Whenever my Israeli friends hear that I'm going back to visit my home town of Melbourne, in Australia, the initial reaction is "but it's so far away."
The fact of the matter is that it would be less far away if there were direct flights between Tel Aviv and major Australian destinations such as Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide, Perth and Brisbane.
But it's doubtful that El Al will ever be granted landing rights in Australia while it continues to have armed guards on its flights. Although Australia is very security conscious as far as airports are concerned, it wants the safety of the public to be wholly and solely in the hands of its own security personnel.
What this means for travelers from Israel is a long delay of anything up to ten hours at connecting destinations such as Singapore, Hong Kong, or Bangkok.
There may be less waiting time around the airport for connections via Europe, but flight time from European capitals can be anywhere between 21-23 hours, so whatever may be saved in waiting time is lost in flight.
The beauty of such long flights is that you can catch up on all the latest movies.
Traveling via Hong Kong, I saw five movies on the way to Australia and five more on the way back. Fortunately, I left Israel towards the end of one month and returned in the following month, so the movie options had changed. It also helped that I was flying with two different airlines - El Al and QANTAS - which didn't have the same programs.
Relatives of relatives went from Israel to Australia at the same time as I did. We boarded the same El Al flight from Tel Aviv, but whereas I spent ten hours in Hong Kong Airport, they spent only six because they continued on to Australia via Cathay Pacific.
Unfortunately that flight was not available to me when I made my reservations. The Cathay Pacific flight went directly to Melbourne. The QANTAS flight stopped in Sydney for customs inspection, as a result of which I missed my connection. But the situation wasn't tragic.
QANTAS has flights from Sydney to Melbourne every half hour, so anyone who misses a domestic flight is automatically put on the next one. It's just inconvenient to disembark from the international carrier and to look for the domestic transfer.
This should serve as a warning to first time passengers to Melbourne. Make sure you ask your travel agent all the right questions about waiting time, flight time and transfers, and take the airline that will best serve your interests.
Of course once I got to Melbourne, it was almost as if I had never been away. Despite the enormous changes on the city skyline, with architectural masterpieces vying with each other for attention, the city was still recognizable, especially those parts in which the beautiful old Victorian and Edwardian houses that were part of my childhood, have been preserved. Actually, there are many such houses in different parts of suburbia, serving as history's punctuation marks against a backdrop of modernity.
Unlike Israel, Australia has lots of space, and home owners like to spread out. Most houses are surrounded by beautifully kept gardens, and in predominantly Jewish areas, such as Caulfield, East St. Kilda, Elsternwick and Ripponlea families live in two, three and four story houses that are suffused with light. Australians in general seem to be very conscious of light, and many houses have at least one wall of glass to allow for maximum natural light to penetrate. This is also the trend in apartment complexes.
Despite the annual forest fires in summer, there is still plenty of wood for construction purposes and many houses and apartments feature highly polished parquet floors.
Some of the older houses still have wall to wall carpets which was the norm when I was a child.
Differing life styles have always intrigued me, so whenever I travel abroad I look at houses to see how people live.
In Melbourne, you don't have to be invited to someone's house to see the inside. Auctions are the most common method of selling real estate, and potential buyers and anyone else who may be interested are given free rein to explore the whole property.
Family photos, knick knacks and other items that indicate that the house is actually lived in are left in place. One of my cousins took me to two such auctions on the same day. Both were well attended and at the first one bidding was brisk, and the sale was completed within 15 minutes. At the second auction, the house was much more palatial than the previous one which was certainly luxurious, but not as large or as modern.
Everyone entering the second house had to remove their shoes. The property which included a double Jacuzzi, a home movie theater, a glassed-in patio for indoor barbecues, a swimming pool and every mod con imaginable did not sell, not only because the minimum price the owner would accept was $5 million, but because the architect had neglected to provide indoor access for family cars.
In affluent neighborhoods, home-owners want indoor access from their garages to their houses. The omission was a big turn-off for would-be buyers.
Melbourne has some extremely creative architects. One of my cousins, whose home is in the very tony neighborhood of Toorak, has a long entrance hall that looks like a temple. The reason: Her late husband wanted to have a design that would do justice to their art collection. So the architect placed columns along the corridor leading to the living room, and between each column hangs a large painting with spotlights positioned to best effect. Because the columns jut out a little from the wall, no single painting is overshadowed by its neighbors.
Beyond its striking houses and public buildings, Melbourne has lots of museums, art galleries, manicured parks and a plethora of restaurants boasting a huge choice of ethnic cuisines - predominantly from different parts of Asia.
Unfortunately, there are not many kosher restaurants, but one of the newer ones, My Flame in Kooyong Road, Caulfield, is quite elegant with an extensive, reasonably priced menu. It is run by Israelis as are most of the kosher and several non-kosher eateries in the area. There is also the Glick chain of kosher pastry shops that in addition to cakes, cookies and breads serves light dairy meals.
Glick's also has a branch in the heart of town which is frequented by people from the many surrounding offices. There are numerous other coffee shops in the same street and in adjoining streets that are not kosher, have more extensive menus and are much cheaper, but for whatever reason, Glick's is almost always full, and many of its regular customers are not Jewish.
The visitor to Melbourne and to other parts of Australia will quickly discover that Australians are friendly, helpful and polite people. It's the politeness that really makes me homesick. If you're walking along the street and accidentally bump into someone, both of you spontaneously turn around and apologize. If you find it difficult to calculate which coins to place in the slot machine for your tram, train or bus fare, other passengers will quickly come to your assistance.
If you're shopping, the sales personnel will let you know that they're around in case you need them, but will then allow you to browse to your heart's content and won't seem to be the least put out if you don't buy anything.
If you are looking for something particular, and can't find it in their store, they will suggest other places to you. Service personnel almost everywhere, make a point of being cheerful.
Better still, in most of the downtown main streets, the visitor will encounter people in distinctive red caps and uniforms. They look as if they might belong to some military band, but in fact they are ambassadors for the city, pointing people in the right direction, answering questions about places of interest, what to see, what to do and where to go. They know all the public transport routes and they are also au fait with the pick-up points for free transport.
There's quite a lot of free traveling and entertainment in Melbourne, and for the tourist on a tight budget, this is pure paradise.
If you're staying in Melbourne for more than 24 hours, you can also get a free orientation walking tour of the city in one of several languages. The only snag is that you have to make a reservation 24 hours in advance. You won't get as much information from this tour as you will from a professionally guided tour, but you will certainly get your bearings, which is fairly easy to do in Melbourne, because like Tel Aviv, it's a grid city.
If you've got a map to consult as you go along, you will quickly familiarize yourself with the main city area.
The orientation tours leave from outside the Melbourne Visitors Center in Federation Square which is across the road from Flinders Street station, the city's main railway terminus.
The Visitor's Center is an adventure in itself, and aside from all the services that it has to offer, is one of the few places in which it is still possible to get Made in Australia souvenirs.
Almost everything else, including the "genuine" boomerangs available in the numerous souvenir stores that dot the city, is made in China or Indonesia.
In the Visitors Center in Federation Square you can buy winter boots lined with the fleece of Australian lambs. Don't waste time shopping for souvenirs in town. Looking for something authentically Australian, unless it happens to be an opal, is a frustrating process. There are Made-in-Australia stores at the airport, and since you will have time to kill before your flight departs when you're leaving, you can buy quite a large range of Australian merchandise.
The Visitors Center on the corner of Swanston Street and Fliners Street is one of the first places you should go once you get to Melbourne. It's open seven days a week from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., offers e-mail and internet facilities, free maps and brochures, information about public transport and ticket sales for all forms of public transport. Staff are helpful and will provide information about events, and things to see and do both inside and outside Melbourne.
Visitors can book tours and accommodation for anywhere in the State of Victoria and even beyond.
Further into town in the Bourke Street Mall, there's a visitor's booth where volunteer staff are equally helpful.
To get a broader orientation of the city than the free walking tour there are two options: the tourist shuttle bus that runs between 9.30 a.m. and 4.30 p.m. and the City Circle Tram. Both are ideal for couples with small children in tow. There are no expenses involved.
The kids can look out of the window while they listen to recorded patter on the tram and a recording on the bus which is occasionally interrupted by the driver who adds his own commentary. The routes are similar in some places and different in others.
The ride takes a little more than half an hour and passengers can alight at any of the stops and get on again after exploring sections of the city for themselves.
Personally, I love these rides because they help me to catch up with new developments in the city.
To be honest, I never get to see all or even half the things I want to see because reunions with relatives and friends are time consuming, but I kept one promise to myself and went to visit the Immigration Museum which vividly depicts the history of immigration to the State of Victoria, including the shameful period of the White Australia policy which for too long was the cornerstone of Australia's immigration policy.
Over the years immigrants came from all over the world and found ways to maintain their traditions while integrating into the Aussie life style. In recent years, Palestinians have been included among the immigrants and some 7,000 Palestinians have resettled in Australia Up until 1901, Australia comprised a series of self governing colonies. The colonies were united into a federal entity in 1901, operating under the slogan 'One nation, one people, one destiny'.
In addition to the general saga of immigration, the museum also has a series of family histories including that of the Baevskis, some of whom fled from Russian pogroms in the 1890s, arriving in Melbourne in the second half of the decade.
Two brothers, Elcon and Simcha changed their surname to Myer which was the proper name of their eldest brother and opened a small drapery store in the country town of Bendigo, bringing in merchandise which was highly prized by the local women. Eleven years later, Sydney (formerly Simcha) Myer, opened a store in Bourke Street, Melbourne.
The store became the nucleus of the Myer Emporium, a huge retail empire. Over the years, the family assimilated, and many of its members married out, but some remained active in the family business and continued a tradition of philanthropy. Sydney Myer converted to Christianity, while Elcon was a leading figure at the St. Kilda Synagogue. One of the non-Jewish descendants of the family returned to his roots and became an Orthodox practicing Jew. Some members of the family now live in Israel.
According to data in the museum, the first Jews who came to Australia arrived as convicts in 1788, and numbered around a dozen. By 1848 there were 200 Jews and by 1861 there were 300. Today, there are well over 100,000 Jews living in Australia. Some 35,000 pre-war Jewish refugees and post-war Holocaust survivors migrated to Australia.
Many of the Holocaust survivors did well. Among them is Nathan Werdiger, an orthodox Jew, a leading businessman and a generous philanthropist who survived Auschwitz.
"If you have to live in the galut," he says, "Melbourne is the best place."
Werdiger is a happy-go-lucky person who did not inflict his post-Holocaust traumas on his children. They know he's a survivor. They've been to Auschwitz with him, but he's never really dwelt on the subject, and he and his wife Nechama ensured that their children would have as happy a childhood as possible. Werdiger can't explain why his attitude is so much more positive than that of a lot of other Holocaust survivors.
It may have something to do with the number on his arm - 184537 - which adds up to 28, which in gematria is koah - strength.
Werdiger is one of several strong Holocaust survivors in Melbourne who have helped to build up the strength of the Jewish community.
Although it is so far-flung from the rest of the world, the Australian Jewish community is extraordinarily vibrant, with a large network of Jewish day schools, yeshivot, youth movements and synagogues as well as numerous Jewish cultural, philanthropic, and social organizations and institutions.
On a per capita basis, Australian Jewry raises more money for Israel than any other Jewish community in the world, and its aliya record is also relatively high, with some 10,000 Australian Jews living in Israel.