A tribute to Mark Baker

Historian, novelist, former ACJC director and community pillar MARK BAKER died yesterday, aged 63. RALPH GENENDE wrote this eulogy with the help of his wife CARON. It will be delivered at the funeral today.

Just over a week ago we visited Markie with the fearful knowledge that this was probably our last visit with our friend. As he sat in pain and obvious discomfort overlooking Luna Park, the sun lingered comfortably over the hustle and bustle of St Kilda beach. How unfair the juxtaposition of his approaching death and this boisterous, bursting life, this life that Mark so loved to wrestle and engage with.

Mark was a vital powerhouse, a dynamo. His intellectual acumen, energy and endurance were only matched by his emotional intensity and passionate immersion in the moment. He was like “the force that through the green fuse drives the flower … that blasts the roots of trees … that drives the water through the rocks.” (Dylan Thomas).

When you were with Mark, he was with you totally, albeit sometimes briefly, because there was always so much to do, to discover, to read, to write, to imbibe … like the wide-open entrance mouth to Luna Park. Mark Baker defined and lived that phrase from Psalms: ”Open your mouth wide, and I will fill it.” (Psalm 81:10).

Mark Baker with his wife Michelle Lesh and youngest child Melila

Mark filled and enlarged the world with his words. He was a mesmerising lecturer at university, taking his students on a journey into the darkness of the Shoah and Rwanda, with the lightning and lightness of his words, the fleetness of his soul. He was a dynamic and demanding founder, leader and lecturer of the Australian Centre for Jewish Civilisation (ACJC) at Monash. He was a writer and storyteller of renown. His novel, The Fiftieth Gate, opened the Shoah to tens of thousands of Australians, especially high school students who studied it. His memoir Thirty Days, countless articles and scholarly essays seared the soul.

Mark articulated with such joy, wisdom and pain the human experience. He drank in all that the world and the God he struggled with. In the end the planet and the Lord would not yield to his entreaties for just another month or two to complete and edit the two books he was working on.

Mark Baker wasn’t just an historian and writer, he was a macher and a maven. He cared passionately about his Jewish community and its politics and his Judaism really mattered to him. He drew on the intellectual energy of his mother Genia and the exuberance and joie de vivre of his father Yossl, both Shoah survivors, to fuel his vision and vigour for community. Mark was a generator. Not for nothing did he call the magazine he founded and edited Generation.

It was also not a surprise that he founded the Shira Chadasha religious community. Mark was always singing a new song while being deeply committed to preserving the old songs of his people. The Pesach story wasn’t just an old tale, it was a strong and principled voice for social justice and action for the bereft and vulnerable of uncaring societies.

Mark Baker with his four children

And all this he did with a defiant and cheeky humour and a naughty boyish grin. With his talented brother Johnny, they were a deliciously, devilishly, dynamic duo.

Like Johnny, Mark was an important voice in our community. Mark was unafraid of talking out. Undaunted he called out what he saw as unjust, often taking unpopular positions on Israel — a lone protester on the street during one UIA dinner, holding Israel accountable for its actions. Yes, he was an unapologetic Leftist, much like Israeli novelist, David Grossman. But is this not the place of a public intellectual: to challenge and give us the courage to speak out? Mark was a man of brutal honesty; there wasn’t a false bone in his body.

I didn’t agree with all Mark espoused but he always made me think. And Caron and I always felt we were playing catch up with Markie on his breathless journey.

In Mark’s study he had on display a chalitza sandal, an object symbolic of the continuation of the name of the departed. Mark Baker was profoundly committed to the continuity of his community and then cruelly and unexpectedly became the recorder and memory holder of his first wife Kerryn, his brother Johnny, his father Yossl, his aunt Sylvia.

But for all this he raged against death with fury and fire and a black humour that made the angels gasp and then chuckle. He wanted to be there for his two proud and beautiful Ms — Michelle and Melila, for his three adult children and their partners —Gabie and Gabby, Sarah and Charlotte, Rachie and Josh, and for his three grandchildren.

He was above all an individual of love and loyalty with an acute passion and energy for his family and those he loved. He was a real chaver tov, a friend who cared and connected intensely.

In the end he was more afraid of the agony of his departure for Genia and his kids, Michelle and Melila, his in-laws and his wider family, than he was of his own death.

Our hearts reach out to you all, his family, across the seas.

In the adapted words of Maya Angelou:

“When great souls die,
the air around us becomes
light, rare, sterile.
We breathe, briefly.
Our eyes, briefly,
see with
a hurtful clarity.
Our memory, suddenly sharpened,
examines,
gnaws on kind words
unsaid,
promised walks
never taken.

Great souls die and
our reality, bound to
them, takes leave of us.
Our souls,
dependent upon their
nurture,
now shrink.
Our minds, formed
and informed by their
radiance, fall away.
We are not so much maddened
as reduced …”

The poem ends on a Jewish note of nechama (consolation), a hope that Mark surely would have blessed us with:

“And when great souls die,
after a period peace blooms,
slowly …
Our senses, restored, never
to be the same, whisper to us.
They existed. They existed.
We can be. Be and be
better. For they existed.’

READ MARK BAKER’S RECENT ARTICLES FOR PLUS61J MEDIA

Fighting for democracy while facing my dayenu

From chemo to Kol Nidre: writing myself into the Book of Life