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Tale of a Young Philo-Semite

October 14, 2010 – 11:37 am28 Comments

By Jessica Ebejer

Since my childhood, I have had a keen fascination with all things Jewish.  Perfectly normal for a Jewish child perhaps, but I grew up in a Catholic home, born to a Sri Lankan mother and an Irish father and had no contact with the Jewish world.  From the age of seven, I recall walking with my grandfather to our local library and being thrilled with the prospect of borrowing ten books about the Jewish history on my library card, and another five or more on my grandpa’s card.  To this day I don’t know what sparked my interest in Jewish history, perhaps I just stumbled across the diary of Anne Frank and that’s where my desire to read and learn more really began?  My current supervisor thinks the link may be that I have played the violin since the age of four or that I am reincarnated.

The books I would choose were about Jewish religion and culture, but more often than not about the Holocaust.  A rather frightening topic for a young child, yet accounts I read, moved me to tears, learning the experiences of so many innocent people who perished.  Observing my interest in the Holocaust, my dad would take me, practically every weekend, between the ages of eight and ten to the Holocaust museum in St. Kilda where I would listen to stories from the volunteers who worked there and wander around the museum.  I would tell my dad when I was old enough I would like to volunteer at the museum myself, to which he would just smile and nod.  After I had read everything I could get my hands on from our local library, my interest in the Holocaust subsided as I became more focused on my studies at school.

In my first year at Melbourne University, I undertook Business Law taught by a wonderful Jewish lecturer and working part time met my first Jewish friend.  It happened by chance, we were sharing our love of pastries and muffins when she said she was Jewish.  I remember blurting out “Oh I would love to be Jewish!”  Thankfully instead of thinking I was a rather strange girl, she laughed and we became the very best of friends.  She even gave me an honorary Jewish name ‘Galit’ and said I knew more about Jewish history than she did, which was a great compliment considering she attended a prominent Jewish high school.  I told my friend Maya, I would much prefer the name Rivkah, but I settled for Galit and asked her to teach me ancient Hebrew.  With us both studying Arts/Law we found we had a lot in common, besides our love for bagels.  Even though I had finally made a Jewish friend, which I had always longed to have, I still did not pursue Jewish studies.  Studying law demanded most of my time and energy, and apart from the occasional documentary and Hanukah festivals, I kept my interest in Jewish history at arms length.

My dream was to become an international lawyer and work with the international criminal court, prosecuting war criminals.  Half way through my degree, I realized this was an overly idealistic dream that would probably never eventuate; if it did I would be well into my fifties.  Working as a legal assistant in a government firm for a year, I became even more disillusioned with what life as a prospective lawyer. Drowning in contracts and paperwork I became frustrated thinking ‘this is not why I wanted to become a lawyer!’  After much deliberation and disappointment, particularly to my family, I discontinued my law degree and took six months off from uni.

Still uncertain with what I wanted to do, but feeling the pressure of ‘I must finish a degree,’ I enrolled at Monash University Clayton and decided to complete the Arts component of my degree, until I knew what career path to take.  Having lots of credit for the units I had completed at Melbourne, I was able to choose a few electives outside my major of English.  Scrolling through the list online, I enrolled in Alexandria, Jerusalem and Rome – the ancient cities and the Holocaust in an age of Genocide.  Thrilled at the prospect of studying Jewish studies which had long been absent from my mind, I fell in love all over again with both units and performed exceptionally well.

For the first time in my university life, I attended every single lecture and tutorial, inspired by the amazing lecturers and tutors.  Towards the end of the semester I approached the lecturer of Holocaust and genocide studies, and said that I would like to continue as a post graduate student, however I was not sure what the future would bring in terms of employability and also my major was English, not Jewish studies. As I had only taken Jewish studies as an elective, I was not permitted to do honours in Jewish history.  The lecturer informed me that Moansh was in the process of creating a masters program for Holocaust and genocide studies that I could apply for, however there were limited prospects of employability so I should consider alternate avenues as well.  Talking with my family (who were devastated I had left my law degree and secretly hoped I would return to it) my mum advised I needed to do something practical and that history whether it is Jewish history or any other history, was not a suitable career path, my husband also agreed.  But I couldn’t ignore or escape the fact that I was always crossing paths with Jewish studies that re-kindled my interest in studying the Holocaust.

After much deliberation, the following year I enrolled in a Diploma of Education (secondary) as well as the masters of holocaust and genocide, hoping I could make everyone happy, including myself.  Pregnant with our second child, I completed my teaching rounds at Mount Scopus College whilst simultaneously undertaking a unit towards my masters.  Once our daughter was born, I took intermission from my masters for a year, to care for our two young children.  This year I have returned to complete my masters, in the hope of entering a PhD next year.  I now tutor in history and teach violin part time as I complete my studies.  My current mini-thesis is on pregnant women in Auschwitz and involves looking at oral testimony from the Shoah archive.  As the year draws to a close, my paper is still in the drafting stages, with the final copy due before the end of the year.  I hope very much to get a grade high enough, that will permit me to apply to become a PhD student, so I can continue on my path of Jewish Holocaust history, with the ultimate goal of lecturing in Holocaust studies at Monash, but only time will tell.  Whilst I am unsure of what initially sparked my interest in Jewish history and the Holocaust in particular, after listening to countless testimonies and researching for almost a year, I know why I am writing about the Holocaust today.  My children will never have the opportunity to speak to a Holocaust survivor, and if students and academics do not write about the experiences of survivors, they will begin to collect dust in archives and museums and in the decades that follow may become forgotten.  As a student and a teacher and as a non-Jew I do not want this to happen.  So I write, particularly for the mothers and children who perished; I write so that we remember, in the ardent hope that History does not repeat itself.

Jessica Ebejer is a masters student in Holocaust & Genocide studies at Monash University.

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28 Comments »

  • Mum C. says:

    This is an amazing story. It never fails to fascinate me how certain non-Jewish people have this strong pull and desire to learn all about Judaism and the Jewish people. There may well be a connection way back (or not so way back) in your own family history of which you are unaware.

    You may be interested to read Geraldine Brooks autobiography, Foreign Correspondence. She is a journalist and prolific Aussie author who now lives in the US. Growing up in Sydney during the 50s and 60s in a Catholic family and school, a couple of triggers for her interest was pen-friends from overseas and the Israel 6 Day war of 1967.

    Good luck with finishing your masters, and going on to do a PhD. We need all the knowledgable people we can get.

  • Abby says:

    What an enigma, very well written. I wish you all the best in your studies and look forward to reading more about your thesis.

  • Elijah Liebermann says:

    Fascinating and inspiring! Keep up the fantastic writing Jess – hope to hear much, much more from you in the future!

  • bernie says:

    A well written sincere article. All the very best with your future studies

  • This reminds me of Albert Einstein, who once wrote that his greatest regret was having been born a Jew, for it robbed him of the opportunity to convert.

  • Arbel says:

    It’s refreshing to read this, thanks for the post

  • Dan says:

    Your strong ties with Jewish people and culture may be in your name:

    The name ‘Jessica’ is Hebrew in origin and means ‘gift of God’ – Jessica is a feminine form of JESSE, from the Hebrew word YISHAI, meaning GIFT, WEALTHY

    JESSICA may also be an Anglicized version of ISCAH, from the Hebrew, meaning ONE WHO BEHOLDS, ONE WHO LOOKS OUT

    I know this because my wife’s name is Jessica.

    Brilliant and honest writing, it would be great to see your finished thesis, where will it be published?

  • ariel says:

    An amazing story, well done and wishing you success in your career and life!

  • Mandi Katz says:

    Hi Jessica – great piece – I really enjoyed reading this. Good luck with your thesis!.

    I – and I imagine others – would be really interested in reading more about your research if you were able to write about it down the line.

  • Jessica Ebejer says:

    Hi Everyone,

    Thank you all for your comments, it’s so nice to hear your positive responses!

    My paper is due at the end of the year, so I hope to have the results by early next year? I’m not really sure how the marking process works.

    Once its all done, I would love to share that part of my journey with you too. The actual thesis may be too long to publish on this forum, however I will ask my supervisor once all completed, maybe I can attach part of it or a link where the whole piece can be read?

    Many thanks again for your well wishes and support,

    Jessica.

  • Ittay says:

    Hi Jessica,
    Lovely reading your piece. What happened with your teaching career? I think your clear passion for jewish knowledge could make you a very good educator.

  • Jessica Ebejer says:

    Hi Ittay,

    Thanks for your message. I am currently tutoring a few 1st and 2nd year units at Monash, whilst I complete my masters. I do enjoy teaching very much, however with my children still so young, I want to be at home with them as much as possible. Studying/teaching is really flexible at the moment and I hope to be teaching much more when my little ones are of school age.

    Best Wishes,

    Jessica.

  • Oy Vey says:

    ….commendable, now how about extending your talents by adressing
    issues such as attitudes of the Ashkenazi towards what they often
    refer to as “other” Jews. Given that you have a Sri Lankan mother,
    the “mother” would very much be a Jewish issue, whether you were reincarnated a la violin, self adopted Jew or otherwise “became” a Jew. I,with respect,look forward to an interesting response.

  • frosh says:

    To “Oy Vey”

    I have never heard any Ashkenazi use such a reference.

  • Ilana Leeds says:

    B’H
    I found your post very interesting. Being the daughter of an Austrian woman and an Australian father who is the descendant of German Jews adn who grew up in South West Queensland on a sheep station where my father’s family had owned land for five generations, I also had read numerous books on the holocaust. Born in 1954 which is only 9 years after the end of the war, my uncles and my father had rather an extensive library of holocaust literature. Nothing much to do in the days before TV in the outback and there was an axiom oft quoted, that ‘the working classes amused themselves drinking, having sex, beating their wives and having children, the upper classes amused themselves by reading on wide variety of topics, drinking sherry, having tea parties, drawing and writing, especially bad poetry or good depending on their talent, riding and bird watching plus a number of other worthwhile pursuits depending on their means and education.
    I developed a fascination with the holocaust and the enormity of it and the scale of the killings and the manner of death horrified me. I was six or seven when I was reading accounts of what was found in the camps at Auschwitz, Bergen Belsen and Dachau. My grand mother took to locking their bookcases so I would not get nightmares which I did for many years.
    I used to be very concerned about what my own mother had done and had she saved any Jews during the war or had she (worst) participated in bringing about their deaths. It was only when I was twenty six that I discovered she was illegitimate and had a Jewish father a fact which she successfully hid during the war. I have tried to establish who her mother’s family was but again she is not forthcoming and one day I will have to conduct my own research into her mother’s family through the birth and marriages archives in Vienna. She did not get on with her mother and was adopted out to Christian families. Austria is a very catholic country. She was raised as a Catholic and developed a healthy hatred of Catholicism and I believe she was possibly sexually abused in one of the families which would account for her poor mother skills. She is also very anti semitic and finds great difficulty in coming to terms with the fact that I am Jewish.
    I am presently working on a story of a Holocaust survivor from Ravensbrook and learnt something recently that was quite shocking, but explains why a lot of the camp inmates were so passive. This survivor told me that the inmates had bromide put into their food.
    Anyway good luck with everything. I hope you do well in all that you undertake.

  • Oy Vey says:

    To “frosh”
    …well,frosh,now you’ve heard about it. It’s no secret, unless one is in denial or damage control by sweeping it under the carpet.Even in Israel, pompus,arrogant Ashkenazi parents frown upon Sephardi children attending the same school. In fact there has been reports of “Ashkenazi” schools actually refusing Sephardi as pupils. I’ts a fact that Ashkenazi consider themselves superior white skinned Jews and have an attitude over the darker skinned Sephardi and other Jews…go figure.

  • Oy Vey says:

    To “frosh”…again
    …gee, frosh, you’re in luck, guess what, fresh news in the Jerusalem Post just today: “MK Amsalem urges UTJ to confront
    racism in Heredi schools”…blatant discrimination against
    Sephardi girls in Ashkenazi schools. Google it and learn. Enjoy..

  • Ilana Leeds says:

    B’H

    Oy Vey
    You appear to have some extensive issues which would be best sorted through with a good counsellor. Please do not judge all Ashkenazi parents or ashkenazim by the bitter experiences that you have obviously had in your lifetime. Yes, there are biased and subjective individuals among Jews (we are not perfect (sigh) although some would like to think we are)and we are working towards perfection in this lifetime and the next and the next until Moishiah decides (in G-D’s timing) to usher in an era of righteousness and peace. May that be sooner rather than later…
    There are some very humane and great individuals who are Ashkenazi asn there are many magnificent Sephardi scholars and ordinary Jews. Don’t foster division but rather Achdut.
    I will probably get banned for the later comment being already under moderation. But what can I expect?

  • Haha. How somehow could have used this post to start an argument is beyond me :)

    Oy Vey, I knew what you were referring to the moment that you mentioned it. UTJ (“United Torah Judaism”) is – for anybody who doesn’t know – the bloc formed by the amalgamation of Agudas Yisroel and Degel haTorah: the two main Ashkenazi ‘ultra-Orthodox’ political parties in Israel. There was recently a brouhaha over certain parents refusing to send their children to school with children of Mizrachi descent because of the perception that the Mizrachi families were less religious. They weren’t wrong: recent European history (from the 17th century onwards) is what gave birth to ‘ultra-Orthodoxy’ in the first place, and so it is hardly surprising that Ashkenazim are in possession of so many more chumras.

    Be that as it may, it was a brouhaha for a reason. Do you mean to suggest that Ashkenazim throughout Israel were in support of the UTJ? Unlike Frosh, I have heard of this sort of racism, but like Frosh have never heard it from anyone I know. This was a pleasant post. Please don’t use it to start an argument about something like this…

  • frosh says:

    Simon,

    You wrote it as I should have written it -:)

    Yes, I have read of these instances of prejudice referred to, I have just never witnessed it personally. Thus I find the generalizations of ‘Oy Vey’ to be quite absurd. I also agree that it has absolutely nothing to do with the topic of the article, and would request that ‘Oy Vey’ desist from making unrelated and inflammatory comments.

  • Oy Vey says:

    …predictable responses from Illana, Simon, frosh et al. By any chance would you just happen to be Ashkenazi in damage control?? Lighten up, I’m only the messenger, not the message. The message is clear…rather than attacking the message its remarkable that you lot try to neutralise the issue by reference such as “the topic is unrelated” “inflamatory remarks”…far from it, the issue I have raised is very much related and is neither inflamatory nor is it argumentative, but rather it is a serious issue for discussion.

    To Ilana, settle down, darlin, no need to get your knickers tied up in a knot. Maybe its you who needs a good counsellor to untie them.

    To Simon, save the HaHa for the “simple simon” trying to turn my discussion to an arguement.

    To josh, you seem to trivalise the issue by pleading “I haven’t come
    accross it”..get real,and josh old boy, the issue is abundantly well related. The only “inflammatory” thing is that those in denial are inflamed by the truth of the matter.

    …and Illana, rest easy, I do not think that the moderators are so
    narrow as to curtail free speech, albeit robust discussion from all sides.

    Shalom Everybody, Ashkenazi and “other Jews”

  • Ilana Leeds says:

    B’H

    Totally unknotted, Oy Vey. It takes more than that to get me upset. You however seem to have some issues. I think it is a bit of a non issue at the moment as there are bigger issues that we deal with from day to day and yes, I agree with healthy robust debate but on issues only.
    Have a nice day and a shavuoa Tov! :-)

  • Ilana Leeds says:

    B’H
    Shucks forgot to add that I untie my own knickers. I am a big girl and don’t need a counsellor to tell me what I already know. I am an absolutely wonderful person.

  • Malki Rose says:

    Oy Vey,

    Like Simon I too am aware of this issue and some may not be aware of it, so perhaps a more graceful way to bring it to attention more appropriately might be to write a piece on it to have published online or in a newspaper.

    You could also consider starting community discussion on this evening by first running an awareness evening, so that people could be better informed on some of the discrimination issues facing the sephardi community. The issue is certainly present even in little Melbourne. Perhaps approaching some figures of the melbourn Sephardi community for such dialogue would be a good starting point.

    The issue certainly should not be dismissed but it seems a shame and a little unfair to ruin the flow of conversation and praise for what is such a beautiful and personal story by discussing this issue here and now and in this way.

  • Oy Vey says:

    To Malki Rose.

    Thank you for your response, which in contrast to the others is
    refreshingly honest, truthful and acknowledges and establishes that discrimination against Sephardi is alive and well and in fact IS an issue…even in Melbourne. That message was in fact the sole aim
    of my posts, albeit that the attitudes of my respondants prompted
    robust reaction, which in any event I consider has been rather kind in the given circumstances.

    I would like to say that my posts in no way intended to in
    any way reflect any nastiness or hurt against Jessica or upon her article. I commend her upon her achievements and wish her and hers’ good fortune and good health.

    Shalom.

  • Hels says:

    What a wonderful story!

    I suppose everyone has passions and obsessions that last them all their lives. The only difference is that this is a passion for religious history, not for something more usual like the St Kilda Football Club or for The Beatles’ music.

    I had a super career in psychology for 20 years, making plenty of money and writing lots of conference/journal papers. But there was something missing. My passion was for 17th century history and art; I imagined myself not in Melbourne but in Amsterdam or Cambridge. After a few years of collecting, reading and travelling in my beloved areas, I finally gave up psychology and went back to Uni in 1990. The entire family thought I was off my tree!

    This second career has been totally wonderful, but the cost has been considerable. So I would support you strongly in changing to a new career, but do be clear about the consequences – financial and otherwise.

  • John Neville Ebejer says:

    Hi,

    Strange – but I do have this interest in the Israeli history – and guess what! We have the same surname! I was born in Malta – the small island state in the Mediterranean – and guess what! It is possible that our surname is actually of ‘Jewish’ origin.

    We do speak a semitic language here – Maltese – which is a mixture of an old Arab/Aramaic influenced dialect originating in what is Lebanon area now. Malta had the Phoenicians colonising it way back in 800 BC and we have had a ‘Jewish’ community since always – at least we have many surnames of Jewish origins factually lsited in documents going back to the 15th century.

    The first Ebejers appear in Malta in documents of the 1400’s.

    Ebejer could be derived from EBER – the original term for the people of Israel/Hebrews.

    Do write to me if you have info about this etc – I am studying hebrew -modern at Malta University at the moment!

  • Jonny Schauder says:

    Great stuff Jessica. I’m going to share your story with my kids. Not just because it is so refreshing to hear about people interested in the Jewish world but also because you have demonstrated the rare skill to actually listen to and respond to your passion in life. Thanks for doing the holocaust research. The topic sounds harrowing but important.

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