My friend Elisabeth Wynhausen died last week. It feels odd to write a tribute from a distance, as I would much rather have been at the funeral/wake to hear from her friends Susie, Mary, Kim, her beloved niece and nephew Gabi and Jesse and their families, and so many others who would have shared copious memories of an amazing individual. Since fate has placed me 11,000 miles away, this will have to suffice. Apologies, Elisabeth – but I am in one of your favourite cities, and I will visit Roxy at the Seven Stars to raise a glass in your honour.
During my Cantorial life, I met people in multiple contexts, often associated with life events. With Elisabeth this was no different, and though the pathway to our friendship was, like hell, paved with good intentions, it was a path I am glad to have trod: it taught me a lot.
I first met Elisabeth through the pages of her novel Manly Girls, a biting, sharp, witty autobiography of her youth. Only brief flashes of memory remain at this time, and I will re-read the work when I return to Australia; but I do remember being shocked, impressed, and moved by the way Elisabeth captured a sense of outsiderness in her experiences of Jewish life on Sydney’s North Shore in the late 1950s and early 1960s. In particular, I remember a passage where she mentioned the cliquishness of certain sets of proper Jewish ladies, and their exclusionary behaviour that caused so much hurt at that time. With a certain amount of trepidation, I asked my mother (of a similar vintage to Elisabeth) whether she remembered her own time at Cheder (Hebrew school), and whether the social dynamics described by Elisabeth resonated in her memories. I was relieved to find out that mum’s experience of exclusion was almost identical, and that she treated similarly by those young, ‘white-gloved princesses’ (was that the phrase?) who had ruled the roost. Both my mother and Elisabeth were outsiders of a different hue: my mother was from a single-parent family (her father having died when she was 12) and thus not ‘normal’ in either 1950s Australia or the Jewish community of that time; Elisabeth was Dutch, and her Holocaust survivors had decided not only to live outside the nominal Jewish ghetto of the Eastern Suburbs, but to do so in possibly one of the most Anglo suburbs in Sydney: Manly, southern capital of the Northern Beaches, the “Insular Peninsula”.
My first proper meeting with Elisabeth did not bode well for the establishment of a future friendship. I had just completed a four-month internship at St Vincent’s Hospital, and was working “on the floor” as a Jewish chaplain. The training was an intense process; the Certificate of Clinical Pastoral Education required a 40-hour working week at the hospital, spending up to 5 hours on the floor, visiting patients (of any or no denomination or faith), reflecting on such visits and writing them up in journals, debriefing with a team of incredible supervisors, learning the intricacies of Hospital politics, policy, theories of empathetic listening etc. If that wasn’t enough, I happened to be the first Jewish chaplain in NSW who had gone through such a course, and much of the theology was Christian in focus and language, a fact I had to address fairly resolutely (and respectfully) every day of my training. One day when glancing at the list of Jewish patients, I noticed the name Nan Wynhausen. I felt a little bit of excitement at recognising the name of Elisabeth’s mother from the book, and I went to visit. We had a terrific conversation, most of it to do the pride she had in her daughter’s journalistic excellence, and my enthusiasm for Manly Girls.
In the back of my mind, an excitement built about the prospect of visiting Nan when Elisabeth was present, talking to her about the book, and her answering some of my [polite] enquiries. Now, those of you who know Elisabeth know that she and organised religion were not on speaking terms … when the day came, my friendly approach was not only regarded with high suspicion (as proselytising), but most firmly refused. Ejected promptly from Nan’s room without the chance to even engage in conversation or explanation, I retired hurt.
It’s amazing how things turn. In the year 2000 (a few years after the hospital visit) Elisabeth’s brother Jules approached me with the idea of forming a community choir at Temple Emanuel. Although not religious, Jules loved Jewish identity, community and Jewish music, and wanted to sing for High Holydays. Together with his mate Leo van Biene and Geoff Cohn, I had an instant and enthusiastic bass section, and soon Jules encouraged others to join. He helped with Hebrew translations, encouraged me to make recordings of the parts so that the non-music reading choristers could practice diligently at home or in the car. Jules taught me how to relate to amateur singers: he gently revealed the value of working with limitations, in community. I loved his cynical dry wit and his enthusiasm, his enormous smile and the wicked twinkle in the eye. I used to watch him sidle up to the late Danny Slade (one of the elders of the Temple community, also a Dutch survivor) on Rosh Hashanah, and crack jokes (most likely obscene ones) in Dutch.
In March 2003 a devastating bicycle accident left Jules in a coma, and after rehabilitation, a profound change in personality. No longer able to enjoy music in the way he had previously, our previously jovial relationship faltered during the many hospital visits I made to see him. This was understandable as I was a fairly new friend in his life, and I think the brain injury caused irreparable damage to short term memory. My sadness was assuaged by the knowledge that Jules had a team of devoted friends and family who visited all the time. And when he passed away in July 2007, it was a great honour to officiate at the funeral of a man I described as a non-conformist, philosopher, singer, linguist, stubborn and generous lover of life, nature and humanity.
Through Jules’ death I finally got to meet Elisabeth. Properly. The Elisabeth I knew I would like, who liked me back equally. We worked on the tributes to Jules together, with Jesse, Gabi and Eve. Within a month, we were working together again, to craft an appropriate tribute to Elisabeth’s mother Nan, who passed away less than four weeks after Jules. Nan’s story of growing up in Arnhem (Holland), her experiences with the cream of German cabaret in Scheveningen during the Nazi occupation, her miraculous escape into Switzerland, her love for Paul, building a new life in Australia – that alone is worth another blog entry. But this process of co-writing really bound Elisabeth and I together in friendship. We shared many discussions, keeping in touch regularly via email. In 2009 Al and I were in the United Kingdom for a holiday and the celebration of my sister’s wedding. Elisabeth was in town, and took us to her favourite haunt: a 407 year old pub in Holborn called the Seven Stars, one of the few buildings to survive the Great Fire of 1666. After a great night, we vowed to see each other more back in Australia. A minor disaster struck when I invited her to my 40th birthday party – she was the only person who didn’t receive the email of the change of venue, and turned up at the Civic Hotel instead of the UTS Loft. Thankfully, Elisabeth forgave the error, and we continued to write to each other. I wrote to her my news of the fellowship in the United States – she wrote back and reconnected me with a friend and congregant, Susie, living at that time in New York. When I moved to DC, Elisabeth’s nephew Jesse and his wife Jo were staying at Susie’s – they too showed amazing hospitality, and we had a few very special nights out: going to see the preview of The Book of Mormon, later on dancing to the music of Danny Krivit at Sessions 708 in celebration of my dissertation passing examination.
Many roads led me to Elisabeth. At first bristling and prickly, cautious and suspicious (often with good reason), when she let you in, generosity and support flooded through, and she connected like-minded people in a profound, joyous and communal way. In 2011 I finally had the chance to repay the hospitality to both Susie and Elisabeth with a dinner at our house. We had a boozy, opinionated, raucous night, filled with laughter and salacious conversation. When Gabi put her aunt’s blog onto Facebook in January this year, it prompted me to write again to her on the email. Alas, no reply – this should have alerted me that all was not well.
As Ferris said: Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.
I am so sorry I missed the last part of your life, Elisabeth. I would have loved to say goodbye in person. I would have loved to have you and Susie over for dinner again. I would have loved to have just chatted for an hour or more. Alas, it was not to be. You will remain in my heart and memory as a fabulous, generous individual. Vaarwel.