ABR RAFT Fellowship: 'If This Is a Jew' by Elisabeth Holdsworth

‘The foremost challenge of our time remains the passing of Jewish ethnicity, the idea that Jews are automatically joined at the hip by language, history and memory ... Without doubt that era is gone ... The age of ethnicity has become the age of fractured identity, where we struggle to decide what aspect of identity takes priority and when.’

Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman1

For most of my life I have thought of myself as a secular Jew; fascinated by the turbulent history of the Jews, not part of synagogue life. All that changed in 2012. We were living in Goulburn, New South Wales, at the time. My husband was on the point of retirement and we were about to move back to Victoria. During winter, influenza and then pneumonia raged through the town; some people died. Despite being vaccinated, I too succumbed. One morning, I was convinced that someone had placed a ton of concrete on my chest. Something had. My next memory is of waking during the night in hospital in an isolation room, hooked up to tubes and monitors. A man was sleeping in an armchair next to the bed. I recognised him as the doctor who had admitted me, hours, days, years ago. I learnt later that he had been there most of that night pumping antibiotics into me.

‘You’re a lucky woman,’ he said. ‘During the worst of this you were trying to remember a Jewish prayer. I think you may have unfinished business. By the way, you don’t have much in the way of white blood cells. Neutropenia is endemic amongst Sephardic Jews. Your husband tells me you’re Dutch. Up to you now to figure out the jigsaw.’

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Published in November 2017, no. 396
Elisabeth Holdsworth

Elisabeth Holdsworth

Elisabeth Holdsworth won the inaugural Calibre Essay Prize in 2007 for her essay ‘An Die Nachgeborenen: For Those Who Come After’. She was born in the Netherlands and migrated to Australia with her parents in 1959. Educated in Melbourne, she had a long career in the Department of Defence. Her most recent novel is Those Who Come After (Picador, 2011).