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Menachem's Story Blog

Confessions After Fifty-Six Years of . . . 

Today is my birthday. It's now fifty-six years since I arrived into this world. A lot of water has flowed under that proverbial bridge.

And once again I re-enter that category about which my friend, Nat Gordon, wrote in his article Seven Year Work Itch. Nat only wrote about "the years bordering 21, 28, 35, 42, and 49". My mate, Howard, was very upset to read this article -- it was published a couple of days before his fifty-sixth birthday! I said, "Howie, don't worry about it; your outside the range"; but Nat later assured me fifty-six is also one of his "lucky" numbers, and that he himself made a major career decision at the age of sixty-three, the next number after Howard's in that auspicious sequence!

So here I stand -- at another seven year juncture. In my case, I think the itch has been irritating me continuously since I was twenty-eight, the year I came to live in Israel -- yes I have now been here half my lifetime.

I read somewhere that men are more likely to die in the two weeks leading up to their birthdays than at any other time, while women, seem to make the birthday and then expire. I guess this statistic is related to different levels of vanity between the sexes (or to be politically correct, but incorrect Englishwise, between the genders), but it's irrelevant to my story.

So here I stand, at this, another turning point in my life. Do I continue on the same mundaneness, or do I, finally, make the decision I have avoided for all these years -- throw it all in and go a new course?

Let's present the accounts. What has life, or for the purpose of this discussion, working life, been about all these years? And is work all that is important?

I ended high school in the distant past of 1970. I very much wanted to take time off from secular academia and spend a year or two in Israel, studying the ancient texts of the Talmud, Midrash and of course, the Kabbalah. But my widowed mother wanted me both nearby and fully educated as soon as possible. This is one of the tragedies of the first generation after the Holocaust. Of course my situation was exacerbated by my father no longer being with us, having left us, while not destitute, with not too much. My mother had to work hard and sacrifice a lot. My kids always laugh when I relate that I had only one shirt to wear to school -- fortunately it was drip dry. My mother would wash it each night and hang it out dry, ready for the next morning. Again, this was part of the post Holocaust experience -- there wasn't anyone on whom to fall back -- you had to solve your problems on your own or just drown, virtually unnoticed, in the big swimming pool of life.

Many Holocaust survivors believe that Judaism lives in the heart, for personal not public consumption, and that a portable education is the key to survival in this antisemitic world (they pretend antisemitism is dead, but in their heart of heart, they know this to be a lie). When you are next chased out, you can run anywhere in the world with a maximum of two children, and you can re-establish yourself if you have portable skills. And that's part of the joke -- she wanted me to be lawyer, possibly the least portable trade there is. You can't even practice law in Melbourne if you were admitted to New South Wales Bar! Now that's portable! Or wishful thinking.

I decided sometime in high school that a career in electronics was interesting. My mother didn't know what electronics was -- however she did know that it wasn't medicine or law, the only two fields for which universities existed. Maybe I also didn't realise fully what was involved, or at least fully understand how to achieve my goal. I had had a lot of fun during my later high school years with my electronics whizzkid friend, Bernie Lee, who could build anything from those little components. We (really he -- I just held his soldering iron) built lots of interesting gadgets. Since I "owned" a car and his parents wouldn't let him "modify" theirs too much, "my" Hillman Hunter GT became an electronic (and not only electronic) workbench on which we tried out all the things about which we were reading in those days.

Back then, the only path to electronics was via the School of Electrical Engineering at the University of New South Wales. Everyone went to a local university. Dorms were reserved for those who came in from country areas.

In this course, you spent three years learning general, and a bit of electrical, engineering skills before, in the final year, you were allowed to study (some) electronics. We were just coming out of the world of the transistor into a new generation -- it was a very different electronics then.

Needless to say engineering, with its very rigid thought patterns, was not for a free soul like me; remember I wanted to learn Kabbalah, I was a free thinker, though I did not yet fully appreciate it yet. I already knew that I was hard to define and difficult to confine; in our society, there was little outlet for this behaviour.

On the other hand, in America at this time, the flower people, the hippies, were "dropping out" all over the place, but not in Australia, and certainly not the children of the second generation. Our parents endowed upon us too much to be hung-up about, and it was impossible for us to escape the pressure cooker into which they had placed us. Our parents set high, almost unachievable, goals. The problem was that we were made into overachievers and we were able to (almost) reach these targets. However as we came near to achieving these unachievables, they raised the bar a notch or two, and again we stood underneath, gaping at the new unachievable horizons set for us.

After three semesters I dropped out of engineering to study computer science. This was more fun and results were faster (though we were still using punch cards for input, with a chance to run a program once a day). As all my engineering credits were countable, I still managed to complete my Honours Computer Science degree in the minimum time of four years.

But commercial computer programming also was rigid -- anyone remember COBOL (an American government committee designed language), which universities refused to teach, but industry insisted on using. So I enrolled in a Masters program -- now that sounds more interesting. My thesis topic was in the field Artificial or Machine Intelligence with Imperfect Knowledge. I started to "teach" a machine to play Stratego, a board game simulating a ancient battle between two opposing armies. I wanted to teach my machine the rules of the game and the machine to "learn" to improve its game.

Laborious . . . so finally, at the age of twenty-three, five years late, I went off to Yeshiva. I spent a very interesting year in "Kiryat Arba which is Hevron". Didn't get to the Kabbalah yet.

I returned to Australia, back to the post holocaust pressure cooker, a year later. I had a not too uninteresting job, married my childhood sweetheart and finished my masters.

After our first son, Yisrael Moshe (my late father's name) was born, we came back to Israel where I studied at the Mercaz haRav Yeshiva in Yerushalayim for another year. Again I didn't learn Kabbalah, but I did learn a lot, including the ancient scribal arts from a very interesting Jew living in Mea Shearim. With my secular, diaspora mentality, I had never met someone like this, a family who had lived in Jerusalem for seven generations. His whole worldview was concentrated on Israel, the Jewish people and the return of all Jews to Israel. Not soley due to his influence, I now, pretty much, espouse his overall perspective. Of course a year in Rav Kook's Central Universal Yeshiva (Mercaz haRav's official name) strongly effected by outlook too. But it takes time for the truth to seep in, even in an open individual.

For some obtuse reason, we left Israel, back to Australia. Why this stupidity? I guess a bunch of reasons. Partly the post-Holocaust guilt trip (into which you are subconsciously forced) of leaving my "poor" mother alone (at this time she was remarried and my married brother was living a couple of miles away) -- but unless you yourself are of this cursed/blessed second generation, you won't understand what I'm talking about. Partly my own personal and professional insecurity and also an aversion to the regimentation in Israeli society, all contributed a share. Israel was still a very controlled society. It has changed marginally today.

So back in Australia. Same place of employment with the same major client. Same synagogue, same friends same . . . everything. What am I doing here again?

I suppose the only real positive thing, other than Elisha's birth (he could have happily been born in Yerushalayim) was that I managed to become indispensable to my firm, a result of which, when we returned to Israel, I had a "foreign" income. This was still considered a big deal in Israel in the early eighties.

This arrangement ran out after three years or so -- no-one is that indispensable. I can't complain about that. I even got a "free" trip back to Oz a couple of times a year. Fortunately I had enough foresight to start developing something else. It was based on some of the Australian hospital management software I had been working with, but tailored to the Israel scene.

In those days I personally carried my computer programs back to my Melbourne client on nine track magnetic tape, and I communicated with our Sydney office via Telex, using a service provided at the main branch of the Post Office (what used to be called the G.P.O.) Looking back it was hilarious, though at the time, very frustrating. They would phone me when a telex arrived. If it was a few words long, they would (try and) read it to me. Otherwise they just told me to come in and get it. "Please try and read it out." "No, we don't have time". "I can't drop everything and drive in -- please read it." At least in those days you could still easily park outside the Post Office, right on Rehov Yaffo. Today it's not even easy to drive past the Post Office.

I forgot to mention -- the people who read and typed the telexes for you, didn't speak English, some had a bit of French. They all originated from North Africa and Syria, hence the rudimentary knowledge of French -- they were more at home with Hebrew and Arabic. Really nice people -- salt of the earth. But sometimes what I understood from their readings was as far removed from the telex text as east is from west.

When Sruli was sick, a lot of the telexes were related to his treatment. There were no secrets from these folks, personal and business. For years after, I would meet one of these fine people at the markets in Machane Yehuda, and he always, always inquired as to "the boy's" health. I still see him occasionally. I once had to break the news that "the boy" had already completed his army service.

The telex office was an important part of my absorption into Israeli society.

Equally important to my Israel experience was my Afgan greengrocer. Through him I know all the Hebrew names for fruit and vegetables, to the extent that today they are some varieties for which I don't know the English name. By the way, there's a new fruit around here in the last year (you out there probably have been eating it for years). If you haven't already, try a "Pink Lady" apple. Granny Smith may soon be out of business.

In 1987, I went into business with Yakir, a friend from Melbourne Bnei Akiva days. For a short time we had a third musketeer, Henry. Those few months were very exciting. Working with Henry is always exciting, everything's moving, ideas are flying, even subversive, but the bank accounts never filled up. So that left two of us again.

I remember Arnold Roth visiting us from Australia in, I guess 1988. Arnold always asks difficult questions, like where are you and where are you going from here? The kind of question I should be asking myself daily, both materialistically and spiritually. My answer was really a blank. He said, "You're still young, there's still time, do something!" I know Arnold's context was in the material realm. But the question is probably more spiritual.

A lot more water under that old bridge. Arnold, who now has been living in Israel for years, often still asks me the same questions. On the material side, my answer is not much better than on that first occasion, but I guess now he can no longer say to me, "You're still young", but I know "there's still time". Or is there still time? to build up a business, develop a new idea, solve the world's problems?

Tried a few things. Even worked on a start-up project that was partially funded by the Israel government's Chief Scientist. Then the Internet changed my direction. Websites, Perl, a new programming language, web commerce, Pizza, digital photography . . . .

Spiritually you can never answer Arnold's twenty year old, age old, question positively. But there are levels. I am sure I am now many rungs higher up the ladder, but the top of the ladder is buried deeper and deeper in the clouds above than ever before. Materialism seems to be less important now. The Good Lord seems to be taking care of me. No, He really does take care of me! The Children of Israel in the desert were fed their meals from Heaven. Unlike our benediction before eating, "who brings forth bread from the ground", that generation blessed God, "who brings forth bread from the Heavens". Each individual received from manna what he individually required. Everyone was catered for. Some things don't change. We can all be looked after if we can know what we really need, what we genuinely require, and not "need" everything we see, massive consumerism, the Joneses next door, last year's clothes don't look good any more . . . .

So what do I see as a Jew living in Israel in the year 5769 at the age of fifty-six? I think the answer is found in the text above.

Happy Birthday Menachem :-)


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