The Book of Life and the Book of Death are open every day, and our name is written in one or the other of them at every moment, and then erased and written again the moment after that. We are constantly becoming, continuously redefining ourselves. This doesn’t just happen on Rosh Hashanah.Alan Lew
I’ve been thinking a lot this week about how monumental it is for me to be starting this new year, and this new decade, in Australia. I landed in Australia on Erev Rosh Hashana, the beginning of the Jewish New Year, and according to the Hebrew calendar, the start of the year 5780. After a tearful goodbye to Polaris in Kuala Lumpur, I set off on my own to Australia. After the initial wave of sadness passed, I was strangely calm waiting during my layover to Australia. Maybe it was the exhaustion, or maybe it was some inner peace, I’m not sure I know yet how to tell the difference, but all I know is it felt nice not to be losing my mind before the flight.
This trip to Australia is something I have dreamed of and planned in my mind (and with various travel agents) for years. At each turn, I found a reason not to go. I was nervous to travel alone; it was too expensive; the flight was too long, etc. etc. etc. But here I am, at the start of my 30s, at the turn of the Hebrew decade, in the Jewish season of renewal and regeneration, finally standing firmly on Australian soil. It feels really good. It really feels like I’ve turned a new page on a new era in my life. I never really thought I’d make it here. Yet, here I am.
Let me start off by saying, it’s official: I am obsessed with Melbourne. What an incredible city. What’s interesting is that the city itself is actually not that big, land-wise. It’s only about a mile by half a mile around the city limits. But boy does it pack a powerful punch. Melbourne actually reminds me a lot of San Francisco, but cleaner, and calmer, and more laid-back. What’s interesting is that Melbourne’s roots are also from the Gold Rush. The Gold Rush here took place two years after California’s, and at one point Melbourne was one of the richest cities in the world. As a result, the architecture here is really cool, there’s a lot of Victorian buildings and architecture mixed in with the modern, glitzy buildings.
Another thing that’s cool about Melbourne that I didn’t know before coming is the laneways. Off every major street, there are lanes that are famous for their street art and their food and bar scene. You might think you’re turning down some seedy alleyway, but actually you’re going to find the city’s swankiest bars and restaurants there. This was probably my favorite thing about this city. Such a fun surprise and makes you feel like there’s endless fun to be had. I did a “Hidden Bars Tour” that was super cool and took us to some of these more tucked-away spots.
I started off the week by meeting up with my mother’s childhood friend, Liza, who immigrated to Australia when my parents immigrated to America. She showed me around the city and treated me like family. She even cooked all the same foods my mom cooks for Rosh Hashanah, since they grew up learning the recipes from all the ladies in their small shtetl, Bershad. It was nice to have a slice of home on the other side of the world.
I then went to some daytime services at a historic synagogue in the city at the East Melbourne Synagogue, which was built in 1877. It was really fun to experience a service in a different country, in a Victorian-era synagogue, but listening to a familiar shofar sound. Something very striking was that engraved into the wall next to the ark where the Torah is held was a Prayer for the Royal Family in Hebrew and in English. Curious for this American to see such a prominent display. I wonder if that is original and is there from the early days of the synagogue as a form of protection to show loyalty and fealty to the crown as Jews. Really fascinating.
Since then, it has been a total whirlwind and I can’t believe my time here is over. I did a walking tour of the city, and then did a wine tour of the Yarra Valley. On the wine tour, I made friends with a trio of New Zealanders who then joined me for most of my other adventures throughout the week! It was nice to flex the “meeting people” muscle and get to know some Kiwis. Plus, I will hopefully be able to meet up with them when I am in New Zealand next month!
Then, I checked off two places that have been on my list for a long time. Those of you who know me well, know that I am a tennis fanatic. As such, I have been dying to come to the Australian Open for a long time. Although the tournament is not going on right now (it happens in January), I got to go to the complex, visit the arena and visit the women’s locker room (maybe sitting the same place Serena sat?!), and just soak in the general atmosphere. Melbourne has a bunch of massive sports arenas all in one complex, it’s good the Melbourne Cricket Ground, Rod Laver Arena (where the tennis takes place), the football arena, and a few others all together in one area. It’s right across the river from the city and super convenient– I can only imagine that going to sporting events here must be so fun!
The second major thing I got to check off my list was visiting the 12 Apostles, which are these massive limestone cliffs off the coast of the Great Ocean Road. Watching the Australian Open coverage for years, they always show clips of these beautiful rocks, and I always thought to myself, “One day, hopefully, I’ll make it there and see it in person.” Well, that day came! It was a very long day, but so worth it. The Great Ocean Road reminded me so much of the PCH (Pacific Coast Highway, the coastal highway in California), I did multiple double-takes. The only difference was the sheep farms along the way (I don’t think we have many of those in the United States…) Some of those beaches seriously took my breath away. Wow. And of course the apostles themselves and Loch Ard Gorge, which is this gorge that is the site of a famous shipwreck, were magical. (Check out here for the story behind the gorge).
I also got to do Phillip Island and watch the Penguin Parade. Part of of this tour was to go to a wildlife sanctuary and encounter all the traditional Australian wildlife. I got to touch a kangaroo, a wallaby, a koala, and see emus and so many others. It was amazing. Then we got to settle in for the parade. For those of you who don’t know (I certainly didn’t), these are the world’s smallest and some of the rarest penguins. They’re tiny but they travel crazy far distances to feed. They return just after dusk in order to have the cover of nightfall in order not to be seen by predators. They do this in clusters and basically once one guy signals that it’s safe to come out, hundreds of them start to cross the beach towards their burrows home. Again, I’m not a die-hard animal person, but it was really majestic to see. Highly recommend if you’re ever in Melbourne (also highly recommend springing for the ranger tour, so much better than being packed in the stands with hundreds of other tourists…)
Discovering this city was exhilarating. Being on my own was wonderful. While I love being social, I forgot how much I really enjoy my own company and my own thoughts. I spent most of my adult life alone and this past year I’ve rarely had alone time (a good thing, one of the major reasons I did Remote Year), but I forgot that it’s my natural default state. Finding community is important, but remembering that you’re your own best friend is important, too. Melbourne will always be imprinted in my mind as a city of firsts — first international solo destination, first jaffle, first High Holidays outside the United States and consequently first time ever not fasting on Yom Kippur, first bout with hay fever (it’s no joke, wow, all those people with allergies whom I never took seriously, I’m sorry), first pair of Blundstones (and second), first time in an Australian synagogue (dude, there was a prayer engraved on the wall for the royal family, so cool to see as an American), first time meeting the Umanskys, first lox and bagel and pickle in a year, first introduction to a really intense coffee scene (got re-addicted to lattes here, wow. Melbourne has a very proud coffee tradition I had no idea about. Starbucks can’t get a foothold there, that’s how powerful it is…), first encounter with a kangaroo!, first penguins, and first time flying being truly at peace.
To borrow the metaphor from the Jewish tradition (and to be a little cheesy), it really felt like turning a new page in my own Book of Life.