An extract from ‘Rosa’ : Chapter 4 ‘Jellied eels’

Cover front cover

4
JELLIED EELS

‘Luvverly Jack the Rippers,’ called out the bloke selling kippers.

‘’Ow about a nice bit of Lillian Gish, fresh from the ’ousemaid’s knee,’
shouted his mate selling fish fresh off the North Sea boats.

In 1936, slummy Stratford Broadway was a fairyland of lantern
lights swinging high above the market stalls. The costermongers
spruiked their wares in Cockney rhyming slang and it was all bustle
and movement as customers milled around looking for bargains.
Sooty grey Victorian buildings made dark shadows in the background.
This was the East End, and in a few short years the Luftwaffe
would be tasked with destroying it and London’s heart.

‘What’s jellied eels?’ asked Rosa.

Treyf, unclean,’ replied her mother with an involuntary shudder.

Rosa, Sadie and Solly were going home to the suburbs. They’d
been making the obligatory visit to Buba. Every Saturday they went
for Shabbes lunch so that Regina could see her only grandchild, Rosa,
the sheyn meydl, the pretty little girl with the golden ringlets tied up
with a satin bow. They were careful with their budget and bus fare
could be saved if they were prepared to walk the seven miles or so to
the new estate where they lived. When the six-year-old became tired,
her father carried her perched on his shoulders.

‘What about cockles and winkles?’ she enquired.

‘They’re also treyf, we don’t eat them.’

‘Why?’

‘Because.’

It was a conversation that, in one form or another, went on for the
rest of Rosa’s life, and now that she’s a grandmother in far-away, laidback
Australia, she realises the question remains, hangs there like a
thread connecting her to a history she doesn’t know much about and
to people she would hardly recognise as her ancestors.
Because.

………..

In the rest of Chapter Four I’ve made fun of Rosa’s efforts to resolve ‘Because’.

But in other parts of Rosa, for example in Chapter 2 ‘The Hope Chest’, you can discern the regret beneath the self-deprecation as I try to unpick Sadie’s life and find a way through what was, sadly, ‘an unsuccessful Jewish mother-daughter relationship.’

‘The Hope Chest’ has been chosen by Hybrid Publishers as the sample from Rosa on their web page:

https://www.hybridpublishers.com.au/product/rosa-memories-with-licence/

 

 

 

 

 

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Baking

Many years ago the Victorian Education Department would grant leave with pay to teachers who wished to observe religious festivals.  Hardly any employees would have requested time off in respect of Diwali or Eid al-Fitr, so the regulation only covered a small handful, mostly Jews.

One year I scandalised an observant friend by suggesting that, since I wasn’t religiously inclined, I might ask for an alternative day off to do something other than visit the synagogue – maybe do a little shopping or go to the cinema.

“You simply can’t do that!  For one thing it’s making a mockery of our faith, and for another it’s forgetting how hard our community lobbied for the right to observe our traditions,” she said.

Of course it’s different today, and time off for praying involves a loss of pay and there are limitations as to how often one may do this.

*

I’ve continued along this unorthodox path, not out of cussedness, but because for me family considerations trump religiosity every time.

We are a very diverse group:  Jewish, part-Jewish, non-Jewish.  The heritage resonates very strongly with all of us, but observances are rather in the ‘take it or leave it’ basket.  We never miss being together each week for Friday night Shabbat dinner, but after the blessings for the candles, the wine and the challah, the talk is either cricket or footy.  I don’t think any of us know traditional Sabbath songs.  The point of it all is the family connecting, week after week after week;  until I die – and then we shall see.

However, the festivals pose a whole set of different problems.  Most of my children and grandchildren work: not in the kosher butcher or grocery store, and only one is involved with a Jewish-run community organisation.  The others are out there in the big, sprawling Australian workforce: they get paid for fixing motorbikes, taking your cash at supermarket check-outs and writing computer programs.  And two of them, my youngest son and his wife, are bakers, working for a large French bakery that provides bread and patisserie 24/7 x 365 days all over Australia.

I believe tolerance and flexibility are keynotes to family harmony.  Waiting for the precise moment of sunset before lighting Shabbat candles is not my way;  if I have to hold dinner until the bakers, tired and floury, arrive at the table, then the candles will remain unlit, the wine in the kiddush cups un-drunk and the challah will stay hidden beneath its embroidered cloth.

This year Passover and Easter happen to coincide;  doesn’t always happen, everything depends upon the moon, and no, I can’t explain it for you. However, in 2019 (or 5779) the first seder night falls on Good Friday.

“We’ll be flat out with hot cross buns, Mum, we just can’t come to a heavy seder night and then get up at 5.0am next day to go to work again.  Couldn’t we just give the whole thing a miss for one year?”

And I ponder the problem.  In previous years I’ve simply moved our Passover celebration to a different, more accommodating day.  It’s the thought that counts; as long as we tell the Exodus story it really doesn’t signify which day we choose – does it?

However, this year my options are diminished by the bakers’ rosters.

“There are special communal seder dinners organised by synagogues and old-age homes -” and my youngest son sees the horror and contempt in my eyes.

“That’s for people who have no family!” I tell him.  “You are all here in Melbourne with me.”

Compromise is of course the only way.  I write an email to each family member setting out my agenda for first night Pesach.

“I’ll mock up a little tableau of the Reed Sea with Texta to make the water blue, sand for the desert and some greenery from the garden to represent the vegetation along the banks of the Nile.  And if I can find the little Lego figures as I did last year, we can line them up all ready for the waves to part and for the Children of Israel to walk across to the other side.  Eli is only six, going on seven, and he will like it.

I’ll prepare a seder plate with all the symbolic items and I’ll remind you of what each one signifies.  Say ten minutes.

All my children and grandchildren will sing Ma Nishtanah (Why is this night different?) n.b. translation and transliteration attached hereto.  Say ten minutes.

The four question: we shall tell the stories of the four children, the wise one, the wicked one, the simple one and the one who is too young to ask.  Say ten minutes.

We can end with a reminder about tolerance and freedom, ‘once we were slaves but now we are free’ and the piece about welcoming the stranger, ‘let all who are hungry come and eat’ … Say five minutes.

And then we can have dinner.”

Afikomen is a Greek word that means ‘that which comes after’ or dessert that concludes the meal.  A piece of matzo carefully hidden in a bag must be found before the reading of the Haggadah can be resumed.  Some smart rabbi in the past must have realised that kids get very fidgety and searching for the little bag is just the ticket.  And of course there’s a prize to be bargained for; one dollar is the going rate.  My grandson has made me an Afikomen bag at school, so we’d better remember that ceremony too.

*

The years are passing very quickly now and maybe next year we shall have a proper seder again: tell the stories, read the poetry, sing the songs and stumble over the Hebrew as we usually do.  And then maybe not.  I think it’s time I gave each one of them their own copy of the Haggadah, rather than keep them in a pile on my bookshelf.  Time for responsibility.

The Edit

“I’m having lunch today with my editor,’ said Al with a bit of a smirk.

It was way back in the dark, pre-digital age when editors travelled to talk with their authors and proofs came in big brown envelopes.  Barbara Ker Wilson, one of Australia’s most highly respected authorities on children’s literature, was commissioning editor for the University of Queensland Press, and she liked Alan’s first chapter for ‘The Boys from Bondi’.  She liked it enough for the publisher to offer an advance payment … and lunch.

It was the beginning of Alan’s most productive period and a turning point.  He’d always written.  In the Isabella Lazarus Children’s Home he contributed a little quiz to the magazine produced by the ‘reffo’ kids.  Then, in his teens he was himself the editor of a newsletter for a Jewish youth movement;  his ‘purple prose’ makes for hilarious reading now.

From time to time, ‘The Australian Jewish News’, ‘The Melbourne Chronicle’ and ‘Generation Magazine’ published his articles and short stories.  The highlight was ‘Meanjin’ which published his short story ‘The Value of a Nail’.

‘The Balconies’ was a prize-winning entry in a short story competition run by the Sydney ‘Sun’;  Thomas Keneally, one of the judges, said it was ‘poignant’.  Judah Waten, political activist, author and enfant terrible as far as the Jewish establishment was concerned, was the kindest of mentors and encouraged Alan to self-publish his first book, ‘Troubles’ in 1983.  ‘The Balconies’ became ‘The Trouble with Felix’, the first story in the collection.

And then UQP invited submissions for their Young Adult list.  ‘The Balconies’ aka ‘The Trouble with Felix’ became the first chapter of ‘The Boys from Bondi’.  It all fell into place, just when Alan was ready to write honestly about his life.

*

“How was the lunch?’

‘Lovely woman, absolutely charming.  Really liked the first chapter.  Great meal.  Gave me a cheque and I walked her down to Spencer Street to get the airport bus.  She’s going back to Brisbane today.’

So I banked the cheque on my way to work at the Tech College and Al went back to running his little one-man ad agency in the studio he’d built in our back yard, and we thought no more about ‘The Boys from Bondi’.

Until one day, when ‘edit’ became a terrifying word, full of implications we’d never imagined.

‘Barbara rang and asked how I was getting on with the book.’

‘Well, I haven’t noticed you writing much lately.’

‘Yeah, well that’s it.  She pointed out that UQP have a publishing schedule and so on, and the long and short of it is that they want the finished text within the next few months.  They’re talking about artwork for the cover and typefaces and paper stock and I haven’t written anything at all except that first chapter.  They want the manuscript on floppy discs and I have no idea what they mean.  What are we going to do?  Should I just return their cheque?’

Anyone remember the Amstrad computer c1986?  We bought one in a hurry.

‘I’ll set it up in the morning before I go to work, you type and save every paragraph, and then when I come home we’ll print it off.  We’ll get a cheap Epson printer.  After you’ve corrected anything I’ll make floppy discs.  Forget about the typewriter.  Trust me.’

He tried, but it was very hard.

‘It all fell off!  One minute I could see the words and then they disappeared!  My fingers don’t fit this little keyboard and I miss the carriage return bar.  I just can’t do it; I’ll send them back the money and cancel the contract.’

But ‘The Boys from Bondi’ did appear on the UQP list and the reviews were good.  Agnes Nieuwenhuizen, who did so much to promote young adult reading, wrote in ‘The Age’:

Collins brings to life a period when our changing society, while sheltering the dispossessed, allowed much ignorance and prejudice to flourish.  We are moved by Jacob’s odyssey and simultaneously entertained by a rich cast of minor characters …

And Faye Zwicky, in her launch speech, said:

Reading the psalms, one finds everywhere a reverence for the whole created world and for all creatures in it.  This book is a kind of Australian psalm to life, sympathetic to all created things, including dogs.  There’s humor, sensitivity, and wisdom here.

Over time, we became more accustomed to the idea of an all-knowing, all-powerful editor, but when Dutton Publishers in New York decided that ‘The Boys from Bondi’ would become ‘Jacob’s Ladder’ for American readers (who could not be expected to know where Bondi is) we hit road blocks.

‘I won’t give up my Australian slang, it’s part of the period,’ protested Al when we opened the large brown Fed Ex envelope containing the proofs.  Page after page covered in yellow stickers:  elevators not lifts, sidewalks not pavements, pants not strides.  Of course, he did in the end comply;  Dutton would brook no argument.  But humour always won out with Alan and it was a delight to shock the puritan American publishers with the following:

As the tram trundled up William Street she told me she was a pantry maid at Sydney Hospital.  She hoped to become a nurse as soon as she was old enough.  Her family came from Bathurst.

“We live only a few doors from Ben Chifley,” she said proudly.  “My dad was a shunter in the railway yards before he got hurt.  She rummaged in her handbag.  I told her I was paying the fares.  “Don’t get upset Jack,” she said.  “I’m only looking for a fag.”

It was the height of the AIDS epidemic and ‘fag’ activated the alarm bells;  it became ‘purse’ and ‘cigarette’ – and so lost all flavour.

*

That was then, this is now.  My second book, ‘Rosa’ is ‘being edited’.

‘We’d prefer you not to put out any extracts until we’ve ‘tailored’ the text, ‘ said Hybrid Publishers.  It’s understandable, given my grasp of grammar.

It was different when Hybrid published Alan’s books, ‘Alva’s Boy’ and ‘A Thousand Nights at the Ritz’.  By that time he had died, and as his literary executor, I was very involved with Alex Skovron and Anna Blay in the editing process.  But these were not my books;  I was a keeper, a guardian, a protector of Alan’s words.  My ‘Rosa’ is out there all by herself and it’s strange to contemplate her future.

My first book, ‘Solly’s Girl’ was a very different production. It was self-published through the ‘Write Your Story’ program at what is now the Lamm Jewish Library of Australia.  The editing was meticulous and kind.  However, commercial considerations were not really an issue for anyone involved:  as it has always been, since I set it up back in the 1990s, the program is designed for the Jewish community ‘to tell its own story’.  And so I did;  ‘Solly’s Girl’ complements ‘Alva’s Boy’ and, although the writing style is completely different, our family stories are now done.  Lisa Hill of ANZ LitLovers was sufficiently impressed to include it in her non-fiction Best Books of 2015.

*

So.  Perhaps Hybrid won’t mind too much if I publish a photograph?  No text yet – just a picture?  I hope it will be suitable for the cover.  It’s a very flattering image and I’m fond of it.  Here am I, at the mid-point of my life, the period covered by many of the stories in ‘Rosa’.  In fact one of the chapters is about the dress, the Alice headband, the chai around, my neck, the fringed shawl …

 

 

Ros with shawl

 

 

Facebook and Me

 

Facebook and me, it’s an uneasy relationship.  Well, it’s uneasy for me. How can one tell what Facebook feels about anything?  I think ‘social media’ is a meaningless phrase: my children and grandchildren tell me otherwise, but being social with a keyboard and screen has limitations. I write ‘stuff’ and my late husband, Alan, he also wrote ‘stuff’. How clumsy is that sentence! Communication has changed so much.  ‘Dear Sir or Madam’ is no way to start a modern letter. I’m old-fashioned; I respect apostrophes.  As a ‘ten-pound Pom’ I have affection for W. S. Gilbert (please note that I’ve included the full stops).  His ‘little list’ of pet aversions in ‘The Mikado’ is a favourite and can always be adapted by those of us having a hangover or a bad hair day.

Let me dispense with Instagram and Twitter first.  If I want to send pictures to my nearest and dearest I’ll attach them to an email; I really don’t need yet another ‘account’ on account of my absolute aversion to signing up for any kind of account.  As for Twitter – let’s just leave that for the birds, they do it so much better.

I’m not a complete Luddite.  Email entrances me because if offers the opportunity of a ‘long form’ letter with news, pictures, meditation, reflection, argument – and kindness.  It’s sad to receive a one-word response from a child or grandchild to some well-crafted email that I’ve sweated over for hours: ‘right’, ‘ok’, ‘good, Mum’, ‘will do’ etc. are simply signs of our times – but depressing.

Now to Facebook. So many academics are examining this juggernaut and its effects on our minds, souls, brains, emotional states – there’s no need in the world for me to add to it.  Better we smile.

Gilbert writes scathingly of the ‘lady novelist’ and of course he’s being a man of his times and very sexist.  But oh how I cringe at our current writers who gush so fulsomely about their gratitude to editors, booksellers, publishers, et al.  True enough, I’ve thanked a few people for being kind about my memoir Solly’s Girl but how many backs can be mutually scratched?  Where’s the dignity?

The passionate political posts for the most part leave me unmoved.  The ones I seem to see are either about corruption, the most recent terrorist attacks and which country’s turn it is to have a coup.  Why unmoved?  Well, there’s not much I can do.  The time when I was young enough to carry a banner for my union or march in protest against an unjust war are long gone.  For most of the writers (not all) the matters they raise seem to them like new injustices to be righted, new problems to be solved, new disasters to be prevented. But I am older and in one guise or another these issues have all arisen before and before and before.  Once in a while a charismatic figure emerges in our society, someone to galvanize a government to act but for the most part I am deaf to these passionate posters. Of course I do preserve the other posters –  Che Guervara (‘Revolucion’) and Lord Kitchener (‘Your country needs YOU’) – some political history will always stir my emotions.

The causes, the cries for justice, justice, justice.  It’s rather like the welter of requests for donations that come by old-fashioned mail.  The pitiful stories, the desperate need, the terrible government inaction over this or that injustice.  Giving is good, I know, but I can’t see the value in promoting guilt.  I have a (sometimes leaky) roof over my head and so far I can pay my way at the grocer. In order that others may have help without humiliation I’d willingly pay the tax to support a more equal society.  I always thought that my greatest contribution is my vote.  Is Facebook any kind of help?

The substitute postcards!  Who can blame the ‘friends’ that post all those pictures ‘by the beach’, ‘having breakfast’, or ‘on top of the mountain’.  Postage rates world-wide are horrendous and the savings are considerable.  But they are indeed impersonal; no-one really sat down at some rickety table in a square in Uzbekistan to write to me – yes, me – to tell me that the coffee is terrible but the sights are wonderful.  The real postcard arrives weeks after my real friends have returned home, but I keep it; the Facebook pictures are long gone.

The grandchildren! Ah, here I am certainly on very shaky ground.  I look at very old photograph albums, pictures taken on film, processed in some laboratory, stuck onto the cardboard page and kept in place with those little corner triangles and with a caption in ink underneath, ‘Merimbula, 1960’ or, in the case of our family archives, ‘Regent’s Park, 1924’.  I could have all thirty-three albums digitised, even on a DVD that we might play through the television; how would it compare?  My father, Solly (of Solly’s Girl) actually posed Sadie (my mother) and me for the Box Brownie, handled those old prints, wrote the captions.  It’s a hard call, history versus hard disc.

Business is business.  Selling one’s product on Facebook is probably a great idea.  As an old advertising hand, married to Alan who also made a living in this dubious area, I can see how potent a medium this can be.  It’s a challenge though to grab my interest.  In a perverse sort of way Facebook has promoted discrimination. The ads are simply everywhere so I’ve learned to ignore the lot.

* *  *  *

I’m glad that’s off my chest!  Now I must really come to grips with this mystery of modern times, the fantasy-land of Facebook.  What do I want from this – if anything?

I like to write.  Solly’s Girl: a memoir was an important event for me and I am happy that readers are responsive.  There have been some particularly pleasing occasions and comments.  My favourite has to be the woman who came to my door bearing a thank you card, a jar of home-made liqueured cumquats and another of plum sauce: I’d never met her but she wanted me to know how much she liked my book.  Of course, I could have made a great Facebook post out of that but the idea appalled me.

Facebook can be a pointer for me – a yellow brick road to something much more important than pictures of my garden (which is pretty) or my grandchildren (who are adorable as are all grandchildren) or my breakfast (which is nothing startling).  This blog is where my reflections will appear and Facebook can provide a guide.  Follow the arrow and enjoy!

Ikea for Avians

IKEA FOR AVIANS

My mother Sadie had only two coats, the black everyday one and her ‘best’ blue coat with the fur collar. My father, Solly, being a tailor, made all our clothes. I must have been almost twenty before I felt brave enough to buy ‘ready-made’ and take it home for him to make a critical assessment.

We weren’t well off. Sadie’s fur collar was very small but it had once been a real little fox: his tiny face sat on her shoulder and his soft tail swept across her neck. She was a very shy modest woman and didn’t put on airs and graces but in the 1930s her best coat meant a lot to her in the icy British winters.

*** *** ***

By the 1950s I was working. I had my own money and could choose my clothes. Solly was probably hurt by my rejection. Jaeger in Regent Street was the right place to make a stand, and a bright orange coat with a long sweeping skirt – Dior’s ‘New Look’ – announced my independence.   It went so well with Black Sobranie cigarettes too.

I wasn’t hankering for fur and my rabbit skin gloves were just a practical purchase against the cold. Once up in the ‘gods’ at Covent Garden, weeping over ‘Rigoletto’ I had a fright when a live rat ran along the velvet balustrade in front of me and I mistook it for my gloves.

After rabbit I moved up in the fashion stakes, although it was no doubt just a coincidence that the soft black wool jersey dress I wore to a party had real mink trim around the sleeves and neckline. It was an elegant ‘little black dress’ just right for the occasion; a gathering of ex-pat students and one wanderer, all Australians. As the quintessential British ‘Miss’ it was easy to scoop up the wanderer and decide to marry him. The dress is gone but I’ve kept the little pieces of mink. I’m nostalgic about the occasion but shamed to remember how unthinking we were about fur.

Sheepskin was used to line the leather jackets used by airmen and in an army surplus shop I found something to keep me warm as I explored Devon and Somerset on a Lambretta motor scooter clinging to the wanderer. ‘Come to Australia with me’, he said and so I ended up in the strange land of the ‘jolly jumbuck’. In our Elwood ‘studio’ flat – one room with kitchen alcove – we turned again to the sheep and spent our evenings sewing Ugg boots, those fur lined slippers peculiar to Australia. We thought we might make enough money to save for a house deposit but the work made our fingers so sore we had to give up.

*** *** ***

Bertie

Bertie

I admire vegans and vegetarians but cannot reconcile all the many issues: eating meat, wearing leather shoes and jackets, pinching eggs from chickens. Fur however is very straightforward; it’s no.

For many years now corgis have been the family’s choice and their coats are thick and double layered. There’s a lot of brushing involved and I roll the handfuls of fur into little balls and put them on the garden shrubs. The birds collect them for soft furnishing – Ikea for avians.

French Mimosa

FRENCH MIMOSA

My eldest son stands in the hallway with a bunch of yellow wattle. Flowers and shrubs that hang over fences or alongside the creek are fair game, and he brings me many such gifts. He enjoys making me happy and together we search for an appropriate vase. My middle son doesn’t think in floral terms but gives me pottery and glass and the wattle looks perfect in a 1950s brown and cream pot made somewhere in Israel. The youngest son is colour blind and once presented me with a bunch of quite unusual dyed chrysanthemum.

*** *** ***

I’m interested in genetic inheritance and can see a clear horticultural link between my eldest son and his grandmother. Sadie, my mother, loved to walk through municipal parks. Her own small house in outer suburban London was part of a terrace row and the back gardens I remember were all the same: long strips of grass surrounded by indifferent flower beds; the coal shed and mangle in one corner; a cement slab outside the French windows and a rope washing line with a wooden pole.

I missed out on the natural history gene. A ‘ten pound Pom’, I have always found the Australian landscape far too challenging. The flora confuse me and the fauna are alarming. Bush walking, camping, caravanning – they’re not for me and I belong in a concrete jungle.

*** *** ***

golden wedding -001

As we arrange the sunshine of the yellow balls I flash back to 1957, to a young man throwing his hat into the crowd outside a suburban synagogue. He came out from the dreary little building with his new wife, his ‘Pommie’ girl. It’s the bride who usually throws her bouquet, but from the start this marriage was different. The mandatory male head covering was the first and only hat the young man was ever to own and discarding it was a statement of some kind – a gesture of defiance? Against all odds the wedding had taken place. He was penniless, working with a West Indian crew shifting mailbags at a London terminus: almost suicidal at one point because he’d spent his return fare money to Melbourne on a Lambretta motor scooter in Milan and felt stranded in bleak London, unemployable, hungry, homesick.

The bride, let’s face it, at twenty-six was just about ‘on the shelf’. She was the family’s ‘black sheep’ rebellious, unorthodox, didn’t mix well with the Jewish community (‘stuffy’, ‘conservative’, ‘boring’ she called them). Even worse, she’d left home unmarried and was living in what was at the time ‘bohemian’ Hampstead. She might even be having affairs! Nothing about her was quite right. Marrying this nobody from Australia; an only child leaving her parents to go and live twelve thousand miles away; the indecent haste of the wedding (‘Was she pregnant? Oh the shame!’). It was touch and go whether a cable would arrive from Australia in time to confirm the groom’s Jewish credentials. The suburban rabbi barely knew where the Great Synagogue in Sydney was and probably took an altogether dim view of Jewish life in the ‘colonies’.

Outside the synagogue the people watching were all from her side. The groom had only a small bunch of ex-pat Aussie students to support him. They reported afterwards that getting him to the ceremony had involved many stops for ‘heart-starters’. The bride was in what their grandsons now call a ‘different zone’. She didn’t know of, or care much, about Australia; she was making her escape. If you’d asked her what she was escaping from she might not have been able to articulate it but freedom is somewhere in the mix. She and he had been living together for a few months but neither had any real knowledge of the other. They just fantasised about riding the Lambretta to exotic places and maybe one day having four children.

There had been barely three weeks to prepare for the wedding. He had a proper job back in Melbourne – advertising manager for Rockmans Stores – and if he didn’t get back soon his employers would find someone else. The bride’s parents were hard-pressed to organise a decent send-off, and they weren’t affluent.   It was also the time of the Suez crisis: no petrol for cars although the scooter, running on a teaspoon of fuel, looked smug as the bride and groom rode away from the reception into the icy night.

The bride had thought it might be ok to be married in a National Trust type mansion by candlelight, wearing red velvet. Her family said that it wasn’t remotely ok and the boring synagogue ceremony was totally unmemorable. She wouldn’t countenance a dress with lace or frills but chose a Pierre Balmain copy in plain white grosgrain, calf-length with a little jacket that had a stand-up collar.

The groom was consulted about flowers. It was probably the only item on which he was asked his opinion. In England freesia bloom in February and now they are in my Melbourne garden in his honour – of course at the other end of the year. The boy from Bondi wanted wattle too, the only link with his home. The local florist had never even heard of it; so he settled for French Mimosa flown in from the south of France.

‘Settling’ is a pretty accurate description of the marriage. She kept everything more or less on track; he decided whether the Australian government would raise taxes or go to war.

c Ros Collins 2015

Sabbath

We’re having discussions about penalty rates for weekend work and what a can of worms that’s proving to be! How complicated the notion of ‘the Sabbath’ can be, particularly for those attached to a particular religion or political perspective. Back in the 1950s, when I was a newly-arrived ‘ten pound Pom’, I used to call Australia a lotus land. Office workers worked Monday to Friday, 9.00 am to 5.00 pm, enjoyed a morning tea break and a full hour for lunch; shops closed at mid-day on Saturday. Families practised togetherness and the sound of lawnmowers was heard throughout the land.

If you were Christian, then Sunday church followed by Sunday lunch with family and friends might be on the agenda. If you were Jewish, then the days were reversed and Saturday was your Sabbath, although the observances really start at sunset on Friday. And this is where my reflections begin:

When I was a child, there were things we couldn’t do on Shabbes and Yom Tov, such as go to the pictures (involving money) or use scissors (involving work).  Solly’s Girl Ch. 18

But my father, Solly, was a tolerant man and believed in compromise. During the height of the Blitz he decided that for the sake of our sanity we would join the queue outside the local cinema and see Fantasia and I remember the slides that appeared on the screen announcing the start and conclusion of the air raids that were taking place outside.

Alan in yellow sailing jacket 1983 Alan sailing

Fast forward to Melbourne suburban life in the 1980s. Alan and I were back in Elwood and he was a crew member on a friend’s yacht. They were a lovely bunch of ‘seniors’ – we dubbed them ‘Dad’s navy’ – and they sailed sedately across Port Phillip Bay from the marina at St Kilda to Williamstown and back, admiring the dolphins, drinking tea and taking turns in kipping down below in the little cabin.   The yacht was called Dreamboat and indeed it was a dreamy time for this little group of Jewish ‘elders’. They sailed on the Sabbath and Alan, who would have observed the observant attending morning and evening services as he drove along, wrote a poem, ‘My Sabbath’ which was published in Generation Magazine, July 1990:

  On Saturday I wear my shirt with nautical flags on it.
In my street other Jews are wearing their signals too.
Their signals speak to me in sable semaphore
of how my Sabbath shuns synagogue for sea.

  They frighten me with their testamental blackness,
like reproachful gannets that line the breakwater
as my sails belly to the first swelling wave –
an admonitory minyan, streimel-ed with feathers.

  It’s my Sabbath too I say to the whitefaced side-curled child
but not to his father who worries my conscience
nor his mother whose sheitl is so set, the wind that drives
my boat could not stir her waves. To the light-house we go.

  They to theirs, me to mine. A boat is a holy vessel,
an ark of triumph that bows down only to the elements.
On Friday night I pray before my barometer. Then cut the
  challah, salt it, pass it around: blessed art thou O Lord

  who brings forth bread from the earth (and kindly winds for
Saturday that won’t give the testamental ones all the
righteousness). Tomorrow, tomorrow, my tallit shall be a sail
around my shoulders, its ropes the side-curls of a white-faced boy.

[Just in case: minyan – a quorum; streimel – a fur hat worn by very orthodox Hasidic men; sheitl – a wig worn by very orthodox women to hide their hair; challah – the plaited Sabbath loaf; tallit – prayer shawl]

Alan wrote only a handful of poems and he was feeling his way with an unfamiliar genre. But he makes his views clearly. I understand where he’s coming from with his worried conscience and desire for a share of the righteousness. I’m not so kind; however, his conflicting emotions about the Sabbath mirror my own.

His ideal agenda was Friday night dinner with the family, a Kehilat Nitzan synagogue service on Saturday morning, and then sailing on ‘Sat’d’y arvo’. This mixed bag of Jewish observance and Australian recreational customs has surely given our children the message he and I would have always wanted for them. I would wave him goodbye with ‘Have a nice pray!’, ‘Have a nice sail!’ I was content to garden or read. I don’t think this dilutes Jewish identity one bit and is more like a tribute to life. L’chaim!   Solly’s Girl Ch. 18

Fast forward yet again to 2015. There’s something planned called the Shabbat Project and the Australian Jewish News has been vigorously bringing this world-wide event to its readers. The lead article last week was headlined: Observing Shabbat in the Home; for me it is just one huge guilt-trip.

‘Simple tips on how to prepare your home to ensure a seamless Shabbat’ fill me with – what? Despair, exasperation, frustration, nostalgia, amusement are just some of my emotions at the following instructions: clean the house and polish the silver; hide the remote controls for all gadgets and disable the equipment to which they relate; wash and iron my clothes for Shabbat; turn off lights and leave on only those that will stay on for the entire Sabbath; fill an urn with water and switch it on; tape down the light switch inside the fridge; pre-tear foil and food wrap; same for toilet paper (or use tissues); pre-cook all meals and keep them edible on a warming tray; record a phone message saying I’m not available until after Sabbath.

My orthodox family never went thus far and I wonder how many of us world-wide do, in fact, practice such a strict regime. The Australian Jewish News seems determined to shame me but, like Alan, I find the ‘testamental blackness’ intimidating. They to theirs, me to mine.

I reflect on my relationship with all my grandsons and my role as matriarch of this small family. The glue that holds us together is Shabbat dinner every Friday night. It is only a perfunctory nod in a religious direction, yet each of us knows this is an important punctuation point in the week, a moment when we reconnect. It’s always a proper dinner, never take-away fish and chips or pizza. I battle to be heard over the conversation as I bless the candles and watch small Eli’s eyes light up. Traditionally, the mother of the family covers her hair with a lace scarf and hides her eyes behind her hands, but I don’t do that because I want to see my family and lace scarves are not me. This ritual meal has been a fixture throughout my married life. Now I take over Alan’s chair, and his presiding photograph is ceremoniously placed on the mantelpiece by Isaac. We don’t have silver candlesticks of our own, and the Art Deco ones Sadie and Solly used are so worn from my mother’s polishing I’ve put them away in favour of small bronze enamel Israeli ones. Rhonda, Toby’s wife, is usually at work, but she will have sent the challah she baked, and Eli and Isaac will cut and salt it. Toby, the total rationalist, will bless the wine; Daniel will recite the brakha in respectable Hebrew, with interpolations from Peter in a mockery of Yiddish accents. Then we can get down to the serious business of the weekend – football matches.   Solly’s Girl Ch. 18

The Man from Central Casting, by Ros Collins

THE MAN FROM CENTRAL CASTING

The ‘flight or fight’ response interests me. I can’t boast any knowledge of psychology although many of my friends seems to have it all at their fingertips, they can even spell catecholamines.

Looking back at the sequence of events during my recent ‘near death’ experience has surprised me. There was no fear, at least nothing to compare with seeing a mouse running across my floor. The hormones that must be released through my body on seeing the first huntsman spider are much nearer to ‘flight or fight’ than having stents inserted in an artery.

The sirens wailed, the ambulance driver was, I’m told, a lovely girl who drove very fast. It was getting to be a bit ‘touch and go’ so the man from central casting was waiting for me all scrubbed up in a really divine navy blue outfit. ‘Is it alright if I have to open your chest?’ he asked and how on earth could I refuse him.

Into Emergency and lying there hidden behind a monitor I felt just fine, apart from the pain in my heart. But it wasn’t fear, nothing at all like mice or spiders. ‘Are you going to save my life?’ I enquired casually. ‘I’ll do my best’, said the man from central casting. The nurses were all busy dabbing and dusting and it really did not hurt a bit when they put a catheter into my groin. I’ve done more damage leaping onto a chair to avoid a rodent.

‘And how old are you Mrs Collins?’ I wasn’t anaesthetised so it was easy to answer. ‘So how old are you?’ I asked. ‘I’m forty-seven’ he said; he’s younger than my children – but they’re not into surgery.

‘When we open the stents the pain will cease almost immediately.’

‘You’ll also feel the blood coursing through the artery again, rather similar in sensation to having a ‘hot flush’. ‘Oh, it’s a long time since I’ve had one of those’ I said cheekily.

Back in the ward and he whips out a little iPad thing and shows the children and me what he’s done. Off to the next job and the family calms down a bit. I didn’t die but evidently it was a bit close.

The next morning it was what looked like an Armani suit. By this time I have enough wit to ask questions. ‘Will I have to spend the rest of my life in ‘God’s waiting room’ and if so I don’t want to.’ ‘I am not age-ist; you may do anything you want to and even more’ said the saviour. This is great news for me, stressful for my children who find me uncontrollable and probably rates an A+ on the report card for the man from central casting. But just to be on the safe side I had the pest control people call yesterday. I could break a leg fleeing from a mouse.

© Ros Collins

Am I A Jewish Writer?

AM I A JEWISH WRITER?

Alan wrote:

‘WITHOUT MY SENSE OFJEWISH HISTORY, I WOULD NOT BE A WRITER…. I WRITE OF JEWS IN AUSTRALIA [but] MY WRITING HAS ITS GENESIS IN OUR AUSTRALIAN ETHOS…’   ‘Say no to literary kashrut’ Generation Magazine 1993

It’s a fine piece of humorous and provocative writing and I will probably re-print the entire article in a separate blog; it deserves a wider audience.

Now with the publication of Solly’s Girl it’s my turn to think about this matter.

Alan’s ancestors went from Spain and The Netherlands to London in the 1700s; they arrived in Sydney in the 1830s. They were part of the Anglo-Jewish community. He grew up intensely Australian but with a ‘sense of Jewish history’. My grandparents went from Eastern Europe to London in the late 1800s and retained nostalgic sentiments about the shtetl life they had left behind. I was the first truly British child on one side of the family. I grew up yearning for a family tree that would reach back into English history:

London was the centre of my world. It was great to be English, and I would have given anything to be able to claim British ancestry, preferably back to the Tudors. Solly’s Girl Ch. 1

* * *

Like my other grandfather, Morris did not become a citizen and, being Austrian, he was classed as an enemy alien during World War I, just as Nathan from Russia would be at the beginning of World War II. My family took its time to become British: Sadie and Solly [my parents] were both – almost accidentally – born in London, but their East End Jewish upbringing held them firmly and nostalgically to their roots in Eastern Europe. Not until my birth did a genuine little English girl appear on the family tree. Solly’s Girl Ch. 4

So, what is my perspective? Not exactly Australian, even after fifty years. No longer British – I’ve been away too long. I’m really left only with ‘Jewish’ but this makes for complications. I’m not very observant and have no religious curiosity. Labels are tricky items. The aggressive atheists do little for me. The ‘bob each way’ agnostics leave me equally cold.   I’m not one for deities but I’m comfortable with my Jewish heritage and appreciate the fact that there’s always a branch of Judaism to suit whatever kind of Jew one is (you know the old joke, ‘two Jews, three opinions’); and in my case Masorti, which is egalitarian and does not discriminate against women, makes me welcome.

I found it difficult to explain this in my memoir. I’m reminded of Brideshead Revisited and the ‘twitch upon the thread’ that pulls Waugh’s characters back to their religion; all that angst – not for me.

On one occasion in my teens I deliberately tried to provoke Solly with stupid queries about the meaning of life. He was an amazingly tolerant man and just told me, mildly and correctly, to look in Ecclesiastes: ‘there is a time for everything, for all things under the sun’.

It’s become trite, a cliché and a lyric for popular music, but really what more is there to say?

***

And yet Jewish identity is not a problem for me. I think of it as a genetic inheritance, rather like blue eyes or red hair and not something to agonise over. A phrase from the Rosh Hashanah service comes to mind:

We believe that He abides in mystery.
Therefore we need not solve life’s every problem.

And I don’t try. Spiritual is not me. I think of Judaism as one long continuous question and answer debate, never to be resolved and fascinating for those of us who love a good argument. Words. Solly was a compulsive writer: poems, short stories, humorous retellings of Bible tales, memoirs. Alan was a journalist, a copywriter, a published author. ‘Solly’s girl’ is a librarian. ‘Jews and words’ (Yale University Press, 2012) ‘a speculative, raw, and occasionally playful attempt’ on the ‘relationship of Jews with words’ is written by Amos Oz and Fania Oz-Salzberger, ‘secular Jewish Israelis’. Their book resonates with me, as does their thesis that words ‘compose the chain connecting Abraham with the Jews of every subsequent generation’.

***

My father was modest about his relationship with his God; he just quietly went off to shul, came home, kissed Sadie and me, made Kiddush (sanctification of the Sabbath) and that was pretty much it. Every day he’d recite morning prayers, but it was so discreetly done I was hardly aware of it until he visited us in Australia. When I was a child, there were things we couldn’t do on Shabbes and Yom Tov, such as go to the pictures (involving money) or use scissors (involving work). There were no large family dinners; it was Sadie, Solly and me, just we three. The one big occasion was Pesach, when Solly conducted the seder for the whole of his extended family, but it was at his sisters’ house, not ours. After I left England he put his heart into acting in a grandfatherly role to my cousin Gina’s son, Mark, a surrogate for his own grandchildren in far away Australia.

I look at Solly’s siddur, something I haven’t done since I packed it up to bring home after he died. It’s The Authorised Daily Prayer Book of the United Hebrew Congregations of the British Empire, with a new translation by the Rev. S Singer, the ninth edition published in 1912. Solly probably had it since he was bar mitzvah age. The binding is much worn and my father has neatly repaired it with a replacement spine taken from Letts Motorists’ Diary. The tiny stitches must have tested his thimble as he sewed through two layers of black leather. Many of the pages have been mended with brown sticky tape, and wine from the Kiddush cup has been spilt over them from the Sabbath evening service. For so many years he and Sadie would ‘make Shabbes’ all by themselves on a Friday night. The challah would be on an orange rimmed lustre plate they must have received as a wedding gift in 1927. The edges are scored from his bread knife. We treat it more gently now, and the slices are cut on a board before they reach ‘Poppa’s plate’. In the frontispiece of his book are the Hebrew yortsayt dates – the anniversaries of their deaths – for his parents, Morris and Regina, and tucked in between the pages is a small booklet A Guide for the Living outlining the customs for mourners. Solly’s siddur affects me deeply. As his daughter, I can place my hand on the worn leather and know that I’m sharing a moment with him. As a librarian, I can treasure a book that was used every day for over eighty years, not an impersonal computer tablet that’s here today and gone tomorrow. I wonder what will happen to the book when I die.

Poppa's plate

Poppa’s plate

And then there’s Alan’s siddur, a very different publication. A Prayerbook for Shabbat, Festivals, and Weekdays edited by Rabbi Jules Harlow and published in 1985 by the Rabbinical Assembly, New York. It is commonly referred to as Siddur Sim Shalom and has a Library of Congress Catalogue Card Number and an ISBN – a long way from Solly’s Singer edition. I could digress here into a compare-and-contrast exercise between the two prayer books, wandering off into unfamiliar liturgical territory, but I think not. What is more important to me is the way in which Alan’s book, like Solly’s, tells so much about its owner. Siddur Sim Shalom is festooned with those small coloured stick-on marker flags used on business documents. Alan has written on each flag instructions regarding the service: which page comes next, the name of the prayer and where to find the important parts. There will not be another siddur in the world so decorated and so reflective of its owner’s searching spirit. On the rare occasions I turn up at Kehilat Nitzan and take the book from its blue velvet bag, there are knowing smiles from the old-timers who remember Alan. I wonder what I should do with Siddur Sim Shalom. Solly’s Girl Ch. 18

© Ros Collins, words and images