The important things in life are free

The year 5783 is well and truly here, as 2022 draws to a close. The first month of Tishrei has passed with its festivities, fasts and a new cycle of reading the Torah, as the secular year winds down to the annual languor of summer. For me this time of year is one of reflection, a time to focus on what’s important in life. Several decades of life with its ups and downs — and Covid thrown in for good measure — have made me realise that, apart from basic needs like food, shelter and energy, the most important things in life are precious, fragile, within reach — and free. The most important things can’t be bought in a shop or online; they are acquired with intangible currencies such as love, loyalty and integrity.

Compared to other families, there are few in my immediate cohort. From this small bunch some live interstate, while sadly others have passed away. The Melbourne family members often get together at our place for Shabbat lunch, and, even for a small bunch, we can get quite noisy. Around dessert time we do the quiz from the newspaper. We all have our specialist areas: my husband’s is history; my mother’s is film; my daughter knows all things foodie, while my son-in-law answers the music questions. My late father z”l  loved geography, and since he passed away, I take a stab at answering that category. None of us know anything about sport; perhaps one of my grandchildren, who by this time are up in the playroom, will one day fill that ‘vacancy’. As part of the ‘club-sandwich generation’—make mine lactose-free cheese on spelt please—helping to care for the very young and most senior in my four-layered family is fulfilling, often fun, sometimes challenging, and occasionally messy. But to me it is a great privilege to be needed and an important part of each other’s lives.

‘True friends are like diamonds, precious and rare. False friends are like autumn leaves found everywhere.’ A true friend wrote this in my autograph book when I was a girl. Now there are social media where you can have hundreds of ‘friends’ or ‘unfriend’ someone with a click. They are easy-come- easy-go relationships, levity over loyalty. Or maybe while my head was turned, the definition of ‘friend’ changed. I stand by my interpretation of the word; just as good friends stand by each other. Unlike the fair-weather variety, true friends are there for you when things are down; the sort that leave chicken soup at the door when you are sick or check on you during and after the shiva week of a loved one.

Just before a villainous microbe took centre stage in our lives, then did several encore performances in changes of costumes, our air was sullied by another baddie. In comparison to the towns, farms and forests that were tragically ravaged by the 2019−2020 Black Summer bushfires, the smoke that contaminated our air was a mild misfortune. Like others, I had taken for granted our glorious fresh air. Then out of the blue — literally — a thick pall of acrid haze settled over us. After a few weeks our air cleared, while so many in the path of the fires were still recovering from their terrible loss. Again, we took to the footpaths, parks and beaches, until lockdown entered our lexicon and our lives. I’m not one of those ladies who lunch, but I do enjoy a leisurely shpatzir (stroll) with a friend. We pound the pavements of our neighbourhood, and inhale the fresh air, while sharing stories and solving our first-world problems and modern dilemmas.

I could not end this list of important things that are free without including freedom itself. A few years ago, on one of our trips to Canberra, we went to an exhibition of political cartoons. Those hapless pollies, deservedly or not, were pilloried by the cartoonists. Many of the caricatures were downright cruel while captions were clever but biting; politicians need a thick skin and a sense of humour to cop these offerings daily. But in Australia and other democracies, politicians, royalty and celebrities tolerate, even expect, satire, mockery and criticism aimed squarely at them. It’s par for the course. At other times in history, and in dictatorships today, criticism of those in power was and still is a punishable, often capital, offence. During the Holocaust, the nadir of our history, my father was a slave in a labour camp, while my mother was deported to a detention camp near Siberia. In different ways, they endured lack of food, disease, hardship, confinement and fear. When they arrived in Melbourne, they savoured the sweet taste of freedom, the freedom to be observant Jews, the freedom to vote, freedom of speech and freedom of mobility. We are lucky to continue to enjoy this liberty.

There are other life gifts that I enjoy and appreciate. My list is not finite, and not all its elements start with the letter ‘f’.  Health and happiness, everything we wished each other on Rosh Hashanah, are also central to a full and meaningful life. I look away from my laptop screen where I turn my thoughts into words, and gaze out my kitchen window, as I wait for the persistent La Niña rains to clear. Then I can go for a walk with a friend and take in the clear spring air.

About the Author
Pauline Schwarcz is a freelance writer with a background in genealogy. Formerly a health professional, she enjoys writing about family history and her reflections on life. Pauline was born and lives in Melbourne and is the daughter of a Holocaust survivor.