The other side of freedom

In 1944, I was one of the few Jews to be born free. No Jews in Europe were born free. The Jews in Israel were not free and by some quirk, I was born in Leeds to freedom. I never really felt free. A Jew, and as such my freedom was provisional. One of the few places that I felt truly free was at the Elland Road football ground. There I was a Leeds United supporter first. My religion didn’t matter. There was one other place, and there I was truly free. Even at Elland Road as anywhere else in the UK, I was always on my guard.In the other place, my magic place  I knew, I was completely and unconditionally free.

We lived in a cul-de-sac; there were about 24 families, 23 of whom were Jewish. Halfway down our road was the local synagogue or shul as we called it. Every day, Rabbi Madalli would enter our street and invariably ask somebody for a light for his cigarette. I remember this man. He was a tall, dark Jew with an enormous bushy black beard. We always wondered if his beard was going to catch fire. Was he the burning bush?

It was my the way to wait at the end of the street for the old ladies to come back from their shopping. I was a polite little boy. I would take their bags from them. If it was Mrs Cohen, I would be rewarded; I was allowed to feed the chickens in her backyard. I had many Jewish friends and would play games that only children could play. Once I was Superman, at one time I was another hero flying down sewers. But that doesn’t make you free does it?

At the end of the street was a magic grotto. There lived Rowena, the only daughter of the only non-Jewish family. They lived at the end of the cul-de-sac and behind the house was the park. It was an immense park, or so it seemed then. Behind Rowena’s house, there was a stable and behind the stable a vast rough paddock that somehow merged into the park. The park was the beginning of the no man’s land where the goyim were. A frightening place, a place you didn’t go on your own. There were pogroms in the waiting. Rowena was blonde, fair-haired, blue-eyed with a strawberry birthmark on her cheek. That’s how I remember her. In all honesty, I can’t remember her at all. But Rowena was a princess.

I know that Rowena was my sole friend; I am aware that I was Rowena’s solitary friend. For hours, we would disappear into the stable, play with the horse and play with each other. I don’t remember what we did I just know I was gloriously happy. There were no fears, there were no Jews there were Gentiles, there was Rowena and there was me. Rowena’s family left for Australia. I never knew why. They were looking for something, maybe a newer kind of freedom. I continued my life as a free Jew in the UK, living in apprehension yet calling it freedom.

On my first ward round in Asaf HaRofe, I discovered freedom. There was another North England Jew; he wasn’t there, and he was being criticised. Instinctively, I drew up my mental drawbridge and watched through the portcullis, plotting how to protect my coreligionists. Like an ever-present sea fog, the fear of persecution drifted in from the North Sea.

Then I realised. I was in Israel. They were all Jews.

I felt something that only a cliche could describe.. A weight fell from me. The weight which I had felt all my life. And from that day forth I never felt it again. I was free. Rowena was back.

That was freedom. At the other side of life, I met a girl who is on the other side of the world. She taught me to be free.

And here I am free at last and free forever.

And as a present I still have the memories of Rowena — and I  love the smell of warm, soft hay. It is the smell of my grandchildren’s’ hair.

About the Author
Born in Leeds in 1944, Michael Benjamin is a retired Psychiatrist and medical auditor, co-founder of Oranit, aspiring author and inveterate cynic.
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