Parliament of the World's Religions speech
Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre
5 December 2009
Distinguished guests ladies and gentlemen.
I was born in Israel to an Australian father and an Israeli mother. I spent roughly the first seven years of my life there, raised in an ultra-Orthodox environment – my parents belonging to a Hassidic sect, the Habad movement. Hasidism originated in the present day Ukraine in the 18th century in an era of persecution for the Jews, and emphasised spirituality and joy as the fundamental aspects of the Jewish faith.
In order to understand the environment in which I was raised, I should share with you some of the movement’s ideology and tradition.
Habad is one of the largest Hasidic movements and its headquarters is in Crown Heights, New York. The Hasidic movement was founded by Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov some 250 years ago, stressing service of G-d through the mystical and the legalistic dimension of Judaism, the power of joy, love of G-d and fellow human being, emotional involvement in prayer, finding G-dliness in every aspect of one's existence, and the elevation of the material universe.
Habad is a philosophy, a movement, and an organisation. It is considered to be a most dynamic force in Jewish life today. In a break with early Hasidism, Habad philosophy emphasises mind over emotions. The founder of the Habad philosophy, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, developed an intellectual system and an approach to Judaism intended to answer criticisms of Hasidism as anti-intellectual. Through an approach based partly on Kaballah, Habad philosophy methodises an understanding of G-d.
Habad philosophy incorporates the teachings of Kaballah as a means to deal with one's daily life and psyche. It teaches that every aspect of the world exists only through the intervention of G-d. Through an intellectual approach and meditations, Habad teaches that one can attain complete control over one's inclinations.
One of Habad’s main emphases is to focus on outreach to fellow Jews – ensuring Jews throughout the world are exposed to Judaism and have the opportunity to participate in Jewish activities. There are Habad institutions throughout the world – even in the most remote locations.
In a physical sense, the dress code is that of the stereotypical religious Jews of Eastern Europe – males wear a yalmulka (a head-covering) and hats, suits, beards etc. and females wear modest dresses and head-covering for the married ones.
A final illustration of the strict and dedicated religious lifestyle of Habadniks, as they are often referred to, is the fact that only when I was in my mid-teenage years did I know my secular birthday. And I recall it took me a fair while to remember it!
For many years all of this was my life!
My recollection of growing up in Israel is mainly consumed by religious practices and events; for example, studying the bible from the morning to the evening, celebrating religious festivals, and, because we lived in the religious areas in Israel, anti-secular demonstrations (for example, I recall ultra-Orthodox demonstrations against the desecration of the Sabbath).
Moving to Australia in my youth expands my childhood recollection to also incorporate activities which are not religiously founded. Nonetheless, religion consumed my life and was pretty much my sole identity.
Growing up in one of Australia’s largest families, I am one of 17 children, brought with it many additional challenges. My parents were strictly observant and uncompromising about religion. Being the oldest boy (and second oldest overall) further complicated matters. I was expected to set an example for my younger siblings. Also, as my parents had never experienced a “rebellious” child, they were somewhat flummoxed as to what punishments or rewards would work. I am sure I would make an interesting psychological study!
When I was 13 I celebrated my Bar-Mitzvah, the religious coming of age for Jewish boys by which they become functioning members of the community. Ironically, at this time when a religious boy is supposed to take on additional religious duties, I was trying to shed them! In fact I demonstrated a lack of interest in religion and its practices. Broadly speaking my parents’ response was to try to turn me to even greater religious observance and study. While somewhat uncommon even within the Australian Habad community, at this age I was in full-time religious study, which lasted more or less until before my 18th birthday. During this period I spent a significant amount of time at religious institutions, called a Yeshivah, in both Melbourne and Sydney, including residing in dormitories.
During this five year period I was experimenting a fair bit – in many ways doing what other teenagers were doing. For example, I took on smoking and drinking, of course always moderately and responsibly! But some of my other experiments were different. For example, I began listening to secular music, anathema to my family’s lifestyle. I was wearing jeans when I could – though I cannot recall wearing shorts during the hot summer days, G-d forbid! I was watching TV when I could (of course we did not own one – only a VCR and a monitor on which my dad displayed a printed document that stated that it was used only for religious, educational and family films). I also tried to avoid prayer duties as often as I could – including not putting phylacteries, leather boxes worn on the arm and head during most Jewish morning services. It is one of the new, important religious tasks you start doing almost daily from your Bar-Mitzvah.
Then there were the two most difficult transitions, as I recall it. Having learnt so much about the sanctity of the Sabbath, including the fact the ancient penalty for the desecration of the Sabbath is death, understandably I was very hesitant to breach this commandment. It was quite a process – initially I would turn the light on and off. Each time got progressively easier but I do vaguely recall a form of fear – not that I would be killed but that I was doing something mortally wrong.
Then there was the Kosher issue (Orthodox Jews have a strict religious dietary regime). This was an enormous challenge. I wanted to be “normal” – to eat what I wanted, when I wanted and how I wanted. I did not want to have to say a blessing before and after eating. But all of this was ingrained in me. The most challenging part of this was eating non-Kosher meat – there’s a Hebrew word which is often used to describe it “Treif”, which literally means “torn”. It also has the connotation that what it describes is disgusting. I remember I was around 15 years old when I ordered my first non-Kosher schnitzel. I thought chicken rather than meat would be a good way to start. And besides, schnitzel was (and still is) my favourite food! I was very nervous. Finally, when I took my first bite, it did indeed taste disgusting, no doubt because of my psychological aversion. Nevertheless I forced myself to finish it. I felt I had to do it sooner or later. With time it became easier.
Of course all of this took place surreptitiously – though I did share some of my activities with some friends. And of course I got caught occasionally and had to face the consequences – both from my parents and the Yeshivah in which I was studying.
At the age of 18 I decided to implement my long held desire to return to Israel to serve in the Israel Defence Forces. Once on the plane I recall feeling an exhilarating sense of freedom. One of the first things I did was to shave off my tiny beard and moustache in the plane toilet. It was a horrible experience! I came prepared with a razor but with no shaving cream. I did not think it would be too difficult as I barely had any growth. I managed to make myself bleed in a few places and leave the rest of my face very red! I was wondering what on earth the people next to me were thinking. A few minutes ago I was sitting beside them with an untouched small beard and now I return with no beard but with tissues to stop the bleeding! It was quite embarrassing! On my stopover in Bangkok, Thailand, I managed to get a “proper” haircut – it was only the second time I had been to the hairdresser as my dad would give us very short haircuts at home with a machine (often number zero!).
Before I left for Israel, my maternal grandparents, in particular my grandfather, were very welcoming and looked forward to hosting me – despite the fact that they were as religious as my parents and were fully aware of my non-observance (and my poor relationship with my parents due to this). However, soon after, unfortunately, I could no longer remain there as the religious issue resurfaced – my grandparents, understandably in many ways, could not endure my desecration of the Sabbath at their home, among other things.
During this period I began the process of “cleansing” my mind from all the religious knowledge I attained over time. Whenever I remembered that a certain festival was approaching, and its meaning, I would get really annoyed. I resented knowing what the current Jewish date was. In time – perhaps also due to my non-observance – I succeeded in my ambition. Something which I somewhat regret today, and regretting more as I mature.
My time in Israel also caused me to go to the extreme – for a period I categorised myself as being anti-religious. This was mainly as a result of living in Jerusalem between 1998-2000 where the ultra-Orthodox attempted (and still attempt) to impose their lifestyle on all the city’s inhabitants. Evoking my childhood memories, I saw them demonstrating against those desecrating the Sabbath, which sometimes included throwing stones at moving cars. I could never understand, and still cannot understand, how people who define themselves as religious use religion to endanger others. I should emphasise that these extremists are a tiny minority within the ultra-Orthodox community.
Throughout this time, and until this very day, there are still a few practices I cannot abandon. For instance, in Habad teachings there is a concept of right over left, which means that the right hand is stronger than the left hand – not just physically but also spiritually. Of course it is a lot more complex than this. And, by the way, I am uncertain what exactly applies to left-handed and ambidextrous people! This concept is promoted and acted upon on a daily, practical basis. For example, you are supposed to put all items of clothing on the right side first. With shoes, you put the right first, then the left, then you tie the left shoe-lace first, and then the right shoe-lace. I know it sounds both confusing and somewhat absurd. But amusingly, this is something I still struggle to shake off! In fact I find it difficult not putting my children’s clothing on their right side first!
Another practice which had been difficult to shake off is regarding washing hands in the morning. Each morning you need to wash your hands in a certain way before you walk more than three meters. You are not allowed to touch anything either. Specifically, we were taught that if you rub your eyes before washing your hands it could lead to blindness – perhaps this is just a child’s recollection, but it is what I recall. We would have a bucket right next to the bed to avoid these dire consequences! It took me a while but I am pleased to report that I now rub my eyes in the morning both guilt- and danger-free!
Returning to Melbourne, Australia, in 2000 I again had to deal with the consequences of my religious upbringing. As mentioned earlier, I completed my formal schooling at around the age of 13. After working as an Integration Aide for a couple of years I decided to undertake my VCE (Year 12 matriculation equivalent). I wrote my first ever essay at the age of 26. I read my first full English book at around that time too. These were major challenges. Often I would sit with a dictionary and look up the most basic words. I used to make lists of words I had heard people say and at the end of the day look them up in the dictionary. I was very pleased when I graduated, eventually also graduating from La Trobe University with a Bachelor of International Relations.
This leads me to where I am today. Indeed I have chosen not to follow in the strict religious tradition of my parents and instead I have shaped my religion into a form that works for me.
There is no simple reason why I have abandoned my ultra-Orthodox lifestyle – in truth there are a range of factors. However, one major issue I have with this lifestyle is that I find it difficult to accept that G-d really cares whether or not I fast on Yom Kippur (our day of atonement); switch a light on the Sabbath; grow my beard; put on my right shoe before my left shoe; and take on a range of other seemingly meaningless traditions and customs – interestingly, many of which are debated and done differently within the ultra-Orthodox community itself.
Personally, my expectations of others are much more centred on personal decency and utilising one’s potential.
I have in the last few years found my religious “comfort zone” – I would now describe myself as a secular Zionist Jew. I acknowledge, however, that these words may be controversial and have subjective interpretations. Am I really secular? For example, I celebrate religious festivals. And what is the definition of Zionism? For example, personally, I very much relate it to Judaism – my claim to Israel is that it is the Jewish homeland. For me Israel and Judaism are inextricably linked. And who is a Jew? This has been a very controversial issue both in Israel and in the Jewish Diaspora!
From my family’s perspective, I now have a great relationship with my parents – and not because in February this year I relocated with my wife and three children to Canberra! When we were living in Melbourne we would spend most Sabbath meals with my parents. We are indeed very close. Though, of course, we still have our differences, especially on issues pertaining to religion.
My outlook on Habad nowadays is very different to what it was after I left the movement – I now very much respect and admire Habad and the wonderful work it carries out. I very much value and promote the concept of “Jewish continuity”. I have come to appreciate ultra-Orthodox Judaism, especially Habad, for their significant contribution in this area.
In recent years I have been very fortunate to be heavily involved in the broader Jewish community both as a professional and a layperson, including taking leadership positions. I have often utilised my contacts within the Habad community, where many still consider me as “one of them”, for broader community matters.
As mentioned earlier, Habad focuses on outreach, and as a teenager I was heavily involved in this area – indeed it was one of the few activities I used to enjoy. Somewhat ironically, I have also focused on Jewish continuity through outreach in recent times. For instance, I established a Jewish professionals group in Canberra in the last few months, the Capital Jewish Forum. I now appreciate all the informal training and significant experience I had as a teenager with Habad. I believe it has directly contributed to the group’s success.
Of course, the establishment of my own family has brought its own challenges. What values do I offer my children? What type of education? What part does religion play in all of this? A further complication is that my wife is observant. We therefore have a fully Kosher kitchen – in fact Kosher enough for my parents to eat there (there are different standards of Kashrut). This has been an expensive and challenging experience, particularly in Canberra. Let me emphasise that I still eat out non-Kosher and occasionally still enjoy the non-Kosher schnitzel!
My wife also observes the Sabbath and I do not. Let me assure you there are great benefits to this – we no longer argue over the television remote control on Friday nights and Saturdays; it is non-stop footy during the winter and plenty of cricket over the summer! No complaints there! You see, religion really does work for me!
Living in Canberra, however, in many ways has enhanced my Jewish identity. It is my first place of residence where there is a tiny, dispersed Jewish community – and therefore the community infrastructure and activities are extremely limited. No Kosher shops, only the one Jewish centre which contains a synagogue, not many Jews with whom to interact, certainly no Jewish schools etc. So as parents it is now up to us to teach our children about Judaism and to provide them with a Jewish identity. This is a major challenge! But being in Canberra, I feel, in many ways has reinforced my Jewish identity. This emerges not only through educating my children, as already mentioned, but also, for example, through my interactions with Canberrans, especially colleagues at work, many of whom have never knowingly met a Jew (and know very little, if anything, about Judaism). My identity as an Australian Jew is now first and foremost.
So, although it may appear counterintuitive, I would like to encourage and empower the youth, you my audience, to retain and cherish your religious identity – it is so much a part of who you are. This does not necessarily mean one has to practise their religion in any specific manner – it is purely subjective in terms of how we practise it. It is more about being conscious of your religious background, and finding ways to incorporate it into your identity.
There will always be hurdles and challenges but ultimately it is your identity and is worthy of exploration, despite the challenges. Unfortunately, growing up as an overtly Orthodox Jew made me a target of antisemitism, regrettably with some regularity. I did not succumb to it, instead I defied it. Ultimately, I believe, it has made me stronger. I accept that not everyone is in a position to respond in a specific way to threats, intimidation or vilification, but under no circumstances should you allow it to undermine or threaten your beliefs.
Be proud of who you are – and based on my experience, I believe anything is possible!