AM I A JEWISH WRITER?
‘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.
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