Two-Storey Love

Imagine a young woman arriving alone in Australia from the Middle East on the first day of 1980. Her reason? To see if she had a future with a young man she had met and fallen in love with on a kibbutz in Israel only a few months prior.

Bat-sheva had arrived in a foreign country before, at age ten. With her family, she had hastily left her ancestral country of Afghanistan to settle in the state of Israel.

The Jewish community at Herat in northern Afghanistan was dissipating after a presence of two thousand years. Bat-sheva’s father, whose surname was Cohen (Hebrew for ‘Priest’), was taking his family and following many relatives and friends as refugees to the Jewish homeland under the Israeli policy of ‘aliyah’ (or homecoming) for diaspora Jews across the world.

In Israel, Bat-sheva received an education, adding Hebrew to her first language of Farsi. She had completed teacher training and was to commence educating others when Kevin caused her second exodus.

Kevin Stewart, born and bred Australian, had studied and worked and saved for a young man’s dream. He was on a Cook’s Tour of the world in the late 70s. He had been in Afghanistan in 1978, but that was no place to tour due to the coup that destabilised the country that year.

The kibbutzim of Israel had a romantic appeal for Kevin, as they did for many at the time because of their image as utopian rural communities. A kibbutz experience was a strong attraction.

Not as attractive, though, as the young lady kibbutznik he encountered there. Bat-sheva was waiting on tables in the communal dining-hall. Love had its beginnings.

Bat-sheva told me of her reaction on sighting this “tall, good-looking, blonde, nice-mannered man”. I could see the undiminished delight in her face as she recalled (and re-lived) this first encounter. Not much reaction from Kevin. You can sense the quiet happiness and contentment, though. (He’s still tall and thin. I didn’t know that he was once blonde!)

That is why Bat-sheva stood alone on Australian soil on 1 January, 1980.

The future could go various ways, she thought. Maybe it was a romance in a kibbutz only. Maybe it was more, and they would marry and return to Israel as Bat-sheva dreamed. As it turned out, it was very real. They married on 24 February and made a life in Australia, first in Wollongong and Sydney and then finally here in Newcastle.

Kevin and Bat-sheva are the parents of five children born between 1981 and 1990 – Keryn, Tamar, Naomi, Jonathan and Rachel. They are grandparents as well.

Jewish heritage passes down through the mother. Kevin and Bat-sheva’s children have been raised in their mother’s faith. (Kevin has a cousin who married a Jewish man. Their children are Catholic.) The Stewart children celebrated the Jewish rituals and practices as they grew up. Bat-sheva holds strongly and devotedly to her ancestral practices, and hopes that the children will also do so. When they come home they certainly do.

But, irony of ironies, all five of the children’s partners were raised in the Catholic religion! Bat-sheva and I laugh as we agree that God has a wonderful sense of humour. Not as much of a laugh from Kevin, the lanky, laconic Aussie. He quietly appreciates it, though.

 They are great kids, they both agree. They have done well academically and in the work force. “They have good morals and strong values”, they say almost in chorus. They are a happy family. For 15 years they all were active in a Family Group of parishioners from St Pat’s, Wallsend, who get together socially every month.

“A wonderful family”, says Bernadette Alexander, who has been with them in the group during that time. “They are really wonderful people and all happy together.”

Kevin attends Mass alone, as strongly devoted to his faith as Bat-sheva is to hers. He enjoyed it when the children would accompany him. The baptism of a grandchild at Our Lady of Victories, Shortland, was a recent happy occasion. Bat-sheva has joined Kevin at Mass many times. Kevin has likewise accompanied Bat-sheva to the Synagogue. Each has prayed to the same God in his or her own way.

Their different religious affiliations entail some degree of sacrifice which “tears you a bit”, says Kevin. Bat-sheva agrees. But they have also been “enriched”. Their respect for their differences, their mutual caring and “being there for each other”, and their simple “getting together in the important things”, is what bonds them and brings them happiness. Their happiness is felt. It overflowed in hospitality when I visited them at home. I was so wrapped in lively conversation I forgot to finish my coffee. First time ever.

Bat-sheva (named for the woman best remembered as the mother of King Solomon, she likes to point out) is active in the small, 40-member, Jewish community in Newcastle. She is also involved in the local multi-faith organisation and is keen to speak in cross-cultural and multi-faith situations. She is certainly well qualified.

What she particularly likes to convey to Christians is the importance of their Jewish foundations. She uses the image of a twostorey house. The second storey could not exist without the first, and the solid grounding it provides. Jesus and Mary are inconceivable without their Jewish heritage. Bat-sheva is close in sentiment with St John Paul II who called the Jewish people our “dearly beloved elder brother”.

The home that Kevin and Bat-sheva have built is strong and beautiful. Respect and love are its building materials. They have produced a family of well-grounded, well-rounded, devoted children. They have produced good fruits. Commitment, respect and love unite them.

It also helps that Bat-sheva and Kevin thrill inside to recall their first encounter far away in time and space in the dining-hall of an Israeli kibbutz.

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Michael O’Connor

Michael O'Connor is a member of the Aurora Editorial Team.

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