The lonely mezuzah

January 8, 2021 by Henry Benjamin
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1000kms from the nearest synagogue, Birdsville is home for Joseph Szczepina where a mezuzah is proudly displayed on his property.

Joseph Szczepina Photo: Travis Brown/Mint Pictures

Next on Tuesday 12 January at 8.30pm, SBS launches its first program in Untold Series, Birdsville or Bust.

The documentary written and directed by Sydney’s Mint Picture’s Dan Goldberg follows the story of the isolated and iconic Australian outback town of Birdsville. Adam Kay is the executive producer.

The town’s population of just over 100 people mushrooms twice a year with a flood of almost 20,000 partygoers who transform this quiet outpost. For one weekend in September, the dusty desert hosts The Birdsville Races, dubbed ‘The Melbourne Cup of the Outback’, and for three days in July there’s The Big Red Bash, billed as the world’s most remote music festival, but what happens when the tourists depart, the mercury hits 49.5 degrees Celsius and an army of flies occupies this remote town?

Polish-born Joseph Szczepina lived in Brisbane and moved to Birdsville with his wife and two children 20 years ago and eventually left to return to the Queensland capital. He missed the desert and returned to Birdsville where he grows dates and olives.

Adam Kay

Dan Goldberg said: “Joseph, the town’s recluse, was just a rumour when we started filming. We’d heard whispers that he lived entirely off the grid and finally we tracked his place down in mid-2019. I was sitting there chatting to this Polish-born eccentric when I spotted something that looked distinctly familiar on the doorpost of his desert shack: a mezuzah with Hebrew letters. Shocked, I muttered a few words in Hebrew, and Joseph’s eyes lit up. Two Jews sitting in the middle of the Outback, each somewhat stunned by the presence of the other! That’s the great gift of documentary – whatever loose script you embark with is almost always upended by the wonders of what unfolds in real-time.”

He added: “Ultimately, Birdsville Or Bust is also a love letter to one of the most remote towns in Outback Australia, a testament to the brave locals who endure such an inhospitable climate – forget the heat, the plague of flies makes filming at times nigh impossible!”

Dan Goldberg

Goldberg and his crew over the course of 18 months made six trips to Birdsville, which sizzles in the Dead Centre of Australia, perched on the edge of two deserts and three state borders, 1600km west of Brisbane and 1200km north of Adelaide with the treacherous Birdsville Track in between.

He said: “We travelled there by road from Brisbane (two days) and Mount Isa (10 hours) and via the ‘milk run’ on Rex, which takes the best part of a day from Brisbane, dropping mail along the way at remote towns.

I hope this film rekindles fond memories for those who have made the shlep across the Simpson Desert and encourages those who haven’t to add it to their bucket list.”


Learn about Birdsville and its people including Joseph Szczepina on Tuesday evening’s program or on SBS On Demand.



One Response to “The lonely mezuzah”
  1. Andrew Cameron says:

    Lovely investigated and well-written journalism. I know Jo very well and have helped him with his health while I was the nurse in Birdsville for 5 years. I even helped with watering his garden while he was away, so that the trees did not perish during several hot summers. He is an inspirational gentleman and has many inventions that need to be furthered if only someone could help him financially to get the patents off the ground. Please ask the senior staff in the Jewish community to nominate Joseph for the Order of Australia – for services to remote agriculture. Thank you.

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