For the past few days, and across the past few weeks, I have been travelling into some of the remotest areas of Western Australia for business. I have visited towns where the population consists of a few hundred people, areas that service a pub and a service station literally in the middle of nowhere. I have also been to regional centres where sizable communities where farmers and resource based industries are centered.
Travelling as a visible Jewish person can always be quite an experience, and my most recent escapades have not dissapointed. Arriving at the airport with a self contained kitchen, food, and provisions for a week was amusing enough for my work colleagues. Yet I continued to be amazed by the ease of which kosher food can be bought in regional areas. Thank you Yumi’s!
During my travels I met many people with strong religious convictions. Some of them had never met a Jewish person and were keen to engage in conversation. Some of my experiences were also melodramatic.
On one occasion I was visiting a minesite. At the entry to the site a man smiled at me and asked me if I worked for Joe Gutnick. Shortly afterwards I was in a “board room” (which doubled as a staff cafe) in a fairly formal meeting. The chair of the meeting, who I later found out was also a church pastor, interrupted another person who questioned my presentation. To my surprise he said “This man is a man of worship. We can take his word with honour and there is no need to question the proposal”.
Into the next town and I shared an audience with the local chamber of commerce. An elderly delegate and his wife approached me to tell me that they had lived in regional Western Australia all their life (including the far north, Alice Springs and Kalgoorlie), and had left Australia for the first time last year. They had travelled to Israel and were spiritually uplifted by Jerusalem. They loved Jewish people and wanted to tell me how special it was to see a Jewish person in their town.
The challenges of living in regional Australia, primarily due to the tyranny of distance, are very significant. Yet these regions, particualrly in the State of Western Australia, are the powerhouse of our economy. The communities are very close knit and caring. It takes a special type of person to live within such dedicated and self-sufficient places, but it is a lifestyle that they all evidently value and cherish.
As for me, there are many things I would not be able to cope with, Jewish or not. For example the ability to sit in a country pub and drink for hours on end is a culture all of its own, and an Australian cultural leaning that I failed to grasp, in a very literal sense.
The most empowering part of my journey was the sense of self satisfaction, that if I want to uphold my Jewish observances, espouse my Jewish values, and maintain my visible Jewish identity, I can do so with ease anywhere. The power to be able to lay tefillin in an isolated desert and daven with intense silence all around was an enriching experience. The careful planning that ensured there was no need to compromise kashrut was well worthwhile. However above and beyond everything else was the pride that I felt when I was often approached and engaged in conversation by local residents to express their fondness for Jewish people. It is not often that I am stopped by complete strangers in the streets of Perth for casual conversation. However it is a way of life in the outback. It was very heartening to encounter so many people who, despite not having exposure to Jewish people, were so aware and appreciative of the Jewish contribution to the values and virtues that underpin their own faith and belief.
The Goldfields region of Western Australia contains places like Kalgoorlie, Boulder, Coolgardie, and Menzies, where at the height of the Goldrush Jewish people arrived. There was once a Synagogue in the region, and the newspaper and municipal archives evidence Jewish businesses. There are Jewish gravesites in the cemetaries. One wonders what it must have been like for the early settlers who arrived in Fremantle from Britain in a boat. They travelled by horse and cart for weeks as they road inland to barely habitable places. The Jews amongst them, even back then, had the strength of resolve to retain their identity and observe their tradition. If their non-Jewish friends and contemporaries back then were as aware, understanding and supportive as their descendents are today, then I can well understand why they would not feel either threatened or self conscious of their identity as a Jew, even in one of the most isolated and remote places in the world.