Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Yes We Canberra

 I hadn't planned to blog at all this trip, given that it was chiefly business, and I thought I covered everything last year. Fortunately, I snuck in enough adventures to justify a post.
 Working a full day Friday meant that I'd spend a long summer Shabbat in Canberra, back with the community that welcomed me so warmly on my last trip. This time was kicked up a notch - a strong minyan Friday night with a brisk davening followed up with a rollicking meal at the Rabbi's home. It reminded me so much of a meal we would have had at Kesher twenty years ago... a full table of mid-20s government employees, at various levels of observance, all thrilled to be sharing a delicious meal (Indian, and with home-brewed beer, no less) with vibrant conversation on topics ranging from Australian politics to American primary results to Jewish thought to preferred vacation spots. Topped off with some time doing puzzles with the Rabbi's 3 year old daughter, it felt very much like home.
 Shabbat morning was packed. Whereas last time we had to wait for a minyan, this time we had one by Borchu, and when the Tot Shabbat arrived from the next room, the number of people in attendance doubled again. By kiddush, there were probably 80 people of all ages. At lunch, I was the youngest attendee instead of the oldest, but had no less fun, as this tight knit group of community stalwarts immediately welcomed me and another foreign guest into their circle of friendly jibes and loving insults - just my kind of crowd. I didn't expect the fondness for economic policy and Coen brothers films which kept the conversation rolling long after we had eaten our fill.

Pictures taken before Shabbat :)

 Rather than just head back to the hotel and squander an out-of-season summer Shabbat, I went with my regular habit - walking. I walked to the Parliament House, where I knew there was a free afternoon tour. En route, I could already hear the raised voices of a protest on the lawn outside the building. A phalanx of day-glo clad police stood at attention in front of a few hundred protesters, many of whom were wearing the Australian flag as a cape, some of whom wear wearing it as a hat, and at least one woman who was wearing it as a bikini. There were more flags than people, which was not particularly troubling until I realized that in some instances the Union Jack in the top left corner had been replaced with a Crusader's cross... not a hopeful sign. Fears were confirmed when I heard the rhetoric. It turns out that this was the first (!) of a worldwide series of anti-Muslim rallies scheduled for that day. The speaker I heard gave a profanity laced diatribe against Islam,  calling on his Christian brothers to preserve Australia by converting all of the Moslems in the country. (He apologized to the atheists in the crowd saying "they won't go for that".) I won't replay the naked racism displayed as the crowd loudly endorsed his deplorable strategies for ridding the country of Islam. It was dismaying.
 I escaped inside for the tour. The docent emphasized how the architecture was designed to demonstrate transparency and equality. All of the chambers were equipped with video cameras for broadcast when they were built in 1988. There are soundproof viewing galleries for visiting school groups in both houses. The press facilities are vast. The prime minister's office on the first floor is arrayed so that were all the doors to be opened at once, he would stare directly into the front of the Australian War Memorial. It was so essential that the parliamentarians not feel elevated above the people they serve that they literally cut the top off of Capitol Hill and buried the Parliament House inside. A copy of the Magna Carta is on display in the lobby. The Great Hall is regularly rented out for weddings, Senior Proms and an annual ping ping tournament. The juxtaposition with the ruffians outside was stark.
 Parliament was also an amusing amalgam of British and American traditions. The Senate, House of Representatives, Speaker of the House, composition, terms of service and legislative structure all ape the US. Their pomp is all British - the coloration of the chambers, the vestigial governor general, question time, the prominent portrait of the Queen, and most of all, the enormous gaudy golden mace indicating the party in power which rests on the center table during debating sessions. The marble patterns and modern art dated the construction firmly and accurately in the late 80s. More striking than the color of the decor was the content. Underneath the outstretched cyborg arms holding the enormous national flag aloft, in the main chamber, there are four displays of historic documents presented. One shows the Queen's approval of Australia's constitution. The other three are apologies. I'm not making this up. There is, at least, an official governmental apology for treatment of the aborigines, another for the use of land and another for forced adoptions. I cannot think of a similar phenomenon in the western world.
 After Parliament, I walked down to the National Portrait Gallery. I only got in a few minutes of browsing before a guard came to usher me out for closing time. As we reached the exit, he asked me "You are a Jew?" (Apparently, kippot in Canberra are quite rare.) I confirmed, and he said, "I am a Muslim", grinned broadly and extended his hand, which I shook and replied "Very nice to meet you." As I walked out, he shouted after me "You should come back tomorrow!"

 I walked by the High Court, and through the Peace Path, an outdoor version of the Hall of Nations at the Kennedy Center. Realizing that it was now after 5 and Canberra was closed up tight, I strolled down to Lake Burley Griffin, the man made pond at the architectural center of this underpopulated capital. The handful of bikers and joggers going by weren't enough to inhibit me from lying down and taking a nap lakeside.
 With the help of the local church bells, I was able to make it back in time to shul for a rare Canberra treat - Shabbat mincha! That was followed by a lovely seudah shlishit back at the Rabbi's house and finally Havdalah. There was even minyan Sunday morning - the Rabbi was deservedly kvelling.
 Hope to see you in six months...