A Jewish message in ‘A Place to Call Home,’ an Australian TV series

A Place To Call Home is as much a Jewish as an Australian story. The television series gives back to Australians an image of their history–of its fashions, its cars, its homes—but also importantly, of its costs–a symbolic grandeur maintained by hierarchy and bigotry. In the aftermath of a devastating war, the Australia that once cast people out of public life and imperiled them with a legal system by extending privileges to some but not to all could not last. Many will see the Jewish story as part of the larger history recounted here, but I see something in this drama akin to a deeper wisdom about how Jews might find their place and identity in a society that welcomes them as equals but tempts them to assimilate. Assimilation is said, more often than not, to cause Judaism to lose its distinctiveness and its relevance. But the Judaism on display in this series is a Judaism that honors its rituals and conveys a powerful message about its relationship with God.

Before going further, it is worth thinking about the historical setting for the series. In 1953, Australians lived in the shadow of experiences they could not fully explain: the war to which so many young men and women had gone ended up producing more desolation and grief than peace and comfort. Church and family could not offer adequate explanations for the past nor did they continue to serve as the absolute constituents of destiny given the social and political pressure pushing upward and outward against the constraints of class and circumstance. An open society not only posed dangers to traditional class and culture, it also raised anxieties about what the forces blowing in the wind would bring. Still, even as it was on the cusp of extinction, the way of life, portrayed in this series, was ended without the world crashing down. Thus telling the stories of people once seemingly driven out of existence acknowledges not only that they meant something to one another but also that they mattered for a later generation and a later time.

No one better embodies the opening of Australian society than Sarah Adams, at the beginning of the series as much an outsider by class as by the act that made her a Jew. Love brought Sarah to Judaism, and Judaism enabled Sarah to grow up, learn languages, engage in battle, and form an identity that lived more dangerously and looked more deeply into abysses than most people could imagine. Born and raised in Sydney but feeling uncomfortable with the rigid Catholic pietism of her Mother, Sarah travels to Europe, becomes a nurse, embarks on a romantic quest to fight fascism in Spain and in France until captured by the Nazis and sent to Ravensbruck. She crosses religious lines for love, but with or without her Jewish husband, she retains a fierce loyalty to her adopted religion even though it causes a painful rupture with her Mother.

Sarah chooses to stand with the Jewish people by embracing its calendar, its rituals, and the idea that it is acceptable to wrestle with God for a moral message of relevance to the wider world. Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, becomes an opportunity for Sarah to recognize all the ways she may have hurt other people intentionally or not and ask for forgiveness. Preparing for the holiday conjures up painful memories of the war, but turning the waters of Inverness into a Mikveh fuses past and present and promises to restore her spirit. That this is not simply a message for her as a Jew becomes clear from the camera as it produces an important counterpoint between Jewish ritual, Christian hymn, and other secular acts of love. Sarah enters the water while we see and hear congregants in the Bligh family Church sing ‘Amazing Grace.’ The words of the hymn tell us that Sarah has found an important part of herself by entering the Mikveh. This is interspersed with screen shots of Anna and Gino making love for the first time, an act that creates life even as Olivia, increasingly conscious of her husband’s homosexuality, is seen tearing up their wedding pictures because to believe in love and its capacity for bringing goodness into the world requires that it be fully and physically expressed.

Born as Bridget, Sarah takes a new name when she is born again as a Jew but then, curiously, returns to her birthplace in search of a home. Sarah has to learn that a home is not so much found as created. Marking Shabbat helps forge a community where she feels at home evoking both the happy celebrations before the war and also the dark times in the camps when Jewish women were killed and humiliated for lighting candles on the Sabbath. Shabbat with the Goldberg family enables Sarah to talk a bit about surviving the war and the damage done to her in Ravensbruck. Sarah has to call up the horrors of the war before she can live both with her own feelings about what she had to do in order to survive and with the wounds she still carries. Through this process, she helps to develop in Inverness a community that respects her beliefs and honors her rituals. The Inverness community, present at the funeral of her husband, makes an effort to learn about Jewish mourning customs, and it does its best to bring in the kind of religious authorities Sarah deems necessary in order to meet the standards set by Jewish tradition for burial. The funeral and subsequent recitation of the Kaddish by the Minyan brought from Sydney stir compassion for Sarah but also provide the opportunity for the Inverness community to share Sarah’s burdens of remembering a past filled with so much trauma and grief.

But Sarah’s Judaism stakes an even broader claim for universal meaning that gives it its emotional power and philosophical depth. Her Judaism springs from an ongoing dialogue she seems to have with God. Having been thrust into situations that are fraught with moral complexities, she gravitates to God for guidance even though she knows the decisions are hers and that she bears responsibility for their consequences. When she is struggling with whether or not to have an abortion, she is walking along the Sydney waterfront apparently praying to God. Interspersed are scenes of her Aunt Peg pulled in one direction by Catholic doctrine and belief but in another by her desire to help her niece overwhelmed by the prospect of both caring for a husband rendered an invalid by war and for a yet-to-be born child. Perhaps aunt and niece, Catholic and Jew, are asking permission to violate sacred tenets, but they are given an inner strength to carry on in ways they did not imagine possible when they began beseeching God. The encounter of these two religious traditions neither blurs the lines between them nor hides their differences but does give each more resonance.

The Australians who resurrected the series after it was cancelled may have been captivated both by its nostalgic restoration of a long-vanished world that once dazzled and commanded deference and by its honest reckoning with the cruelty and prejudice wrought by its traditional decorum. Knowing that they cannot repair the damage, Australians may now be disposed to making use of it. For when your understanding of the past is changed, your view of what can be done in the present possesses new possibilities. But A Place To Call Home also has something important to say to Jews. Where typically and not incorrectly Jewishness is viewed as a consequence of family and home and hence lines are drawn around them, here it is centered on prayer as a dialogue with God and the community and on rituals invented for people who find no comfort in what is said inside a church or synagogue. Social barriers are dropped so men and women can reach out to [not change] one another through their multi-cultural diversity.

In one sense, Sarah, a convert with some but not total familiarity with Jewish law and tradition, symbolizes the common perspective of twenty-first century Jews who are not so much alienated from or rebelling against the world of their fathers and mothers as removed from it by several generations. The elements of Sarah’s Judaism are new to the people of Inverness just as they are probably unfamiliar to many of the Jews watching A Place To Call Home. But in wrapping her Judaism around calendar, ritual, and God as creator, not destroyer, of the universe, what Sarah does, knowingly or not, is transcribe critical parts of Jewish tradition. If we think about V’ Shomru, the prayer so central to the Shabbat service, we find these three elements in the text and can see Sarah as more deeply Jewish than perhaps even she thought. She has made her soul Jewish, and drawing on the final words of V’Shomru, where soul is not a noun but a verb, she has used her soul to make her life Jewish. A spirituality that brings with it so much power may be something we, Jews, need to think about when we consider the future and how to reach out to new [not yet Jewishly ‘souled’] generations coming into their own.

About the Author
Donna Robinson Divine is Morningstar Family Professor of Jewish Studies and Professor of Government, emerita at Smith College. She has written books and articles on Middle East culture and politics. Among her most recent is EXILED IN THE HOMELAND: ZIONISM AND MANDATE PALESTINE.
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