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A Tribute to My Father

January 9, 2012 – 4:59 pm20 Comments

Last month, while on our summer recess, Galus Australis was honoured to receive a letter from Rabbi Shimon Cowen, son of the late Sir Zelman Cowen.  Rabbi Cowen requested his letter to be published, as well as the text of his eulogy for his esteemed Father. We were of course again honoured to oblige.

I read with some concern, and have since heard from a number of people in the community surprise at, the statement in the article by Dr Chelom, published on your site, regarding my father that “As the greatest failure of his life, he listed his children’s decision to live their lives as Orthodox Jews”. There is no foundation for this statement at all. I never saw or heard such a statement from my father. One of the respondents to the article (Ariel) correctly notes that this is a misconstruction of the SBS interview with my father of blessed memory. Whilst I need to view that video again to remember what my father actually said, I can assure you that he never said what was claimed by Dr Chelom. I would like to refer you to the text of my eulogy for my father, and in fact I would be grateful if you could publish both this email and the text of my eulogy.

A shloshim service is to be held at the St Kilda Shule in Charnwood Crescent on 11 January to which the entire community is cordially invited.

Yours Sincerely,

Rabbi Shimon Cowen

A Tribute to My Father – Words on behalf of the siblings, by Shimon Cowen

Much has been said and is known about how my father treated, and how he was loved by, people. Instead I want to speak about the spiritual dimension and significance of the service of humanity, which was his life. On the face of it, G-d must come into the story of his life, since, our Sages tell us that “with whom people are happy, G-d is happy”. G-d was happy with Dad. That’s from G-d’s perspective. But what about from Dad’s perspective? Can Dad’s life’s work be understood in spiritual terms and did he understand it in spiritual terms?

I remember, as a young teenager, asking him about his spiritual stance. He answered me, “There is one question which I ask myself, and which I cannot answer, and which I only very rarely ask myself, and that is, ‘Who am I?’” In 1995 in a newspaper interview, he was a little more explicit. He said, “I am proud of my religious heritage…I find it difficult to believe that there is not some original Creator. What flows from that I don’t know. I try to live decently, not because of sanctions of Heaven or Hell but because that’s the right way”. The diffidence in these words was that of a person, who did not have a strong traditional religious background. Still this person wore the Jewish name “Zelman” with pride through public life. He identified with the plight of the physical and spiritual entity of the Jewish people unequivocally and in perfect tandem with his service of Australia and all humanity.

More than three and a half thousand years ago, our forebear and the forebear of religious humanity, Abraham, experienced the seminal consciousness of the one G-d. In the blaze of this awareness he said before his Creator “I am but dust and ashes”. Three and a half-thousand years later, with the intensified haze of 500 years of secularization, I heard Dad’s

“Who am I?” Dad’s was a relatively dull imprint of Abraham’s experienced creatureliness, but they, Abraham and Dad, were on the same page. There is a G-d. Maimonides wrote that Abraham exemplified the highest form of the service of G-d, not for fear of punishment for desire reward, but to do “truth because it is truth”. Dad’s “I try to live decently, not because of sanctions of Heaven or Hell but because that’s the right way” is a ray of that very same Abrahamic fire dimmed through thousands of years of exile.

Abraham forged a nation, the Jewish people, and was the father of a host of nations and cultures – religious humanity – through his hallmark love of humanity combined with his desire to actualize and unify individuals in the image of their Creator through culture of their Creator’s laws. As Governor General, Dad too rebuilt or healed a divided nation, and indeed throughout his life constantly sought to work consensus, by modelling mutual respect and decent values. But did Dad think, throughout his life, that he was doing these things under a spiritual aegis? Or was it essentially a secularized, liberal humanism?

Dad was not philosophical. He was a doer. As a teenager, I also once probed him, “Dad, what is your philosophy of life?” He answered me, “The next thing and then the next thing”. He was a speaker too, not just at the podium, but also at the table. His voice was the first and foremost; it lead and people listened. His illness of the last twenty-two years – Parkinsons – does not attack the cognitive faculties; it causes muscular atrophy. It could not dim his immensely, constantly exercised mind. But it progressively immobilized his body; and then it virtually took away his ability to speak. Dad’s response to this was not anger nor even irritation. He was cast into, and accepted, an entire new modality of listening. And from listening, he came to something deeper –receptivity – and I believe this was the vehicle of a significant conscious spiritual growth.

Divine values were transmitted and communicated to Abraham, to be reiterated at Sinai, governing the right conduct, between human and human and between the human and his or her Creator. With respect to these values, G-d blessed Abraham, because, He said in the Bible, “I know that he will instruct his sons and his household after him to keep the way of G-d – to do charity and justice”. My father (and mother) projected a further three generations in this very same tradition from Abraham and Sinai, and were blessed. All his children married according to Jewish tradition; all his grandchildren have studied or currently study in Jewish schools and it is the intention of their parents that the great grandchildren do so too. We saw our father’s palpable pleasure in this perpetuated tradition of values. He affirmed it with the relatively few words he had left. In short, he acknowledged the spiritual lineage and content of his own work.

In recent months, my father told me privately that he felt my own efforts to communicate universal values from Sinai were very important. He affirmed the need for a moral anchor in politics, and indicated his feeling that in recent legislation and legislative debate, society was losing its moral moorings. Today the millennial transmission of the Divine template of human identity and conduct is being challenged. My father, alive to the Abrahamic spiritual heritage, knew and communicated to me his disturbance at these challenges. So we shall continue to work to preserve and strengthen the tradition of values he ever more consciously served. His accomplishments back our efforts. He is our masthead and his merit will live on and on to help carry us to success in achieving a human and a G-dly world.

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  • Harry Johns says:

    A brilliant eulogy about a truly brilliant man.

  • Dr Vadim Chelom says:

    I am offering unreserved apology to Rebbi Shimon Cowen and his family. In no way was my article intended to negatively portray Sir Cowen whom I consider to be a visionary and a trailblazer for the Jewish community. My article is based on recollection of an interview broadcast some years ago and may not be entirely correct.

    A copy of this apology will be appended to my original article.

  • ariel says:

    During the worldwide debate in the 1990s on “Who is a Jew?” (which actually began in the 1970s), I recall the following from our rabbi at shule (paraphrased):

    Every US election, the candidates spruik their “Jewishness”, even though they are usually not Jewish nor identified as Jewish until now.
    “My wife is Jewish”; “My chief of staff is Jewish”; “My great grandfather was the gabbai of his shtiebl, but I was raised Protestant”, etc.

    Who is a Jew? Not one who claims a Jewish grandparent or Jewish ancestor, but rather one who can claim that their grandchildren are Jewish!

  • Ian Grinblat says:

    I would like to commend Vadim Chelom for his propmpt and unreserved apology. That is the mark of a mentsch.

  • Sam says:


    I commend you on your comment, and wholeheartedly agree and go a step further in that the good character, proper respect to their yiddishkeit and appropriate values held by by our children and grandchildren are the most profound legacy that we can leave in this world.
    Sadly in the wider community we are seeing a significant breakdown of these vital aspects and the subsequent fracturing of the family.

  • Marky says:

    I would like to commend Ariel for originally bringing the misconstruction to light.

  • Anon says:

    I too would like to note Dr Cheloms swift and unreserved apology.

    However, I would like to ask of the moderator what rules are in place to stop articles based on incorrect or misleading information from being published on this site.

    In the past month or so, we have seen the unfortunate debacle in the article written by Meir Rabi and now we have a second article written by Dr Chelom. In both cases, the thoughts and assertions are based on incorrect or misleading information. At least Dr Chelom didn’t have the same audacity that Rabi had in making everyone ‘prove their case’ before publishing a half-hearted retraction with caveats.

    This site provides a forum for some fantastic works, perhaps an audit is required to ensure that the level of content provided is true and accurate.

  • Anon,

    There is already a well established process.

    If you or anyone else has evidence that factual inaccuracies have been published, then the process is to contact the editors via email (under your real name) and state your claim.

    There was no “debacle” concerning the article you refer to, and despite invitations from the editors, we received no such emails claiming inaccuracies in that article. Perhaps you need to re-read R’ Rabi’s article and our associated comments. If you have any evidence of inaccuracies in this or any article, we suggest you email the editors as described above.

  • Reality Check says:

    Ariel, what about grandchildren of someone who’s child converted to Judaism?

  • ariel says:

    Reality Check – that’s a great question!

  • ariel says:


    Whilst I appreciate the kudos, I have only my wife to thank for pointing it out. I would like to emphasise, that to date I have not seen the interview myself and hope it’s still up on the net.

    I realise Dr Chelom only saw the original screening from some years ago, which is why he misremembered the content.

    I also appreciate Dr Chelom’s unresereved apology – kol hakavod.

  • letter in the age says:

    A lovely letter and again i reinforce that you need a sociologist/expert to analyse and comment on some of your posts Galus et al.

    The moral compass has indeed eroded as Australians have become the walking dead in their political apathy and engaging in civic duties.

    I don’t agree with all of the Rabbi’s statements but am deeply respectful towards his viewpoints.

    Identity is the main point here. It DOES diminish in subsequent generations and this is a sociological fact!

    It is also used to further one’s own agenda and becoming the “Jew of convenience” for political purposes is one of the oldest tricks in politics.

    A lovely letter and a lovely funeral as well Rabbi!

  • Sydney Daniel says:

    It is a blight on this website and a real concern that you would allow the original article to be published “based on recollection of an interview broadcast some years ago” and one that the author says “may not be entirely correct”.

    The response from Galus is: “If you or anyone else has evidence that factual inaccuracies have been published, then the process is to contact the editors via email (under your real name) and state your claim.”

    I am only new to this site but to be taken seriously as a service to the community and a site that people should read and trust then that step needs to be taken before the article is published.

    ESPECIALLY when discussing the “greatest failure” of one of Australia’s most highly regarded Jewish person after his death.

    I credit the swift apology and Gallus for printing the statement from his son, but it should not have occurred in the first place.

  • ariel says:

    I’m inclined to agree with Sydney Daniel actually.

    The biggest criticism of the mainstream media is that they publish information as “facts” without doing the proper research to verify these facts (most of the time their “facts” are based on heresay).

    I think Galus should have made sure that the article’s premise was accurate before agreeing to publish.

  • Stuart Bisselmoor says:

    Take a chill pill, and cut the self-righteous pontificating.

    It’s an op-ed article, not a news report. I doubt any commercial newspaper or magazine in the world would source review a video tape of an old interview briefly mentioned in an op-ed article, but some people here think that volunteers from a community-based publication with what I assume to have no significant revenue or funds whatsoever should have sourced a video interview and watched it prior to publishing Dr Chelom’s op-ed piece.

    If this is what you require, perhaps you could volunteer your own time or otherwise donate the funds for the salary of someone else to perform this task.

    Finally, I note that none of these critics have actually recently seen this interview, and thus how the heck are they having the chutzpah to attack Dr Chelom’s factual accuracy or otherwise. It’s likely an argument over interpretation in any case, not facts. Sydney Daniel, you can’t even spell the name of the publication correctly, let alone get facts straight!

    Isn’t it just possible that Dr Chelom was decent enough to apologise to Rabbi Cowen in order to not offend a mourner, rather than getting into a pointless and hurtful stoush?
    Some critics here should hang their heads in shame, or better yet, stick them in a toilet!

  • Sydney Daniel says:

    I don’t agree Stuart. I don’t care if it’s a blog, newsletter, newspaper, magazine or gossip in the street.

    You don’t allow someone to damage the name of someone that has recently died on a recollection of an interview from some years ago.

    The fact that the mourner had to reply should indicate how serious and damaging the comment was.

    [Eds: Dr Chelom was actually highly complimentary of Sir Zelman. Damaging the name of someone who recently died is a serious accusation. If you have some evidence to support this accusation, I suggest you either email the editors, or at minimum, make the accusation under your real name. Further attempts to make such serious accusations using a false name will be deleted.]

  • Sam says:

    I tried to find the Australian Story episode in question online as I was very curious as to what was actually said. Unfortunately it is no longer listed on the ABC website, even though many others are.
    However criticism directed at Dr Chelom is probably a bit unfair as is the criticism directed at the Galus editors. It is not going to be straightforward to check out the exact text of the “offending” statement.
    Sydney Daniel, if you can locate this episode online somewhere please provide a link so that other Galus readers may view the interview as it would be very interesting, and not just for the reason above.

  • Sydney Daniel says:

    I apologise for the previous comment if it is misguided.

    I assumed that saying “As the greatest failure of his life, he listed his children’s decision to live their lives as Orthodox Jews” would be damaging his name.

    If that is just my take on the situation and not the general view then I welcome the editor to withdraw the comment and I apologise.

  • letters in the age says:

    The a.b.c has an audiovisual library and it can obtain all archives for a fee.

  • ariel says:

    Stuart, I think you need to take a chill pill.

    Dr Chelom wrote a mini thesis based on something which he vaguely remembered being said, but which it turns out was not, or at least was said in a completely different way from how he remembered it, which made all the difference. Galus should ideally have checked with Dr Chelom that he saw the repeat of the interview on ABC last month to verify his sources.

    Imagine writing a thesis based on something you vaguely recall hearing in a lecture some years ago. I doubt it would hold up to scrutiny.

    Hence Dr Chelom has now apologised and this is appreciated.

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