I am one of the many Jewish Melburnians who has had a very hard week, celebrating Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, in lockdown for a second year. I tried to maintain the traditional sense of an oasis in time for the holy day, so I didn’t look at the news. I didn’t hear until Wednesday morning that a small group of ultra-Orthodox Jews had breached lockdown and barricaded themselves in a synagogue.
Most Jews in Melbourne had Rosh Hashanah like I did. Instead of the traditional feast shared around a long, loud table with my extended family, my husband and I ate the round bread and apples and honey alone.
Instead of singing the ancient prayers of reflection and meditation in community, I watched a Zoom service from the sofa.
Instead of feeling the visceral sense of connection which always runs through the congregation at the sound of the shofar, the ram’s horn, I stood on the street, carefully socially distanced from a shofar blower, who had received Department of Health and Human Services permission to perform this important ritual for neighbourhood families.
I’m sad, but we did the right thing. To be Jewish is to be part of a 3000-year-old-culture with values which guide us to behave in ways which should make us good citizens.
A key Jewish principle dictates that the saving of a life trumps any other consideration. Rabbis across Australia used this principle to remind Jews this week not to be tempted to break lockdown to share the festival with their families.
Obeying the law of the land is a religious requirement. Our long diaspora history means Jews have often lived as minorities in countries that were not always hospitable. Being scrupulous in observing secular law became a religious principle which helped Jews to live peaceably with their neighbours.
The group who breached lockdown are exceptionalists who in no way represent the Australian Jewish community. They are an ultra-Orthodox sect that demographer Professor Andrew Markus estimates makes up 2 per cent of the 55,000-strong Melbourne Jewish community.
They are to Jews what the Amish are to Christians: a closed community who live separately from the rest of society. Like the Amish, they are easy to spot. Their dress resembles the way their founders dressed in 18th-century Poland: men with long curling sidelocks and, on holy days, fur hats; women in long skirts and heavy stockings, hair covered after marriage.
Their separation and rigid focus on the detail of ritual renders them oblivious to pretty much anything else. Most Jews find their behaviour as strange as non-Jews do.
This week, we also found it frightening. Jews have a long history of being victimised when times are hard and there is a palpable fear in our community that haters will find a way to use the behaviour of this tiny minority to stir up anti-Semitism.
No behaviour by individuals justifies an attack on the group, but we’ve seen it before.
Whether they are religious believers or cultural Jews, most Australian Jews made a significant sacrifice this week in giving up a form of celebration that is a very important part of our lives.
The Premier said recently that he hopes the state will be able to be out of lockdown in time to have a normal Christmas.
Your Jewish neighbours hope so too. Almost all of us missed out on family and community this week so that, hopefully, when it comes to your special day, you won’t have to.
We pray for a sweeter new year for all of us.
Deborah Stone is a Melbourne journalist and communications consultant, a columnist for Plus61J, and a former editor of the Australian Jewish News.