The sounds of Melbourne and Jerusalem

When I was a young kid, I would climb onto the toilet seat and peer out toward our backyard from behind the fly-screen, mesmerized and captivated by the sounds of Shabbat wafting over from our neighbours next door. It was Friday night in Caulfield, and my now unfamiliar backyard was illuminated by a sliver of moonlight, transforming it into a shadowy Siberian winter-land punctuated by grey-silver grass and leaves. I could see nothing beyond the fence, but the sounds enchanted me — the harmonies of ancient Jewish melodies imbibed me with wonder. The words, strange and exotic, seemed to take me like a bird to distant Arabian deserts to sit in the company of wise, bearded sages.

I was just a kid. Maybe 9 or 10. My family’s Friday night dinners were dysfunctional — a leitmotif of screaming, arguments and agitated kids. The family dynamic was incorrigible, I thought, every Shabbat dinner ended in tears. And so, after the screaming, the kicking and the fighting, with everybody separated and locked away safely in their rooms with the lights turned off, I would quietly tiptoe across the hallway and into the bathroom, lock the door, and climb onto the vantage point to receive my dose of Shabbat.

As the shadows danced across my face, momentarily hiding the tears in my eyes, I would wistfully stand transfixed by the harmonies, like a diver emerging to the surface to receive his first breath of fresh air. The sounds were beautiful. The tunes arcane. They touched a chord deep inside me; they seemed to nourish my soul. I felt that I needed to keep my ears open, to let in this constant stream of medication, this panacea, before the tunes, so ephemeral, would die down, and the family would start eating their Shabbat evening meal.

I was envious, I wanted that too. I wanted to sit at the table of brotherhood and sing to the heavens. I wanted to feel elevated. I wanted to feel closer.

It is a cry out to the heavens of a man condemned; the joyful tears of a father holding his newborn.

Now fast forward some 10, 12 years, and that same boy, now corrupted by the cynicism of life, the travails of army service and the daily reality of living in Israel, sits on his rented balcony in Jerusalem on a summery Shabbat afternoon. Another breathtaking hilltop sunset flashes warm orange colours onto the cirrus clouds that punctuate the endless, dark blue sky, creating a vertiginous effect.

And then, as if from the echoes of a memory, a stream of melodies from Se’udah Shlishit from a nearby home disperses the twitter of birds and momentarily captures my attention. Like a little kid prodding me with a stick, the harmonies rise and fall in a spiritual climax that immediately strike my very core, and send me back to Friday night all of those years ago. The tunes are heart-wrenching — they come from the depths of despair and longing. They encapsulate the human experience. It is a cry out to the heavens of a man condemned; the joyful tears of a father holding his newborn.

They seem to rebuke me gently. Never forget who you are. The sounds percolate deeper and deeper into my being. Never forget. Perhaps I have indeed strayed, Father? I stand defenseless as the beautiful niggunim filter in, take me once more like a bird and pluck me back into shul on Yom Kippur, swaying, concentrated on the prayers, begging for forgiveness.

The Friday night discos at ulpan. The insouciant teenager playing with his phone on base Saturday morning. Once in awe of rabbis and religious teachers, now supplanted by a contemporary Israeli suspicion of anything dati. How far had I treaded off the path?

The pure voices of Se’udah Shlishit vie for airspace and my attention, but I’m already back in Shechem, in the Balata refugee camp

And suddenly, much like the beautiful tunes that had me entranced — far off in the east, a new sound abruptly assails me. The distant thunder of tortured voices, the muezzin of a million mosques. First a whisper, and then an endless feedback loop of the adhan, the Arabic call to prayer, the howls pull me out of my trance and back into reality. The strange and foreign melodies of the clash of civilizations, reverberating off the walls of my apartment built from Jerusalem stone.

The pure voices of Se’udah Shlishit vie for airspace and my attention, but I’m already back in Shechem, in the Balata refugee camp, weighed down by a heavy helmet and a bulletproof vest, besieged by the pre-dawn muezzin that uncovers me and exposes my location. We’re coming for you, they seem to say, at once haunting and enticing — like the pied piper luring me away from my squad and into the dark, narrow alleyways filled with the posters of dead Palestinian shahids toting their AK-47s before of an image of al-Aqsa.

Amid the booms of stun grenades and fire crackers, Shemah Koleinu becomes increasingly drowned out and sinks further and further into sub-conscious like an irritating headache or a daydream. I am now surrounded an all sides by the incessant cries of Suleiman’s Ayyubid hordes encamped beyond the walls of the Old City, like Joshua bombarding the terrified inhabitants with the ghostly warnings and the trumpets of a foreign land.

Never forget, never forget. Forget what? The innocuous call to prayer from the furthest mosque, reigning in the city’s faithful from a tall minaret illuminated by Mordor green? The pitiful sounds of wailing of Lodz and Theresienstadt that captivated me in my childhood?

But I have strayed too far now, I thought, as the adhan wailed louder and louder like a beating drum demanding clear-cut answers to my ambivalence. My inner disconnect was quite apparent: Never forget had become never more; my talking mouth feigning erudition in scholarly matters such as politics and philosophy, but in reality masking an empty, hollow core, devoid of spirituality, thirsty for a lifeline. A fleeting glance of thoughts — reigned in by the newly audible church bells joining the cacophony of piety like an uninvited guest to a party.

As I listened, bewildered on my porch, to the noise of the three great monotheistic religions — taking in the fresh, cool Judean mountain air — I felt this sudden inner tug-and-pull, lasting no more than a blink of an eye. A brief, transient yearning that all but disappeared as I returned my glance from the sky to the trees, from the idealistic dream-world that I had once inhabited, to the harsh reality of life.

I was no longer a child — but a denuded, featherless bird, savagely soaked by a bucket of ice-cold water, scolded and shivering in the breeze.

This 10-year old boy would not get his chance to fly to distant Arabian deserts, and bask in the company of wise, bearded sages.

A day at university – U of T

The hustle and bustle of young minds are dwarfed by vampire-ish Edwardian architecture – in itself super-imposed before a modern city skyline.
The statue of some great 19th century thinker sits forever doomed to ponder life’s great ideas in some busy cafeteria courtyard.
The echo of history rustles through the vines that scale gothic arches and towers, playfully winking at the unsuspecting students below. Perhaps one of them too will forever be enshrined and immortalized as a statue at the entrance to the student-services building?

Tomorrow’s scientists and engineers delve into their laptops – a coffee in hand for added concentration. Only a curious observer will note that Zuckerburg’s theorem and not Einstein’s occupy their screens.
A labyrinth of halls, courtyards and classrooms seem to entrap all who venture into this realm of study..

The students pour into an elaborate lecture hall like a swarm of ants escaping the oncoming storm. The professor gazes toward rows and rows of faces several stories tall. Illuminated half-eaten apples stare back at him from hundreds of laptop covers. He clears his throat into the microphone, drowning out the chorus of whispers, typing, and shuffling paper.
Class has begun.

Rain over the Negev

Inspired by a bus ride in the Negev desert.

The first thing I feel is the heat. Heat that reverberates off the windows as the sun beats down on all things unlucky enough to catch it’s glare. The cars before us kick up the dust that innocently lies along the windy road, leaving a thin pane of brown residue on the window along with a misty haze. I stare out to the water-starved fields, but all I gather is my own reflection. Hues of yellow and orange as far as the eye can see are occasionally punctured by the withering carcasses of trees, seemingly outstretched in pain and begging for mollification. Sleep-deprived soldiers nod along with every bump in the road, basking in the warm glow that surrounds them – their ‘plasticized’ ears blasting all manners of ungodly music – or perhaps not. The sky offers nothing but ocean-blue.

But dark, heavy clouds in the distance engorged with millions of tiny rain droplets loom over the tiny bus, overwhelming it with their sheer mass and size. We move ever closer to this inevitable storm, marking the end of the summer season. A big grey one blocks off the sun, so that it shall not bear witness to the fury and wrath that we invite upon ourselves by tempting this monster. The lone trees and desert weeds humbly bow to this higher force, helplessly obsequious with nobody to come to their aid. The bus awakens like a tingling sixth-sense visualizing an impending doom. And we move closer and closer…

The first one is faint, like a whimper, a Trojan-horse sent before the entire army. It splashes onto the window beside me, sending tiny-water droplets streaming down like comets drawn to a star. The next one comes in harder and quicker – a foreboding messenger of what awaits us. Startled passengers awaken from their slumber, look around in awe and shift their bodies for a better view. A light crack of thunder, perhaps a figment of my imagination, sounds in the distance. The low hum of the engine slowly fades out; just four wheels lightly gliding along the bitumen. And then nothing…

The conductor readies his orchestra of the sky; the clouds await their orders and move into position. The bus continues unhindered into this ‘ambush,’ its movements drowned out by a deafening quiet, a majestic silence – the calm before the storm. I take a breath. The ‘plasticized’ soldier setting beside me turns in his sleep.

And then it comes. The rain. Not just rain. But the rain. Rain that is the cry of an old, wrinkled Arab fellah, squinting at the sun and cursing the heavens. Rain that is the sweat and tears of Thai labourers tilling the harsh soil beneath the unforgiving sun, with their torn gloves and balaclavas, whilst dreaming of a better life for their children. These first drops are not just rain, but a sudden shriek of horror, the high pierced shrill of murder. Rain that dilutes and unsettles the farmland that has been drenched and soaked with Jewish and Arab blood. Farmland etched with the imprints of tank tracks and mortar holes, fragments of Qassam rockets and bullet casings. Unpicked grapefruits withering and rotting in the dust, a shovel discarded and waiting to be picked up by an owner that will never return. An echo of gunfire, a cry, a body falls to the dirt.

The rain keeps coming, and the sheer volume of it quickly overwhelms all the grief, injustice and despair – bringing with it another winter that cares not for different types of blood or hardship – because they are all the same to it. The mangled leper retrieves his deformed, arthritic hand in indignation. It is now soaked only with water and will not heal his wounds.

The initial rain quickly gives way to normal rain. Regular, voluptuous droplets that irrigate the fields and enrich the farmlands. Gaza in the distance and before it, Kibbutz Nahal Oz, politely tip their hats to the grey sky in appreciation for next summer’s food. It’s all business as usual, another well-timed performance. The bus driver turns on the windscreen wipers, somebody returns their attention to a novel they stopped reading mid-sentence, a phone rings and is promptly answered. I sit mesmerized, listening intently, hoping to receive another clue. But all I hear is simply the sound of rain, beautifully conjoining and falling like millions of tears unshed, lightly tapping on the window as I look out – my reflection now clearer than ever.

Leaving Melbourne

I’m sitting at the terminal at Melbourne airport, awaiting to board a flight to LA, listening to some forgettable, B-grade remix of a song whose name I don’t remember. I’ve got no wi-fi and no phone connection. My wired-up, unnaturally short attention span has not been trained to deal with empty moments like these. I look to the landing strip for inspiration. Melbourne’s ubiquitous cloudy sky drools past the grey, ceiling-high windows – punctuated by a shimmer of cloud-shine, and the occasional take off…

I stoically scan the runway, imagining myself in earlier years when I would lend such a quasi-significant moment some forced sense of higher meaning. The people surrounding me – dull, gadgeted-up and in various stages of alleviated their boredom – blend in with the bland, un-inspired architecture of the boarding gate.

One woman tends to her wrapped-up baby, whilst searching the room with bird-like glances – perhaps for a tissue? Others immerse themselves in their phones – taking short breaks to stare around – as if suddenly reminded that they are still located in the terminal. An elderly couple sit side-by-side, gazing into oblivion whilst engulfed by years of silence – a heavy, tense silence that can be seen but not understood.

The boarding call has been announced; predictably late and kindly explained away by the staff at the counter. The passengers leave their seats and march to the boarding gate with a quaint air of entitlement – as if claiming an inheritance or a birthright. Each of them finds themselves in different stages of life: The impatient businessman flying to some important job conference. The apathetic student lazily rolling her thumb across her ‘Facebook news feed.’ A surly father lecturing his seemingly annoyed 20-something son – doubtless dispensing some unwarranted travel advice. Two tanned surfer girls on their way to catch some California sun, dreadlocks and blonde hair. All random strangers united by a common need to get somewhere …

My number is called. I look to the dwindling line and get up to join the chorus – my earphone cable nonchalantly dangling from one ear like a fashion statement. As I shuffle toward the flight attendant with the red-lipsticked plastic grin, I realize uncannily that I too, blend in with the architecture. Am I any different?

“Welcome aboard flight 840 sir. Have a pleasant journey.” I robotically nod a polite ‘thank-you’ and quickly disappear into the passageway.

I board the half-empty plane and recline into my economy-class aisle seat. I check to see if the complimentary magazine and laminated safety instructions are safely tucked away into their seat-pouch. They are. They will remain unopened and unread for the remainder of the flight. My tray however will be opened and closed no less than 14 times. The person sitting beside me affirms that he wants nothing to do with anybody and feigns sleep. His headphones convincingly mask his ear-drums, even though they are currently disconnected from his mp3 player. Across the aisle within reaching space, sits the nervous mother with her no longer wrapped-up-baby – a lucky baby who is given permission to take in whiffs of fresh airplane air and the sight of me – curiously staring back.

The pre-flight safety demonstration begins at the far end of the aisle. I sink further into my seat and play with the currently-inert remote control. Why can’t I fast forward myself ‘till after take-off, like I do with boring bits in a movie?

After a brief interlude I find myself soaring above the clouds. A wealth of rhetorical flourishes race through my mind and invite me to partake in this visual feast.

Goodbye Melbourne. The sun winks back at me.