Looking for utopia

'Nowhere have I felt as safe as in this wilderness.'
– Melech Ravitch

THE WORLD HAS become a blur, borders losing their definition. Countries chase each other clockwise around the axis of a plastic globe I hold on my lap. With one finger I stop them abruptly, then on a whim send them hurtling off in the other direction. Instead of Australia following Europe, I change the rules of the game and set Paris, Rome and Berlin off in search of Melbourne.

It is 1975, and I am sitting in my room, slumped into a yellow vinyl beanbag, listening to Carole King's Tapestry on my cassette player, my toes buried in a cream flokati rug. Barbie lies naked on top of Ken, both of them discarded along with all the other toys of my childhood, piled into a large cardboard box, ready to be dumped at Josie's op shop on Carlisle Street. I am busy writing letters to pen pals around the world – Kuala Lumpur, London, Penang, Boston – whose addresses I found on the backs of various stamp-collecting magazines. I am telling them about my life in Orrong Road, Elsternwick, Melbourne, Australia, the World, the Universe, 3185.

I am fifteen. My father comes in, without knocking, and announces he is taking me on a trip to Israel soon.

'But Dad!' I protest. 'I don't want to go.'

He leaves the room. End of discussion.

During the weeks leading up to our departure, I spend hours on the phone whining to my friends about being torn away from having fun with them at summer camp. Despite all my dreams of travel, following my dad around Israel, where I will most likely have to sit and listen to the endless stories of all his ancient friends from back home in Poland, is uninspiring to my young heart, to say the least. Drinking countless cups of tea and eating greasy herring with capers in the homes of a bunch of grey-haired oy-and-vey people whose dreamy longing for a small village from the past called Zhetl clouds their eyes, like it does my father's, sounds like a dead bore. More importantly, my slim hope of becoming Henry Schmulewiecz's girlfriend is now dashed. I've had a crush on him for months already; him and Danny Solomon, Simon Ostroburski, Nathan Goldfeder, Sammy Piekarski, as well as Peter the Greek, the local greengrocer's son. Not being around definitely doesn't help a teenage girl's chances of being asked to 'go around' with a boy. Henry will probably pash on with Cynthia Blutshtein, while I am away. She was my best friend, until I found out that she was rapt with Henry too.

ON OUR FIRST morning in Tel Aviv, I wait impatiently in the hotel room for my father to finish his phone conversation before we go out to explore the city. I tape miniature salt and pepper packets from the plane into my travel journal. It was my first flight.

'Menachim Kaminsky!' Father shouts into the mouthpiece, as if his voice has to cross thousands of miles.

'Who?' an even louder voice replies, blaring from the earpiece, leaping to my side of the room.

'Kaminsky, Kaminsky,' he says. 'From the army. Remember? Tocumwal. Yossele Birshtein, Franky Klepner, Shmuel Factor. And the Greek and Italian boys.'

The silence from the other end tells me this old mate from the Sixth Australian Employment Corps, who my father has been so keen to reconnect with, doesn't remember him.

'It's Menachim. Menachim mit der croomeh foos,' my father says in Yiddish, referring to his right foot, deformed by childhood polio, which has left him with a permanent limp.

'Nisht azoi croom. It's not so crooked,' Yosl Bergner says, even though he hasn't got a clue who he is speaking to. And he invites my father over to his studio on Bilu Street, so they can schmooze about the old days. It will be many years before I come to understand this side of Yosl, a man who is empathic and kind, sometimes to the point of letting others smother him with their requests and demands. He will always say yes.

Later that morning, walking in off the narrow street, through the half-opened frosted glass doors, Father and I enter an anteroom, an atrium surrounded by stained smocks hung on hooks and brushes soaking in jars of turpentine. It has a dizzying, heady smell. A man with piercing blue eyes, wearing a navy artist's smock covered in flecks of paint, greets us warmly.

'Ah, Kaminsky! Now I remember you,' he says, hugging him and slapping him on the shoulder. 'And who is this maydeleh?' he says, turning to me. I want to answer 'I am not a little girl,' but my father has already introduced me as Leahleh, a diminutive form of myself.

Inside the studio, rusty graters lie stacked up on the top shelf of an old dresser. Cream-coloured paint is peeling off the wood and an antique Kodak camera catches my eye. The walls are covered in photos and tchatchkes, and half-finished paintings rest on easels around the room, depicting tattered metal utensils, filled with holes that look like faces. I don't realise it then, but I have stepped into another world. Yosl catches me looking back at the old camera and walks over to take it off its hook.

'It was my father's,' he says. 'He took it with him on a trip across Australia in 1933.'

What follows is the first story I heard Yosl tell. Many more were to follow over the years. But it is the one about his father, Melech Ravitch, an eccentric Yiddish poet travelling across the Australian outback wearing new trousers, a checked shirt, a bow tie and kangaroo hide shoes, carrying this Box Brownie camera, that touched me most. Looking back on it now, I think it gave me the spark to break out of the dull, comfortable life of a spoilt teenager growing up in suburban Melbourne. And I like to believe it was that moment too, that led me to become a writer. I ask myself what it was about the lives of Yosl and his father, Melech Ravitch, that inspired me so much. Maybe it was the lure of a world of the imagination that they both inhabited; how wild and wonderful stories always became an integral and inseparable part of their daily lives. How even graters, door handles and fire hydrants had faces and souls.

I also think of how different my life was from Yosl's, and yet what a close bond we subsequently formed. The world I inhabited as a teenager in 1975 was so far removed from what had happened in Yosl's world when he was fifteen years old. In 1935 anti-Semitism was on the rise in Europe. It was the year that the Freeland League for Jewish Territorial Colonisation formed, its mission to search for a potential Jewish homeland. But two years before, Yosl's father, Ravitch, bade farewell to his family and journeyed to Australia, as part of his job as a fundraiser for Bundist Yiddish schools in Poland. His more pressing motive was to look for land that 'nobody wanted' in order to resettle German Jews, who were under threat from the rise of Nazism. After brief visits to Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane, he set out for the Northern Territory, armed with a letter of introduction from Albert Einstein, journals in which he would record his incredible journey and, slung around his neck, the Box Brownie that I had held in my hands on that first day I met his son, Yosl, in 1975.

ZACHARIA CHANA BERGNER – whose pen name, Melech Ravitch, was derived from his favourite Yiddish poet, Melech Chmelnitzky, and Yanko Ravitch, the protagonist in a story written by Shapira – was a Yiddish poet, essayist, playwright and cultural activist. He was born in Radymno, eastern Galicia in 1893 and died in Montreal in 1976, having lived in several countries. In 1920, the year Yosl Bergner was born, Melech Ravitch translated the works of his acquaintance Franz Kafka. At the time, Ravitch wanted to give his first-born son seven names, so that the child might choose his favourite when he grew up. Yosl became so enamoured with Kafka's works that I'm surprised he didn't change his name to Franz.

I could tell you a lengthy tale about Ravitch's adventures Down Under. I have spent years reading and translating his journals and letters, poring over the archives that Yosl entrusted to me, imagining through the black-and-white photos he took, his journeys and adventures. The man left behind an enormous legacy of a life meticulously recorded, often in minute detail. His thoughts, his dreams, his impressions of places and people, his musings on why Melbourne of 1933 had forty-eight Albert Streets; his surprise upon his first encounter with an Indigenous man, in the domed Reading Room of the State Library of Victoria. The 'wild man' of his imaginings took the form of an Aboriginal gentleman, seated at a wooden table next to him, who wore a suit and bowler hat, and was reading the Argus newspaper.

I could describe how he travelled across the outback on a mail truck with a fifteen-year-old Aboriginal boy named Angus as his guide. He writes that the boy begged to be bought from his father for forty shillings, so that Ravitch would take him along with him wherever he travelled. Instead, the Yiddish poet gave him a bag of lollies and the teenager gave up his dreams of adventure. The driver, an Italian immigrant, spoke no English. (Recently, I have been able to trace this man's story, too.)

I could tell you how, along their journey, these three unlikely companions would sit by a bonfire at night, one dreaming of his home town back in Poland, writing in his journal in Yiddish about a new moon, strange constellations high in the desert sky, and his impressions of Australia, with its cartography taking on the 'appearance of a human head, with a sharp nose. It reclines back, with its nose pointed up to the Heavens'. Ravitch was a dreamer, travelling across a land that rose from the Dreamtime. But the black people's Dreaming and the white people's dreams for the land were as diametrically opposed as the colours themselves.

WHEN YOSYL FIRST gave me his father's diaries to translate from the Yiddish, many years ago, I was reluctant to publish them. I had worked for a brief period in Aboriginal health with the Gagaju Tribe in Arnhem Land in the late 1980s, and developed a strong affinity with the tribal elders and their mesmerising stories about the spirit of the land. I was taken aback by Ravitch's attitude to Indigenous people in the Northern Territory. He was astonished to learn that at the time, in an area of half a million square miles, there lived only twenty-five thousand people, of which only a fifth were white. His answer to how the Aboriginal problem would be resolved, if in fact a Jewish settlement were to be established: 'The blacks cannot be regarded as the owners of the land. A crazy idea! They are on the lowest rung of civilisation. They could be allotted a few thousand square miles of land and be taught to work the land.'

As uncomfortable as this attitude made me feel, his words were in keeping with colonial attitudes of the time. In contrast to this statement, I kept looking at the photos Yosl had given me of his father's trip, and the poignant captions Ravitch had written beside them. The look of dispossession in his Aboriginal subjects' eyes reminded Ravitch of the plight of the Jews. Yosl, his son, who arrived in Melbourne in 1937, would go on to be one of the first of a group of social realist painters that included Albert Tucker, Noel Counihan and Sidney Nolan, who would paint Aborigines as a neglected and disenfranchised people, refugees in their own land. Yosl writes in What I Meant to Say, a book of his stories put together by his dear friend Ruth Bondy: 'The first Aborigine I ever saw was standing outside the Melbourne Town Hall playing a tune from an American musical on a eucalyptus leaf. Totally uprooted. The Aborigines reminded me of the Jews. I saw their plight... I was the first painter in Australia who painted urban Aborigines.'

Others were to follow in Ravitch's outback footsteps, including Steinberg from the Freeland League. A pastoral firm even offered vast tracts of land for settlement in the Kimberleys, stretching from the north of Western Australia into the Northern Territory. The plans, although they seemed promising at one stage, ended up, like other visionaries' proposed Jewish utopias in places as far-flung as Ecuador, Uganda and Madagascar, going nowhere. But for a time, Melech Ravitch became involved in a serious investigation of the Kimberleys. He brought his wife and his children, Yosl and Ruth, to live in Melbourne. Ruth, now in her nineties, still lives here. She had a long and successful career as a beautiful and innovative dancer, and a lifelong relationship with the painter Jim Wigley. Yosl eventually studied in the National Gallery School, until the outbreak of War World II. He served for four and a half years in the Australian Army, where he met my father, and the story of my own journey towards Yosl Bergner and Melech Ravitch began.

THERE IS SO much to say about Ravitch, so many stories to tell. As Yosl puts it: 'I'm still pregnant to father. Once I start talking about him there's no end to it. One day I came to terms with it – that I would know father but that he would never know me.'

And maybe that is where our stories intersect. We spend our youth running away from our childhood, and the rest of our lives trying to recapture it. In writing about Yosl Bergner and Melech Ravitch, a father and his child, perhaps I am trying to find my own father again – a simple tailor, who did not leave behind manuscripts or photos, diaries or archives. His stories were stitched into the fabric that made up my life, and maybe it is through a Yiddish poet and his son, a painter, that I am trying to find the pattern of my own life, unravelling my father's story, and chasing after loose threads.

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