There was a baptism on the beach this morning. It was a morning of lovely sunshine and cloudless skies, windless and warm, gently so, a spring morning and we could feel it, Rocky and I, the warmth of it and the lightness of it, Rocky running along the water’s edge towards the pier, stopping for a moment or two to be acknowledged by every human along the way, while I watched him closely just in case a human showed signs of considering his approach unwelcome, but pleased nevertheless to see him like this and pleased also by the sunshine and blue sky. Beyond the pier, in the near distance, there was a group of people, children and men and women, young and older, the adults standing by the shoreline, dancing, well swaying actually, and singing.
In the shallows, there were three young men holding what looked like a large white sheet or towel which they wrapped around the shoulders of two other young men, one at a time, and submerged them for several seconds in the still bay water. On the shore, the singing and swaying became more pronounced, the bright blue and red and green robed women flowing and joyous, as each of the young men emerged from the water. They looked triumphant and modest at the same time, these young men, stripped to the waist in the sunshine and the gentle, windless water. Behind the adults, the children ran backwards and forwards across the sand chasing each other and Rocky of course joined them and the children welcomed him with squeals of delight.
I am not a Christian and I know little about baptism except that it is a metaphor for being born. Again. I wondered what it meant to them, beyond its religious significance, to be re-born on the beach in St Kilda, in Melbourne. I wondered about their journey, these people from Africa, singing and dancing, the children exuberant and fun-filled and I saw the space, the physical space for them here on St Kilda beach , and I thought this space, in the scheme of things, is God’s own space, even if there is no god. I feared, as I stood there on this lovely spring morning, that once again we will soon be in the grip of Stranger madness and that Kevin Rudd will soon once again call people smugglers the most evil people in the world and that soon children running backwards and forwards on the beach with Rocky in pursuit and adults swaying and singing and young men being baptised on a sun-warmed morning will be proof that our space, the space we think we own and can do with what we wish—`We will decide who comes here,’ as John Howard once said- is being taken from us.
These fears were fleeting, for the morning was gorgeous and the re-birthing was joyful and the beach–the sand and the rocky outcrops and the shoreline dotted with dead jellyfish and the hovering and frantic seagulls– seemed to me to be a gift rather than a birthright. But fleeting though they were these fears, they darkened the morning which had started out sombre anyway. Part of the night had been spent in contemplation of journeys ended. This contemplation had taken me into the backyard. The night was cool and still and Rocky joined me there, impatient to get going, to the beach, though his face was sleep-filled, his beard crushed against his face.
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Jacob Diner died in a Melbourne nursing home a week ago. I didn’t know he had died until after his funeral. Jews bury the dead as quickly as possible, even Jews like Jacob Diner, a secular Jew who for most of his life, never entered a synagogue and never joined in prayers to a God he knew did not exist and who really, though he never said as much to me, held all religion in contempt. He was over 90 when he died and his life spanned much of the 20th century and he was both wounded and inspired by that century’s great and bloody madnesses.
A half a century ago, Jacob Diner, having been dismissed from his post as a senior official in Poland’s economic planning ministry during one of the periodic purges of the Polish Communist Party and Government of Jewish traitors who had, in one way or another, betrayed the Polish working classes and the revolution, arrived in Melbourne with his wife and children. He was still a Marxist and a believer in the salvation in Communism when he arrived–how then, I wonder, was he accepted as a refugee at the height of the Menzies era?- because, I imagine, despite the fact that he had been cast out by his Polish Party comrades, and accused of abominable political crimes, still fresh in his mind and in his heart was the horror that had been brought upon him and his family and his country by Nazism and Fascism.
I first met him not long after he had arrived in Melbourne. He was a short bald man with an owl-like face who wore a light brown gabardine overcoat–did all Communist Party apparachicks of that era wear brown gabardine overcoats? — which he took off at the start of his teaching duties, in the attic room of the large and rambling Ewardian house in Elsternwick which was the home of the Sholem Aleichem Yiddish Sunday School.
Lerer Diner we called him–literally translated it means Teacher Diner– we children of an earlier influx of refugees–earlier by no more than a decade or so– who considered Lerer Diner’s children, who spoke English with a thick and funny Polish accent, to be rather backward in all sorts of ways– they spoke English with a thick and funny Polish accent, they could not play cricket and they followed no football team and could hardly kick a football. There were quite a number of reffo kids like this at Sholem Aleichem Sunday School, children, like Lerer Diner’s children, children of Communist true believers who had been cast out of the Party and from their government posts in that late 50s early 60s wave of Polish Communist Party Anti–Semitism, though in most cases, these Jews, like Jacob Diner–and unlike Bundists like my father who were commited socialists but also committed to the concept of Jewish peoplehood and Jewish culture, especially Yiddish culture– had cast off everything that would have marked their Jewishness–religion, ethnic solidarity, cultural ties, the lot.
Jacob Diner was a softly spoken rather downcast looking man who at first, taught at the Sholem Aleichem Sunday School because, I assume, he needed the money. He taught Jewish history and Yiddish literature and a subject called simply Ethics which now, a half century or so later, I cannot for the life of me recall what it was about, though given this was a secular school, I think it had something to do with Jewish secular values whatever that may have meant at the time.
Softly spoken, serious, sad-eyed, his bald dome an alarming shade of red, scarred by his experience of Nazism and then the fierce and brutal rejection by his beloved Communist Party and his country, I grew over time to love Lerer Diner and over time, to my great surprise, I came to look forward to his Sunday morning classes in Ethics, Jewish History and Yiddsh literature.
I loved his gentleness I suppose and I loved his passion for books and ideas and history and meaning, but mostly, I think I loved that he loved me, in the way that all great teachers love their pupils–for their youth and their eagerness and their potential. My father was wary of Lerer Diner, for my father was an anti-Communist by then, a socialist and a Bundist and a secularist, yes, but a man who despised Communism, and he worried that my enthusiasm for what he saw as Lerer Diner’s Marxist interpretation of Jewish history and in particular, his Marxist view of Yiddish literature would lead me to bad places.
I do not know whether Lerer Diner took me to bad places, but I doubt it. I think that over time, he grew disillusioned with Marxism and certainly with Communism. I know that he joined the Bund and the Labor Party. I know that he loved Yiddish literature and that he taught me to love books and writing. I know that he taught history by telling stories, great twisting and turning narratives that ended up in the most thrilling places. He loved me, Lerer Diner did. I wrote Yiddish poetry for him about the books he read to us and when he liked one of my poems, his eyes would fill with tears and his red bald dome would glisten and it was as if I had somehow saved him from despair. Here, in translation, is a fragment of a poem I wrote about a book by Sholem Ash which was about the Cossack pogroms in the Ukraine in the 17th century:
I arise from my grave
And hear the murderous Cossack riders
Move across the once green now blood red fields
Through shtetls and towns they ride, the murderers
And a song is hammered out by the galloping horses
A song of death for my brothers and sisters.
Lerer Diner had tears in his eyes when he read the poem (it’s not bad in Yiddish) and he whispered to me that if I wanted it, I could one day be a real poet and writer.
We stayed in touch more or less after I finished Sunday School. I saw him at Bund meetings and later, we lived close to each other, he alone in a small flat, his wife having suffered a catastrophic illness which meant she had to be moved to a nursing home, and me, with my wife and children in a nearby street. He never visited us. I think that once or twice, my children and I went to see him. From time to time, he would write me notes about an article I had written. The notes more or less suggested that there was still hope for me, that one day, I could still be a great writer.
And so it was that we set out on that sunny spring day, Rocky and I, for the beach, Rocky concerned, I thought, at my quiet and sombre demeanor, anxious for it to pass so that I could join him in his love of the morning. I was in the time of Lerer Diner’s death, when we came to witness the baptisms on St Kilda beach. It was the baptisms and the singing and swaying and children playing and Rocky chasing the children up and down the sand that I thought led me to think of people smugglers and asylum seekers and the ownership of this space, this beach.
But perhaps it was Lerer Diner’s death, the death of a man who was exiled from his homeland and rejected by his comrades, this man who was my greatest and most loved teacher, that made me fearful, for just a little while, as I watched the re-births in the shallows of the still bay waters, that those who come seeking to share with us what only God–if he exists– can give, will be seen, again, by many of us, as Strangers.
Postscript: Rocky and Gawenda The story of a man and his mutt is in the bookshops. I think it’s a lovely book. The photographs are wonderful. Even if I do say so myself.