Melbourne, Australia is not New York City. This may seem to be stating the obvious, but, shortly after moving here from Brooklyn I would discover in a myriad of ways just how this was so. For instance, say the words ‘shlep’ or ‘shmatte’ or ‘shlamiel’ in mixed company in New York and everyone, even the Chinese, the Latinos, and the Afghanis, all know what you mean, more or less. Say those same words here in Melbourne, Australia and, they are met with curious raised eyebrows. “Is that Swedish?” they might say.
Not that Australians are not worldly, indeed they are. Most of the young people travel around the world before settling down, and Australians love being exposed to other cultures of all kinds. Diversity holds much charm here, being tucked away so far off in this remote corner of the planet. Australians often crave and seek out multicultural education and experiences. Mention a foreign food of any kind, a tradition, a religious practice, or an exotic art form, and most Australians show immediate interest, almost like curious children encountering something new and magical that sparks their imagination. There is a certain endearing naïveté that Australians have managed to maintain in their society that allows them to welcome foreign cultures with friendly ease. While there are narrow minded individuals here, as is so in any place, for the most part, this is an extremely tolerant and non-judgmentally accepting country.
Being a jaded somewhat hardened New Yorker when I arrived, I often misunderstood my new countrymen because I perceived them through my own cultural lenses. During my early days here thirteen years ago, I often misinterpreted the strange reactions I would get from Australians when I mentioned anything related to my Jewish practice. The curious glances I misinterpreted as intolerance. I wondered why they looked at me so funnily, as if maybe they thought I was a freak for being Jewish. It took me sometime to realize that their reaction to meeting me was not out of prejudice, but for many of these people, I was the first openly Jewish person they had ever encountered before. The simple direct questions they asked me I initially misinterpreted as ignorance. I wondered if they were mocking me. It took me quite some time to shake off my defensive New York style Jewish paranoia and pseudo-sophistication. What I discovered was that these Australians were actually wanting to know what my life was all about and what I represented.
Australia is a fantastic modern lovely country, but one cannot exactly describe Australian culture as very spiritual. This is a land where nature, sport, and the good easy life is treasured and enjoyed. This is called ‘The lucky country’, as most of us who live here cannot help but feel fortunate to be living in such a beautiful, bountiful, friendly, easy going, and laid back place. People work only hard enough here but, not too hard, and most are able to enjoy some of life’s frills without too much struggle. Melbourne is one of the friendliest cities in the world. In Melbourne, not only will people stop and give you directions with a nice smile when you ask them, but often they may even take you there. I often tell people I moved from the rudest and coldest city in the world to the friendliest. Nevertheless, Australians as a whole are not particularly religious or spiritual, and certainly not as religious as Americans. Australian culture is a bit like ancient Hellenism in which sport and the pleasures of the body and the material are paramount.
Working in the business world here is also very different from New York as it is extremely social. Australians expect everyone in the workplace to be good friends, or ‘mates’, as they call it, and that means going out together to restaurants and pubs. The emphasis put on the value of Australian ‘mateship’ cannot be overestimated. For Australians, often when they call you a ‘mate’, it is not just a word, they actually mean you are their friend. This mateship bond is sealed with a meal, or better yet, a drink of alcohol, specifically beer, their national drink of choice. After all, it’s the Aussie way, mate!
One can only imagine the difficulty in navigating one’s Torah observance in such a culture as compared to New York. I found myself having to turn down many invitations to many social occasions, and this did not go a long way to give me my mateship points. Frequently I was asked what I could eat, and why I couldn’t eat this, or that, or the other. At first I would give these questions short shrift. I just thought it would be too complicated to explain the intricacies of keeping kosher to these Aussie work mates of mine. I knew they often felt snubbed by me, but I was stuck in my brazen defensive New York posture and, it took some time to break that down and try a different approach.
After a while, because I can be a slow learner when it comes to social situations, it dawned on me that I had been approaching this all the wrong way. Instead of making myself aloof from my fellow countrymen, I would find ways to answer all their questions clearly and in a way that would satisfy their curiosity. So a typical conversation would often go something like this:
“What’s ' kosher ', mate?”
‘Did you ever read the Bible?” (typical Jew, answering a question with a question).
“Yeah, I went to church and Sunday school.”
‘Well, you heard of the Five Book of Moses?”
Now sometimes here they would tell me they either went to Catholic school, or they never read it, or they saw the movie with Charlton Heston, and that latter one usually got a good laugh. Whatever their answer, we now had some basis upon which we could define where I was coming from as a Jewish person.
“Moses gave the Jewish people a set of Laws from G-d to live by. These laws cover every aspect of a Jewish person’s life, how to sleep, how to pray, how to dress, and even how to eat.”
By this point in the conversation I have grabbed their interest. What really amazes me is that before when I would just say, ‘It’s my religion and it’s too complicated to explain it” they would look a bit disappointed that I wouldn’t tell them anything about it. But after I began to explain it clearly, every single time I would see their faces light up with real delight that I was actually taking the time to let them in on what we mysterious Jewish people were all about. And they appreciated it. Now is when I go into the short but comprehensive explanation of what keeping kosher means:
“ The laws of keeping kosher means that Jewish people are not allowed to eat meat with milk together, not allowed to eat any creepy crawlies, not allowed to eat any animal unless it has cloved hoofs and chews its cud and has been ritually slaughtered according to the law. Jews can also only eat fish that has fins and scales so that means no shell fish at all. Now, all of this becomes quite complicated in today’s modern world with food technology being the way it is, so we rely on a whole structure of chemists and Rabbis to help us and we can only eat the food that they certify for us. This means all things touching the foods, all utensils and vessels also have to be entirely dedicated to kosher.”
That entire explanation takes under half a minute. Sometimes they may ask me a bit more, but they don’t go into it too deeply because I gave them just enough information to satisfy their curiosity and to make them realize that is is so super complicated that they prefer not to delve any further. Often I get replies like this:
“No shrimp on the Barbie! That’s rough, mate”. A barbie is a bar-b-que and barbequed shrimp is an intrinsic part of the national cuisine. Not being able to partake in such an indulgence is enough to make most Australians pity me greatly. Or else they say something like, “ Oh, thanks so much for telling me all that. Now I understand why you can’t come out with us. It must be so hard…..does the Rabbi bless the food?.....etc” I see that they feel so glad that I had enough regard for them as a person to take the time and make the effort to actually demystify a small part of our elusive Jewish way of life.
Once I started to come up with short non-threatening, clear, and thorough answers to the questions my fellow Australians asked me, without being condescending or making them feel foolish, I felt I gained their respect, not only for me, but for all Jews.