nineteenth century edifice. A place, soaked with history and legacy that time transcends.  Firstly, I am going to detour from the narrative a little and thank a wonderful family of rabbiShlomo Nathanson (a man of remarkable organizational and delegating skills) and rebbetzin Rivkie. Their relentless efforts of keeping a Jewish vibe and life in this place, located "out of the hood" deserves admiration. You see, I asked Shlomo a petinent question - "Why invest time and energy, building Jewish life in the old synagogue, inconveniently located at the busy traffic intersection outside of notorious Jewish area? Let it serve as a heritage building, occasionally visited as a reminder of an era gone by." An answer that reb Shlomo gave me made me both happy and somewhat sad. I will explain. According to him, there's significant amount of Jews who maintain personal sentimental connection to this place. There's someone who had his Bar Mitzvah here years ago. There's someone whose elderly parents got married here and so on. These walls have absorbed a load full of most significant experiences of many people, who make up Melbourne's Jewish community, throughout entire century. It is in this hotspot, where thousands of Jews get their emotional and spiritual WiFi turned on, upon their visit.  Clearly, the blood is still running through the veins (so to speak), and Rabbi Nathanson's leadership and guidance seems imperative to keep it flowing. Yet, I felt somewhat sad because my only relationship with this place is a professional one. Unfortunately, neither myself nor any of my family members have any ties to this place.  On the other hand, we are all one big Jewish family, and I can certainly feel connected to this transcendental archive of Australian Jewish life on some level.  I felt that I needed a time machine to take me back, and I found one within my mind, in the hidden chambers of my heart... powered by my urge to connect, fuelled by history and driven by sheer imagination. Following dinner, I entered dimly lit main hall of the synagogue, sat on the leather bench, facing the hall and closed my eyes for a moment. I began meditating, visualizing myself as a congregant from the first decade of twentieth century. I couldn't help but feel empathy and pain as I heard of the terrible news of Titanic sinking when the reverant gave a stern sermon, admonishing J.P. Morgan for "Even G-d can't sink it" line. When I opened my eyes I saw an English looking gentleman, sitting in the first row, looking somewhat anxious. His double-breasted jacket with pants, turned up at the cuffs and a bowler hat was a typical atire of an Edwardian Era. I eavesdropped on his conversation with a reverant about his concern for his son, who was deployed as a part of an Australian military contingent to join British forces in their fight against Ottoman Turkey. At the back benches I noticed a group of Jewish men, whose ragged appearance did not exactly sync within the elaborate decorum of the synagogue.  While they desperately tried to fit in, their body language betrayed them as they looked somewhat unsettled and timid. Something was telling me they're of Eastern European origin. I took the liberty to approach them and struck up a conversation...in Russian. They introduced themselves as newly arrived immigrants, who traveled by boat for over a month, escaping unbearable life in Imperial Russia.  They also confided in me of their struggles to adapt to a new life in Australia and somewhat antagonistic attitude of local aristocratic Jewry in welcoming them. I wished I could tell them about my personal experience of coming to Australia eighty years after their arrival by plane, but then quickly figured it wouldn't sit well with already distressed folks, looking for normal people to converse with. As I sat at the president's chair, my vivid imagination pushed on, suggesting to me to assume the role of one. There was nothing to stop me from my journey as I enjoyed this nocturnal solitude in Melbourne's oldest congregation. I assumed the role of the president, approached the edge of the elevated platform and joyfully informed the congregation of a generous gift, donated by Mr. Solomon - a new invention - machine, powdered by electricity, capable to maintain cold temperature in its chamber - a refrigerator. I could hear cheerful clapping and wowing, coming from all sides of the shule. It was time to move on.  I approached a rabbi's stand, adjusted my imaginary hat, looked down for a moment, regained my posture and with a heavy heart lifted my eyes, sensing a lack of life in them. I couldn't find appropriate words to describe my pain, let alone words of encouragement to share with my congregation as I felt a heavy burden of clergical responsibility to speak as a man of G-d. "My dear brothers and sisters" - I uttered, looking into the eyes of my flock - "I have no words...I find no explanation in what appears as the darkest time in the history of the world in general and in lives of our brethern in particular. As the Nazi Germany rips apart European continent, mercilessly killing our people, I ask you from the bottom of my heart to pray for their salvation and for the end of this horrendous predicament. I pray for our children, for our soldiers and wish entire British Commonwealth along with our American and Soviet Allies to defeat this despeakable evil in the form of Third Reich. May G-d protect the Queen and the cabinet of Sir Winston Churchill. I also implore our Australian Government to intervene and do everything possible to bring as many Jews as possible to our safe shores."  As an image of Australia during World War ll passed in front of my eyes, a feeling of worry and helplessness overtook me. Our government pledged unwavered alliance to the Queen of Britain, which meant that our sons were participating in the war. Our Northern Territory was constantly on the radar of quickly expanding Japanese Army, and our military resources and personnel would never match fanaticism of ever growing numbers of Japanese soldiers, who were willing to die for an Emperor. I sat down quietly in the armchair, tearing slightly in this moment of self-induced visualization. Part of me realized that this is a day dreaming (despite occuring at night time). Yet, part of me was still fully submerged in my new role as a typical British rabbi, sent to lead this diverse community of convict's progeny and new immigrants. I moved on...still as a rabbi, transforming myself right into post war fifties, 1956 to be exact. I went back to the podium and, with a sense of jubilation and glee, congratulated "good residents of our city" with an honor of hosting Olympics. I encouraged members of my congregation to serve as good hosts and accommodate any Jewish athletes or guests, inviting them to our synagogue and share with them Shabbat meals.  I ended my sermon with the following words: "May we show to the world that our Great Southern Land doesn't only produce winning sportsmen but also wonderful citizens, who keep on holding the torch of true Southern hospitality." Having concluded the prayers, there was an announcement from the rabbi (by now I assumed the role of a simple observer), that Mrs. Gertrude Cohen from an auxiliary women's committee would like to speak during Kiddush about potential dangers of Bittlamania and the culture of Rock-'n'-roll (wow, how did my imagination took me right into sixties ?). It was time to go upstairs into a Kiddush room, and I was looking forward to some interaction and chatting. Part of me felt the urge to reveal my true identity. But the longer I thought about it, the more I realized how absurd that would sound. Think of it. So, I am here to cater a Bar Mitzvah of a boy, whose parents weren't even born yet. Assuming I can convince them that I somehow got here from 2023 with our modern technology, there's going to be questions - lots of them. I could tell them about internet but how will I explain how it works? If they will ask me about the menu for Bar Mitzvah, the thought of telling them about the concept of Japanese sushi and Vietnamese rice paper rolls would make them think that I am insane. Aside, I don't have a clue which horses won the race (or the winning numbers on the lottery tickets) since the sixties up to present day, and therefore my coming out as a man from the future would be of no financial use to them. So, I thought to introduce myself as a businessman from Adelaide if anyone asks. Following Mrs. Cohen's speech about potential dangers of Rock-n-roll and Bittlamania, I found myself overhearing quiet an interesting conversation. "Have you heard about this young American rabbi by the name Groner. He was sent to Melbourne by this Lubavitcher Rebbe, who's based in New York. Apparently, he intends to introduce Jews of Melbourne to Fundamental Judaism." - said one lovely gentleman to another. "Not a chance" - replied another man with a sly smile. "Those were the old ways that perished in the Holocaust. Does he really think Australian Jewry will go for it ?" "Rock-'n'-roll being the new culture, and Beatles leading the way, I am afraid is here to stay. Mark my words, sir. Rabbi Groner is no match. Give him couple of years, he's going back to America." I became so invested in this conversation that I haven't noticed that my eavesdropping was quite obvious. How could I not, when only I knew that Beattles will come and go but Rabbi Groner and his institutions are here to stay? At this point my vivid imagination was going along logical pattern of thinking, i.e., if I got carried away with this conversation so conspicuously, I should be included in it. Especially, as I had this urge to tell them what I really think. My mind obeyed and allowed this imaginary gentleman to approach me and ask for my opinion. I replied: "I actually think that Rabbi Groner will eventually have a bigger following among Australian Jews then Beattles. I also believe that, unlike Beattles, the children of his students will adhere to the phylosophy he preaches. That's because he seems to want to revive what has been practiced for centuries. It's bringing us back to where we belong on the first place. But the time will show, gentlemen." I felt satisfied with being able to respond in this manner. I moved on... into seventies - the decade, I was actually born in. This time period seemed perfect to reflect what it would be like if my parents came here at the time when first trickling of Soviet Jewry made its way to Australia. Still standing in the Kiddush room, I imagined... catering my oldest brother's Bar Mitzvah. I saw my brother George in the typical seventies suite and tie, getting all the attention from his peers while my second oldest brother Zalman (nine at the time) was busy attending to his plate of food, undisturbed in the corner. In the moment of joy, when I was basking in glory from knowing that I am catering my brother's Bar Mitzvah (a year prior to my birth), my imagination took me to a very personal and emotional place. I saw my parents, standing next to a pram with a 6 month old baby girl in it. "It must be her, a baby they lost in the Arctic Circle" - I thought to myself. I broke down crying... for real. But I was in the moment, in a year 1974. My mom called out to me to get more drinks out. For her, there was nothing unusual. I happened to be her son, who was doing his job. My immediate reaction was to tell her how happy I was that they had left Soviet Union in the seventies and the sister I never had survived. I was also going to break the news to them that in a year from now they're going to have a baby boy - me ! But that rational and cold part of my mind cut me off right there, reminding me about the absurdity of it all. I was back in 2023, standing alone in dimly lit hall of the synagogue. I felt somewhat emotionally drained after this whole exercise. The next half hour or so I spent carefully inspecting various carved wood ornaments that make up interior decorum of the synagogue, marveling at the strenuous work and attention to detail, invested in them. "They don't build houses of worship like this anymore" - I was thinking. "Craftsmen these days can't afford to invest unlimited hours into carving. Aside from that, the cost of this kind of work can be hardly afforded." I went back to rabbi's office, where my inflatable mattress along with my sleeping bag were patiently waiting for me. The sight of glittering stars, piercing through the windows reminded me of my blueberry macaroons, sprinkled with edible glitter. Tomorrow is another day.

Epilogue: While my self-induced "Night in the Synagogue" experience was driven by my imagination, it was certainly limited by my superficial knowledge of the events of the past. I'm sure there are many people, who are more familiar with Australian history in general and the history of Toorak shule in particular. I would like to encourage many of you to take your time to visit the synagogue, to sync your heart and soul to its spiritual Wi-Fi and connect to the legacy, imbued in its walls. I'm sure, rabbi Shlomo will be happy to see you.

Wed, 24 April 2024 16 Nisan 5784