Leonard Cohen wrote ‘Who By Fire’ based on the liturgy of the Jewish, Yom Kippur service. It’s a part where the prayer asks who will live and who will die in the coming year.
Mi ba esh? mi ba mayim? – Who by fire? Who water?
Yom Kippur is the day God either writes you in the book of life or the book of death, and you can guess what everyone’s praying for.
Leonard Cohen is kinda the unofficial poet laureate for the Jewish community I grew up in.
For about 5 years when I was in high school my parents house became a meeting place for an offshoot of the orthodox Jewish community in Melbourne who wanted to do things a bit differently. Every Friday night 100 people would come to my folks place to pray. They would sing with their eyes closed and rock and sway in devotion in our lounge room. They sang songs written by a famous hippy rabbi from the 70’s Shlomo Carlebach. And they would sometimes put the liturgy in the high holidays service to Leonard Cohen tunes. The people who came were very mixed. Some guys with black hats and beards would come and some were people who had never stepped into the synagogue before. Many of the core members were academics and writers. They were cool Jews. Feminist, lefty, intellectual, happy clappy Jews.
But it really wasn’t my thing. It wasn’t for me. While the sacred ruckus was happening downstairs I would stay up in my room and read Sylvia Plath. Maybe smoke a cigarette out of my window. I secretly enjoyed the singing wafting up the stairs but never wanted to be a part of it. It was too earnest for me, too stuffy. Everybody new each other and it felt claustrophobic. Conversations with my family could sometimes sound like this:
‘So did you hear Karen Rubenstien is marrying the Goldenberg boy’
‘which Goldenberg boy? The architect or the lawyer?’
‘The architect I think.’
‘Oh yeah, he designed the Feins house up the road.’
‘I went to school with the other brother, Jarrod. He’s in real estate now. ‘
‘oh yeah I was in Israel with him on Shnut’
‘He used to date Romy Waxman.’
‘You know, her parents own spotlight.’
Sometimes it felt like we were actually living in the shtetl.
Now, my mum had actually converted to Judaism when she was in her 20’s when she met my dad. She was from a small Swiss village and a devout Catholic Family. Dad grew up in Zimbabwe in a community of mostly Lithuanian Jews who had escaped before the Holocaust. Mum and dad had met while hitch hiking in Greece. An excellent story for another day! Anyway, I thought that maybe somewhere deep down I had gotten the gentile genes. I was always a bit jew-ish. To me the Jewish thing felt stifling and small and a bit boring.
When my older brother and sister had finished high school they had both spent a gap year in Israel, learning Hebrew, living on Kibbutzes and studying Tulmud in yeshivahs. I spent eight months in Africa, going to church every Sunday and eating shit loads of shellfish on the coast of Kenya.
I did date a Jewish doctor for a spell, which was obviously very exciting for my parents but it quite obviously wasn’t going to work out and when it came time for me to choose my husband, I obviously chose a gentile. My parents, being the amazing, open minded and open hearted people they are, blessed the marriage.
But as it turns out, as I was getting older and big life moments were upon me, my Jewish genes were pulling at my heart and asking to be seen. The more comfortable I was in my own skin the more open I felt to my heritage.
I wanted a Jewish wedding. I didn’t want my husband to convert but I wanted a Jewish wedding. Maybe it was a statement to myself or my family or my community, that I might be marrying out but I’m just as Jewish as old mate Rabbi Goldstein down the road and my kids will be just as Jewish as his too. Plus, my sister had just had a big fat Jewish wedding the year before and the dancing was epic. They partied hard.
This yearning to connect with my Jewishness had actually been creeping up on me for the a few years. I had quit shell fish, visited Israel and started going to synagogue on all the festivals. And in that’s when I met Debbie. Debbie was a friend of my parents and a member of their community who was a kabbala scholar and teacher. I would make the trip over from Northcote where I was living to the ghetto (Caulfield) every Thursday morning to attend her classes. She had a very graceful mind. She made the bible seem like poetry. She brought the stories to life and made them feel like they could be my stories. And she would often quote Rabbi Leonard Cohen.
I wanted to have a Jewish wedding but no Rabbi would ever marry two people who weren’t both Jewish so we had a problem. Debbie was the answer to our problem. We asked her to unofficially officiate our ‘Jewish’ wedding (a separate ceremony from the civil one we had at the births, deaths and marriages office) and she said yes.
The only thing was, Debbie was sick. She had breast cancer. She had been fighting it for a few years already, but she was not out of the woods. She was determined to make it to our wedding. By asking her to do the ceremony, we were kinda saying, ‘Of course we think you’re going to make till March.’ We all felt it but no-one said it. We just sat in her house and smiled at each other.
Debbie was frail at our wedding but she stood up in her wedding whites, a scarf around her head and married us. She spoke beautifully and she quoted old Mr Cohen.
16 months later, our first son was born. On the same night that our boy Louis Moses was born Debbie died with her children at her side, just a few suburbs away. Her death was a huge loss for our community and of course her young adult children. I mourned her from my hospital bed as I stayed with my baby who was recovering from an infection he had contracted at birth. It was a rough week. I always imagined my baby and Debbie high fiving that night as they passed each other on their way to and from heaven.
These days I live back in the ghetto, a few kilometre from my parents house.
And it’s still stuffy. I still walk around and see people who I recognise, familiar faces, and I’m not sure if they are a friend of one of my brothers or someone from the synagogue or someone from my kids kinder or someone from my high school. But that used to panic me and make me feel claustraphobic. But I’ve started to like it. I guess that’s home. Home is a bit stuffy and stifling and claustraphobic. Home can get on your nerves and you don’t always feel alined with it. But it’s home. Now the community has moved on to a bigger venue where they sing and sway but my folks place is still humming with the old songs every Friday night. 7 grandchildren make the sacred rukus now. My kids know the old tunes.
And just last night my son Louis came home from Kinder, holding my husband’s phone closely to his chest with Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah sung by Jeff Buckley playing from it. It’s his new favourite song now. Makes me think that maybe he and Debbie didn’t just high five that night, maybe a baton was passed.