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